This small Japanese town is a vintage vending machine paradise

Editor’s Note — Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that spotlights some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In August, we’re going back in time to revisit some of the best retro travel experiences.

(CNN) — There’s a reason Sagamihara, Japan, isn’t in travel guides. It is a sprawling commuter city to nearby Yokohama and Tokyo; A mix of main roads, light industrial estates and quiet towns where people go rather than stop.

However, a 30-minute bus ride from Sagami-ono Station and tucked away on the back of the main street is Tatsuhiro Saito’s used tire shop, an unexpected and remarkable destination for those seeking a taste of Japan’s recent past — restored and operating since the 1970s. Food vending machines of the Showa era (1926–1989).

Japan has long had a thing for more vending machines per capita than any other country. While some of Tokyo’s rarest examples dispense curiosities such as jewelry and collectible toys, most (more than half of the four million machines currently operating in Japan) dispense beverages.

Saito’s collection of vintage machines — commonly known in Japanese as “natsukashi” or nostalgic — is a rare treat.

Most are from the 1970s and 80s on display along two covered walkways next to a dusty parking lot. Sweets and snacks that were common decades ago are available and are often happily greeted by visitors. If that doesn’t evoke a nostalgic feeling, there are retro toys, Kodak camera film, AA batteries and a few arcade machines.

Meals from the machine

Models serving hot food attract hundreds of people every weekend.

For just 280 yen ($2), hamburgers — classic or teriyaki flavor — pop out of machines in cheerful, bright yellow boxes from the mid-’80s. Almost scalding hot cha sui ramen, just 400 yen ($3) a serving, served in shaking plastic bowls in just 25 seconds.

Visitors peruse options at a noodle vending machine.

Dean Irwin

Other machines dispense hot Japanese-style curry roux over large bowls of rice; A pleasant red digital countdown telling customers how long they have to wait to tuck in.

An “American Popcorn” machine blares out some funky tunes.

Thirsty visitors need to apply some muscle to a couple of charming but strange vintage Coca-Cola machines to part with their classic glass-bottled drinks, 100 yen (75 cents) each.

Finding the following

The unique designs and artwork of the machines are an attraction for many visitors as are the food and beverages.

Goro Seto, head of the Kanagawa Vespa Club, is old enough to remember some of the machines in their heyday. He recently added Saito as a pit stop for his group’s latest ride after watching YouTube videos about his collection.

Other interviewers are more into mechanics. Local couples who frequent the site return regularly to see what new machine Saito adds to the collection. He says the Sharp-made ‘Noodle Shop’ ramen machine is the best because it has a larger dispensing hatch and the food is not hot when served.

A range of beverage machines sell sodas and coffees.

A range of beverage machines sell sodas and coffees.

Dean Irwin

Some visitors have further increased their enthusiasm. Yusuke Utani has published books on nostalgic vending machines and is regularly on the road to find and report new discoveries via his website.
Another popular destination for nostalgic vending machine enthusiasts is Marumiya in rural Gunma Prefecture. It has a collection similar to Saito, but less accessible from Tokyo.

Behind the mystique

Saito, 50, says he never expected to start a business out of his love for vending machines and their inner workings.

From his childhood he realized that such machines were becoming a rare sight in Japan and found it a challenge to restore or maintain them. They mostly bought the machines through online auctions or found them through word of mouth.

As of 2016, vending machine collection takes longer than tire-fitting business.

Now, Saito has hired more people to work in the kitchens and assemble machines to change tires.

Saito poses in front of his two vending machines.

Saito poses in front of his two vending machines.

Dean Irwin

Spoiler alert: for those under the delusion that the machines are so high-tech they prepare and cook all the food they serve – they don’t.

While the hamburgers are specially made by a caterer in Ebina from an original recipe for Saito (if you want to know the ingredients, you probably shouldn’t eat them), almost all other meals — grilled sandwiches, udon, curry, soba, rice and green tea salmon ochazuke — are made in the on-site kitchens.

Saito and his crew have to restore the machines every day and sometimes several times a day on weekends.

Food safety laws in Japan require anyone operating a hot food-serving vending machine to have the appropriate license and maintain the same hygiene standards as restaurants.

This is the primary reason food vending machines are located near roadside cafes, and with the rise of Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores over the past 30 years, their number has dwindled.

Food vending machines in Japan reached their peak in 1985, when there were 250,000 nationwide, according to the Japan Vending Systems Manufacturers Association. By December 2021, it had dropped to 72,800. That number includes frozen foods like ice cream and desserts, so hot food machines are few and far between.

However, it’s not all bad news.

Some machines have enjoyed a mini revival in the past two years, sparked in part by the contagion effect on restaurants’ opening hours. Frozen ramen machines, for example, have been popping up outside restaurants in Tokyo over the past year.

For now, it seems that it will be left to Saito and other mechanically minded enthusiasts to keep the flavors and memories of the Showa era alive.

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