he first ever jidohanbaiki vending machine was invented by it would seem by Hero of Alexandria, engineer mathematician and all-round clever feller in first-century Roman Egypt. His machine accepted a coin and then dispensed a highly necessary, in-demand product for the age: holy water.
The Brits followed suit many centuries later, with gizmos to vend postage stamps in the 1850s. By the 1890s Japan had followed suit, also using machines to sell stamps. It was in the 1890s that Japanese vending machines were first used to sell foodstuffs: sweets. The nation's love affair with the machinery of non-human, highly convenient, highly reliable, retailing has gone from strength to strength ever since.
Japan’s legendary vending machines, jidohanbaiki - literally, the 'automatic selling machines' - are everywhere. Really, everywhere. On Mt Fuji. In your local funeral home. In the Love Hotel. On trains, boats and … well, not planes or rockets. Not yet. Our definition of deep, rural countryside is ‘the-place-without-vending-machines’.
Jidohanbaiki cater to many needs. They vend everything from fresh flowers to organic eggs to beer and sake to individually-wrapped melons to 'second-hand schoolgirl underwear'. The latter is, by now I am sure after 30 years' residence, an urban myth, probably propagated by mischievous foreigners. It's not that I've been searching, you understand. It's just that I would have stumbled across one by now, had they existed. Such is the ubiquity of the damn things.
Word has it Japanese vending machines are environmental disasters guzzling power 24 hours a day and toxic nightmares. Yet they are irresistibly convenient. You can grab a can of hot or cold sustenance with buttons marked red for the former, blue for the latter, for a handful of loose change.
On a visit to Japan, this writer's father once asked a vending machine owner, "How do you manage to keep red hot and ice cold cans of drink in such close proximity to one another?" The old guy pondered, before answering "I haven't the faintest idea. I've never thought about it. I just fill 'em up". I am still none the wiser. Readers, please advise!
Here’s a rundown on what’s on offer at a typical vending machine. One may glimpse the deft hand of the Japanese copywriter: Fire coffee – ‘rest your mind’, ‘warm your soul & feel the fire’; Qoo peach- and grape-flavored juices; Boss and Emblem coffee and Gogo-no-Kocha black tea – ‘tea can turn you into something new’, ‘tea – a natural gift of love’. Where else can you get a natural gift of love for ¥130?
Ubiquitous as they are, Japan's vending machine heyday may already be a thing of the past. One by one, the dispensers of Pocari Sweat, Asahi Super Dry and 'Pungent Aroma' tea are being removed from the nation's streets, to be replaced by a new means of 24-hour retailing. Yup, next time you ascend Mount Fuji, don't be surprised if, when you reach the summit, you encounter the jidohanbaiki's evolutionary successor: that all white, all bright, neon-lit, temple of mercantile dreams. The Convenience Store.