Automats, Unite!

20 Apr

Japan is famous for its vending machines, both the crazy number of them (1 per 23 people, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association) as well as the crazy variety of things they sell (all the way from standard canned beverages to skin care products). Even restaurants get into the vending machine business, in a way; the automat, which was in death throes in the US by the 1970s, lives on in the Land of the Rising Sun, where many of the casual eateries have a ticket machine in the front, rather than someone taking your order. (Considering these eateries are usually the size of the average US shoebox, this is probably a necessity.) I could extrapolate some sort of grand theory about how the ubiquity of vending machines reflects a deep-seated phobia of interpersonal interactions in Japanese society, etc., etc., but this is a food blog, not an anthropology blog, so I’ll spare you the pseudopsychology.

One think I enjoy about Japanese vending machines is the variety of drinks they dispense. There’s usually about 10 types of cold beverages, and 5 or 6 hot ones. (Yes, you read that correctly. Japanese vending machines will serve you a hot can of coffee. This is especially awesome during the winter, when the can doubles as a handwarmer.) And there’s always one or two new flavors to slake the buyer’s thirst for novelty, as well as physical thirst.

For example, this is coffee with green tea. I’ve had green tea lattes before, but that doesn’t involve any coffee. Would this be the ultimate caffeinated mashup?

It turns out that green tea coffee is best enjoyed in the vending machine. While it wasn’t terrible — I did drink the whole can — there was something artificial about the taste. I suspect that the coffee killed the natural aroma of the tea (which is fairly subtle), and they added flavoring to boost it. Unfortunately, this gave the beverage a whiff of green tea soap, which I strongly dislike and doesn’t smell like green tea at all.

(Etiquette side note: it’s considered a bit gauche to drink the beverage you purchased on the sidewalk while actually walking down the sidewalk; you’re supposed to consume it while standing next to the vending machine, or at some other designated place. That’s why the vending machines have can receptacles next to them. As a foreigner, I usually ignore this rule, though I do dispose of my cans properly.)

I had a more positive experience with the automat. As I mentioned above, these are usually the kind of places

Getting my meal ticket, literally

where you stop in for a quick meal. Instead of having to flag down a server while your precious time ticks away, you can make your selection and pay upfront. And there are photos, so no need to worry about being able to communicate your order, if you’re not a Japanese speaker.

But does the food look anything like the photo, you may ask?

It looks exactly like the photo. (By the way, that’s Japanese curry — less potent and more Westernized than its Indian or Asian counterparts — with fried shrimp and a croquette.) And it’s made to order by the nice man behind the counter, with no more communication needed than the ticket and some strategic head-bobbing. I think it’s time to bring back the automat in the US, don’t you?


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