Wonders of Japan: Hamburger Vending Machines

Here's a trip down memory lane to my days in Japan.
Japanese Vending Machine with fish shaped food

The only memory I have of first arriving in Japan at the age of 10 is riding an Army bus from the airport to our new home, Camp Zama, and stopping at a light where much to my astonishment I saw a hamburger vending machine.

Since then, I’ve been a bit obsessed with Japanese vending machines, always wondering what strange thing I’ll see for sale. It’s akin to my fascination with the automat, ubiquitous for an earlier generation and now just seen in old movies.

In Japan, vending machines are everywhere. You’ll see them in the oddest places, always cheerfully lit up, promising something to bring joy to your otherwise hectic day or drab life. I suspect that if you hiked in the forest in Japan for a couple of hours, you’d find a vending machine plugged into a tree.

Most offer drinks, hot or cold, but in some you can also get bananas, eggs, alcohol, along with clothing and porn. What’s super rare is hot food.

With all the anxiety now over jobs being taken from humans by machines, prepared hot foods such as burgers, curry rice, and french fries in a vending machine may be convenient but not always tasty so I don’t think restaurant workers have to worry too much. Here’s a video from a YouTube channel called Critical Eats Japan where they visit a vending machine restaurant that is pretty much an automat, with the employees cooking in the back and stocking the machines with the freshly made food. The host tries the ramen, Mexican burger, toasted cheese sandwich and Coke in a real bottle.

In general, the Japanese have some of the greatest food in the world, but they are a fast-paced society so they also value convenience but good-quality convenience. The food from vending machines might not be up-to-par but you can find tasty food just about anywhere.

I was watching Japanese TV with my mom on a recent visit and was astonished to find a drag queen who had her own show where she tried various convenience foods from around Japan; in the episode I saw, she was trying bento boxes from train stations. She exclaimed quite often the boxes were “oishii” i.e. delicious. In the next episode, she was going to try food from convenience stores; their chains such as 7-Eleven, Lawsons and Family Mart are packed with great quality food, clothing, and stationary as well as services for mailing packages and baggage storage.

Here’s a clip spotlighting a man who runs a curry vending machine, using rice he grows locally in the meals and stocking his machine twice a day. It’s almost like having your own restaurant or food truck but without so much overhead.

Finally, here’s a funny clip from a Japanese TV show where they discover a vending machine that’s not quite as mechanized as it would seem. There are two machines, actually, one where you can get a burger that’s more the size of a slider for 100 yen (about $1) and another one for a 300 yen burger. No English subtitles but you can understand what’s going on:

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