Japan’s Adventurous and Varied Vending Machines

We’ve all been there. Imagine riding along in the sweltering summer heat, sun beating down on you, steaming coming off the jersey, salt staines on your shorts. You grab your bottle. Too light for comfort. Desperate to moisten your parched throat, you give it little squeeze. Water starts to flow. Hallelujah! You are saved!! But then the dreaded, raspy hissing sound of an empty bottle.

If you’re cycling in rural areas it could be many miles before the next gas station or roadside stand where you will be able to top up. If the weather conditions have conspired against you it can be dangerous. When cycling in Japan, however, this is almost never the case. With over 5 million installed in the country, an estimated 1 machine per 40 people, Japan has the world’s highest density of vending machines (自動販売機, jidōhanbaiki), and it is one of the little things that makes Japan such a cycling-friendly country. I personally have seen vending machines in such strange and out-of-the-way place that I could not discern how it drew power (solar?), and yet there it was.

Imagine being in the middle of the mountains, huffing and puffing up one of Japan’s all-too-frequent 10+ grade climbs. You might not be able to see any sign’s of civilization at the moment, but there’s probably a vending machine waiting for you around the next few bends. A companion post to Sporra’s Japan Convenience Store Guide for Cyclists Carb Up At The Conbini, let me explain a few ways to leverage this fantastic infrastructure for your Japan cycling tour or excursion.

One reason for their prevalence is that they’re generally a good deal for the land owner leasing them. People pay a large up-front fee to have one, but in the right spot they can lead to a healthy little side business. Low crime rates mean vandalism is not a concern, and when combined with high-density population centers and an efficient logistics infrastructure the machines usually pay for themselves. I don’t know about the business case for these machines in the middle of the mountains, but the fact that they’re there says something…but perhaps it’s something about the interminable zero (or negative) interest rates.

Now that you’ve stumbled across one, it’s more than likely filled with a variety of good options, ranging from water and sports drinks like Aquarius and Pocari Sweat (good for cyclists), to nicotine-spiked energy drinks and canned coffee (NOT good for cyclists…or anyone for that matter – if it’s coffee you crave, do yourself a favor and wait for one of the machines that offers freshly-brewed joe). In between are your more standard vending machine soda fare (full-disclosure: as an Atlanta native I originally wrote “Coke” because all soda=Coke but was advised by my editor to change Coke > soda). If you’re lucky there might also be some really good juice options.

Different drink selections are also stocked to match the season. In bone-chilling winter months look for the orange-red colored buttons. It does not mean the drinks are out, but rather that they are heated as opposed to being chilled. A hot-lemon juice drink will do wonders to rescue a cold and soar throat. Needs some warm carbs? The corn potage could be the cure you crave. If you’re close to your destination and not hammering then a hot cocoa isn’t bad either…

Like vending machines elsewhere you will have many snack options like sugary candies and sweet breads. Unlike vending machines elsewhere, you can find some pretty wild stuff. Some of the more wacky variety are destinations in and of themselves. Need a little protein? Drop a few coins in a Matsuya Beef Bowl (牛丼 Gyuudon) machine. Need something more…aquatic than the corn potage? Try a bottle from the fish broth (だし Dashi) machine. For the adventurous eaters among you, don’t skip the fermented soybeans (なっと Natto) machine!

Japan remains stubbornly cash-centric, but things are gradually starting to…change 😀 and that’s good news for cyclists not excited about the prospect of lugging around a bunch of heavy, rattling coins in the jersey pocket. E-money (電子マネー Denshi moneh) services are starting to see wider-spread adoption with a few e-money terminals popping up on vending machines. To use it just 1) make your selection, 2) select your preferred e-money service from the list and 3) hold your card/phone up to the NFC antenna on the terminal OR scan a QR code and wait for what is usually some melodic chime.

The most popular NFC services are SUICA and Pasmo offered by the rail services Japan Rail (JR) and Tokyu, respectively. If your smartphone does not support these payment options then you can buy a card (you will have almost certainly purchased one to get around on the trains anyway) and charge it up at the terminals. QR code services are many and include PayPay, Line Pay, Origami Pay and R-Pay among others.

Now you’re equipped to start exploring the magical world of Japanese vending machines from the saddle. If you’ve got questions or if missed one of your favorites let us know on the Sporra sub-reddit or hit us up on Twitter.

See you on the road!