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How Japanese vending machines saved my life and made me a better parent

Andrew Madigan They line every building, every shop, every road. They accept folding money and never run out of change.

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by Andrew Madigan


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Japanese vending machine

Man's Best Friend in Japan - the not-so-humble vending machine, a 24-hour butler on steroids

MY WIFE is pregnant. I worry that our baby won’t be as perfect as our local pizza or yogurt.

On the street, heading to work. The first bank of vending machines, gathered in a tight huddle like three broad yakuza loitering on the corner. They line every building, every shop, every road. Instead of shrubbery or graffiti, Tokyo is landscaped with vending machines. Why? No one has time for a meal. Everyone’s on the run, always.

I’ll tell you a secret—the machines are perfect. Your drink selection is always available. They never run out of change. They always accept folding money, no matter how crumpled or wet. You don’t have to flip the yen over and try it the other way.

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Japan’s first vending machine, in 1888, sold cigarettes. Today, this 7-trillion-yen industry flogs lettuce, phones, umbrellas, flowers, stamps, soup, books, shoes, underwear, farm-fresh eggs, lobster, hamburgers, fried chicken, and, according to Japan National Tourism Organization, “daily sundries.” Japan has 5.52 million machines, the world’s highest per capita rate.

{The machine sells...beer. Beer? Is this a mirage? I take out my wallet and start feeding the machine. One of everything. Lager, stout, pils. Every size, shape...

What else do they carry? Meal replacement bars: a day’s supply of calories in two dense, unpalatable bites. Energy drinks: tiny brown bottles with solemn labels. Energy is the Japanese word, I’m guessing, for sugar. Drinks are the most commonly vended item. Soda, juice, water. Coffee and tea in every conceivable permutation. Strong, weak, milk, sugar, heated, cold, green, red, black, decaffeinated, espresso, latte, mocha. Slender, elegant six-ounce cans — and they’re never dented.

So how did a vending machine save my life? New to Japan, I step off the train one night after work. Where am I? I’m lost. The shops are closed, the streets shrouded in darkness, quiet as a mime funeral. I’m surrounded by thousands of sleeping shops that all look the same. In the distance, a faint glow. I walk toward it. There’s a dead-end, a dirt lot peppered with lanky weeds. The glow is just another vending machine.

The machine sells...beer. Beer? Is this a mirage? I take out my wallet and start feeding the machine. One of everything. Lager, stout, pils. Every size, shape and brand. There are tiny four-ounce cans, for toddlers maybe. There’s even a gallon jug of dark ale. After I load my yen and hit the button, the machine pauses. A low rumbling, the machine roars and shakes. The heavy jug bangs through the machine’s innards and shoots out the birth canal into my paternal hands.

I open the smallest beer, chug, walk over to a trashcan and deposit the empty. That’s when I see it. A familiar bookstore. I’m not lost anymore! A vending machine pointed the way home.

Several months later, after moving to Okinawa, my wife gives birth to Annie, cute as a four-ounce beer. She’s strong, adorable and healthy. If health is measured in endurance screaming and the ability to skip naps. I haven’t been sleeping — my eyes are red, I’m too tired to think straight.

One day I’m alone with her for the first time. But I’m not ready for this. Midwifing a giant beer hasn’t prepared me for fatherhood. Panic. Fear. Terror.

I take her for a walk in a baby backpack. Out the door, down the stairs, past the izakaya, look out over the seawall. I stop to wipe spit-up from my shoulder. What’s this? A vending machine. Great. They’re not quite as ubiquitous in Okinawa so I haven’t had a canned coffee in months.

I select Zotto Black, chug it down. Just five tiny ounces of black coffee, but I feel as if I’ve slept 12 hours and had a B-12 injection. The taste is smooth and refreshing, but the after-effect is dynamic and multi-textured. I’m wide awake, happy, focused and — maybe, just maybe — mildly competent as a father.

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