Why A Japanese Town Is Overflowing With Antique Vending Machines

For most of us here in the United States, vending machines exist for basically two reasons: to fulfill our voracious addictions to sugar and powdered cheese, and to provide a last-minute office lunch that would make our doctors cry. Few, if any of us, would think of a vending machine as a primary food source, certainly not if we value our health. However, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, it's a different story altogether. Japanese vending machines elevate the concept of grab-and-go dining from a snack-exclusive experience to a genuine meal source. Of course, you can still get sodas and energy drinks, but you can also find noodles, curry, pizza, and even ice cream.

Japan is home to over four million vending machines, more per capita than any other country, according to CNN. They first appeared in Japan as early as 1888, but their popularity didn't really take off until the end of the '50s with the debut of fountain-style juice machines (via University of Texas). The vending machine concept is perfect for a nation with a densely urbanized population and a fast-paced work culture, allowing huge volumes of people to grab lunch in seconds. Vending machine technology evolved quickly with the times, adding international foods like hamburgers to the mix by the '70s (via Nippon.com).

Interestingly, a handful of classic machines from the mid-century era still remain in operation ... in a tire shop of all places.

Tatsuhiro Saito has repaired over 90 antique vending machines

In the Tokyo suburb of Sagamihara lies a shrine of sorts for vending machine lovers, where you can also get your tires changed if you need (via TimeOut). Tatsuhiro Saito is the proprietor of Rat Sunrise tire shop, but his deepest love is with Japan's antique vending machines. He told Nippon.com that he initially started his vast vending machine collection, which now exceeds 90, simply because they were "brightly colored and fun just to look at." In 2016, however, Saito expanded his operation by repairing the machines so his customers could get a bite to eat while they waited for their tire change.

All of the machines in the collection date back to Japan's Shōwa era, which lasted from 1926 to 1989, though a majority come specifically from the '70s and '80s (via CNN). Although the machines are in working order, many of the companies that originally operated them are now out of business, so Saito has to stock them on his own. He told Nippon.com that a local company supplies his burger machine, but that he and his tire shop staff prepare noodles, toast, and bento boxes every day by themselves. 

Notably, hot food vending machines are starting to creep across parts of the United States. For example, in April, we reported that Philadelphia is on the verge of getting its first burger vending machine. Still, Saito's homemade touch is a rarity, one that makes this unassuming tire shop one of the most unique eateries around.