Vending machines are all over Japan.

They can be found in metropolitan areas, of course, but also in the furthest corners of mountainous areas or at the end of long promontories. There may be twice as many machines in the U.S. but most of them are located indoors. In Japan, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the vending machine has become a most familiar sight in the Japanese landscape. So familiar, I think, that we hardly notice it. Indeed, I suspect that few people are aware of how the sheer spread of vending machines is unique to this country. Once I realized the extent of their prevalence in comparison to other countries, I began to see these once-visible boxes with new eyes. Each time I discovered a new, far-flung refreshment-providing outpost, I thought to myself, “Now, who on earth uses these machine?”

My question was partially answered after the Great Tohoku Earthquake hit in 2011. After the events surrounding the nuclear reactors, there was a nation-wide power-saving campaign. One of the first items to be singled out for wasting energy was the venerable (and always running) vending machine. But in the Iwate and Miyagi prefectures—areas that suffered severely both from the earthquake and its aftermath—vending machines were some of the first things to be set back up after disaster clean-up. The idea was that vending machines were perfect for supplying unspoiled water to the workers and locals engaged in the recovery effort.

In Hokkaido where I live, the winters are harsh and the snows are deep. At times, everyday movement can become inconvenient, dangerous. It is then that I again become appreciative of my local vending machines. Even amidst half a meter of snow, I know I can get a fresh yet warm drinks very close by. When I hold a still-hot bottle that I have just bought from a vending machine, my worries fall away. It might be a peculiar mentality of the Japanese or just of myself, but after 5 years of photographing vending machines, I have finally come to see them not as intrusive but as something else: symbols of security and dependability, comforting as a familiar friend.

—Eiji Ohashi


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