Vending machines are everywhere in Japan — here are the strangest places to find them

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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

At slightly over 5 million nationwide, vending machines are everywhere in Japan.

They are on nearly every block in Tokyo and dotted across even the most spartan landscapes in the country’s vast rural expanse.

Photographer Eiji Ohashi began documenting Japan’s vending machines nearly a decade ago after getting caught in a blizzard in his native region of Hokkaido. He navigated home using only the lights from the vending machines, which are often placed on the roadside.

Since, he has come to see the vending machines as a symbol of modern Japan – full of convenience, safety, and loneliness.

Ohashi shared some photos of the strangest places he’s found vending machines with Business Insider here, but you can see more in his books Roadside Lights and Being There.


There is approximately 1 vending machine per every 23 people in Japan, with annual sales totaling more than $60 billion.

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Tayoro, a small town outside the city of Shibetsu in Hokkaido.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Source: Business Insider


They can be found just about everywhere: down alleyways, in front of convenience stores and road stops, and even in the remotest places.

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Kutchan, Hokkaido with the volcano Mount Yōtei in the distance.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi


The vending machines offer a wide variety of products from expected fare like soft drinks and coffee to rice, batteries, junk food, noodles, and even glasses.

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Minami-ku, Sapporo was a major site for the 1972 Winter Olympics, hosting major events like figure skating and ice hockey.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Source: DramaFever


Winter in Hokkaido, Ohashi’s home, is long and brings 200 inches of snow per year. Snow inspired Ohashi’s project.

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Iwanai, Hokkaido, a small town known for its fishing industry and skiing in the winter.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Source: Current Results


“Snow looks so beautiful when it reflects the glow of a nearby vending machine,” Ohashi said. “When I enter into this quiet world, where all sound is absorbed by the snow, I feel at peace.”

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Iwamizawa, Hokkaido
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Ohashi uses the vending machines and their locations to show the diversity of Japan’s many regions and the contrast between Japan’s urban future and its rural past.

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Toyohira-ku, one of ten wards in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Ohashi told Business Insider that the prevalence of so many vending machines in even remote places is “evidence of how safe a country Japan is.” Vandalism, property crime, and robberies are exceptionally rare in Japan.

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Yubari, Hokkaido, a former coal mining city that has seen population plummet in recent decades.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Ohashi said that his friends and family will frequently tip him off when they see a new vending machine that he should photograph. He also uses Google Street View to locate the most remote machines.

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Shinhidaka, Hokkaido
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Street-side vending machines like these in Otaru, a small seaside town, would be unthinkable in the US due to fears of property crime and vandalism.

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Otaru, Hokkaido, a popular tourist town north of Sapporo.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Traditionally, rural areas often have wooden stalls where farmers leave fruit and vegetables for passersby to purchase by leaving the correct change. The vending machines are just a new version of that tradition.

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Toyohira-ku, one of ten wards in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Source: CNN


Some economists have speculated that vending machines are so prevalent because the country’s declining birthrate, aging population, and lack of immigration has made labor both scarce and costly.

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Otaru, Hokkaido, a popular tourist town north of Sapporo.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Source: Business Insider


Japan is one of the most population-dense countries in the world. The population density has led to high real estate prices, meaning that most Japanese people don’t have a lot of room to store consumer goods.

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Tōbetsu, Hokkaido, a small town known for producing rice and flowers.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Though 93% of the Japanese population lives in cities, that hasn’t stopped companies from placing vending machines in small towns like Tōbetsu.

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Tōbetsu, Hokkaido, a small town known for producing rice and flowers.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Source: Business Insider


Japanese companies would rather stick a vending machine on a street than open up a retail store, because the machines generate more revenue for each square meter of land.

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Toyohira-ku, one of ten wards in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Ohashi suggested the vending machines show that Japanese people place “a high value on convenience in everyday life.”

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Kiyota-ku, a district of Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Journalist Tsutomu Washizu, who has written a book on the history of vending machines in Japan, has attributed Japan’s fixation on automation and robots as the main reason for their popularity.

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Toyohira-ku, one of ten wards in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Source: Business Insider


“Life in Japan has become extremely convenient, but still there seems no end to the pursuit of greater comfort,” Ohashi told The Japan Time in July. People should stop pursuing convenience, he said, and instead pursue “the true essence of happiness.”

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Ishikari, Hokkaido, a small city north of Sapporo.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Source: The Japan Times


Ohashi said that he sees the vending machines as representative of Japan’s workers. “Any given vending machine will only be around as long as it is profitable; once the desired profits stop, the machine will soon disappear,” he said.

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Kiyota-ku, a district of Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Even buried in snow, the machines work tirelessly, because they are maintained regularly, he said.

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Tōbetsu, Hokkaido, a small town known for producing rice and flowers.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi

Ohashi said that he hopes the photos teach viewers that “the world works because of the daily efforts” of hard-working people that will never be recognized. Japan’s vending machines are representative of that, he said.

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Toyohira-ku, one of ten wards in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
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Courtesy of Eiji Ohashi