Japan’s 5.5m vending machines: What food and beverage products are in demand?

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

A pizza the action: Hiroshima is home to Japan's first pizza vending machine
A pizza the action: Hiroshima is home to Japan's first pizza vending machine

Related tags: Japan, Vending machine

With one vending machine per every 23 of Japan’s 127m citizens, according to industry figures, it’s safe to say that mechanised grocery distribution is a thoroughly established retail channel...but what's hot right now?

Indeed, the Japanese Vending Machines Association illustrates this statistic by saying that if every vending machine was put down end to end, it would form a train from Tokyo to Hawaii.

There is a machine on almost every city street corner, or within a stone’s throw of every rice paddy. There’s even one at Mount Fuji’s highest point.

Tens of thousands of vender re-stockers form a workforce in their own right, with most responsible for the constant running of clusters of 40 machines at a time.

Everything conceivable is available from these automated outlets, from non-food items like batteries and surgical masks, to alcohol, hot meals and fresh fruit. Here, we look at some of the more novel machines that can be found across Japan.

1. Pizza

The country that has a vending machine for almost everything has been lacking a means to distribute piping hot pizzas on the street corner.

Things are changing, though, now that the Japanese city of Hiroshima lays claim to the country's first 24-hour pizza vender, which sells two varieties on the pavement outside a video rental shop.

Two types of pizza are available at the moment: a margherita for JPY980 (US$8.80) and a four-cheese for JPY1,280. Each pizza comes complete with a cardboard box and plastic bag, as well as a roller to slice the pie into segments.

The automated system takes five minutes to heat the pizza, and online reviews have given the machine the seal of approval. “It has blue cheese on it,” wrote one Twitter user. “It’s pretty legit.”

Though the machine has become an attraction in the Kusunoki district of the city, time will tell if it stays the course, being just around the corner from both Pizza Hut and Domino’s outlets.

2. Rice

Rice vending machines have been ever present in Japanese for three decades, and often sell sacks weighing 10 kilos or more.

Most are found in less urban areas, some vending polished rice packed into eco-friendly bags, and others dispensing brown rice at a slightly higher price.

A popular variation in cities are the curry and rice vending machines. In some cases the contents of these meal boxes are hand prepared by the vending machine’s owner operators, who can often be seen sitting next to them to welcome customers.

Pic credit bigbogghiker, Pinterest

3. Shots of sake

A machine at JR Echigo-Yuzawa station in Niigata prefecture offers five sake tokens and a tasting cup in exchange for JPY500 (US$4.50), giving commuters a boost on their way home.

Its selection of 117 different kinds of sake is produced at nearly 100 local breweries, along with other mainstream national brands. One token is good to fill up the traditional cup twice.

Sprawling along the west coast of the island of Honshu, Niigata claims to produce the “finest sake in the world”, according to its tourist board. This, it says, is because surrounding mountains receive over 30 feel of snow each year, from which the meltwater purifies the rice paddies below them.

4. Fruit

Apples, cherries, bananas most popularly—and even Okesa persimmons—commuters can avoid the grocery store on their way home by visiting the growing number of fresh fruit vending machines around Japan.

The prices of mainstream are usually inflated to pay for the convenience of the machine in big cities, but those located in rural areas are often stocked by local growers, who can save on the cost of distribution to organised retailers.

On Sado Island in the Sea of Japan, where persimmons are a speciality, a bag of five persimmons usually retails for JPY300 (US$2.70), compared to supermarkets where they are sold for around JPY120 each.

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