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Tokyo's Vending Machines and Convenience Stores
With a brightly lit convenience store on practically every corner and a few well-stocked vending machines in between, quick shopping is truly hassle-free in Tokyo—and with the offerings ranging from novel to bizarre, an impulse buy can turn into a journey of discovery.
While vending machines and convenience stores did not originate in Japan, their popularity in the country seems to have no limit. Today Japan has the world's highest density of vending machines per capita, with one machine for every 23 people. Those looking for a wider selection can head to one of the 42,000 convenience stores in the country. Canned drinks, both cold and hot, are the main staple of vending machines, but it is not uncommon to find ones offering cigarettes, batteries, snacks, ice-cream cones, toiletries, fresh fruit, customized business cards, or even potted flowers. For North Americans used to convenience stores that offer little more than a candy shelf and a magazine rack, the Japanese equivalent can be a source of amazement, boasting everything from postal and courier services and digital photo printing to full hot meals.
Did You Know?
Many vending machine offerings aren't exactly healthful—sugar-laden coffee, colas, and alcohol. However, new machines are geared toward the health-conscious. Dole installed banana dispensers around Shibuya train station, targeting hurried commuters with no time for breakfast. The fruit is lightly refrigerated and gently lowered to the opening to avoid bruising. Single bananas and bunches are available.
If you visit Tokyo during the hot and humid summer months, it will not take long for you to understand why there is a machine selling cool drinks on every sidewalk. In winter, hot drinks warm both the stomach and hands. Long-popular drinks include Pocari Sweat, a noncarbonated sports drink with a very mild grapefruit taste; Aquarius, a comparable drink manufactured by Coca-Cola; and Marocha Chaba no Ko, a cold green tea available in both cans and plastic bottles. Machines sell beer and other alcoholic beverages, but you may want to avoid shochu alcohol sold in glass jars or paper cartons—it is overpoweringly strong. Coffee—both hot and cold—comes in small cans. Don't be surprised to see locals buy one, suck it down, and dispose of the can all during the two-minute wait for the subway. If some Japanese writing below an item is lighted in red, the machine is sold out of it. Hot drinks have a red strip below them and cold drinks are marked with blue. Automation has even spread to religion, as shrines and temples use vending machines to sell omikuji, fortunes written on slips of paper.
For the visitor to Tokyo, the nearest konbini is a treasure trove of new—and often surprising—experiences. The first convenience store opened in Japan in 1973, and like so many other concepts that have been imported into the country, the Japanese have embraced the konbini, turning it into something of their own. Beyond the usual products you might expect, Japanese convenience stores also carry full hot bento (boxed meal), basic clothing items, and event tickets. Services available include digital photo printing, faxing, and utility bill payments. Step into a 7-Eleven, ampm, or Family Mart and you will see familiar brands such as Pepsi and Pringles, but you are not likely to know Pepsi flavored with shiso, a Japanese herb, or soy sauce Pringles. Many locals indulge in the practice of tachiyomi, standing in front of a magazine rack and browsing the selections without actually buying anything. This practice is accepted and, for visitors, is a good way to get a sense of current trends.
Japanese Pringles potato chips have come in flavors such as cheese and bacon and seaweed, and new surprising combinations are rolled out every season. Another international brand that often adds a local twist is Kit Kat, which in the past has released grilled corn, Camembert cheese, and Earl Grey tea versions of its candy bars. The Japanese pronunciation, kitto katsu, sounds like the phrase "you are sure to pass," and so make popular gifts to students during entrance exam season. New varieties of Kit Kat debut in spring. If you are traveling with children, a fun purchase is ramune, a carbonated drink sold in a glass bottle sealed with a glass marble held in place by the pressure of the gas—push the marble down with your thumb to break the seal. One convenience store treat you cannot leave Japan without trying at least once is onigiri, a triangular rice ball containing tuna, pickled plum, or other fillings, and wrapped in sheets of dried seaweed.
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