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July 13, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Nothing like the human touch

His favorite vegetable is daikon, but here grandson Umi enjoys his broccoli

(July 27, 1995)

They’re all over the place and quite literally everywhere, so even if you didn’t know there are 5.5 million vending machines in Japan, you kind of  get the idea.

In 1992 there was one machine for every 23 people  (in the U.S. the ratio is 1:42). In a country as crowded as this one, where there is hardly room to walk on narrow, cramped streets (and if you find a sidewalk it will have both pedestrians and bicyclers), these money-gulping monsters take up precious space.

These wonders of the modern age that dish out everything from hot soup to cold eggs are also big energy-gobblers. Vending machines with heating and cooling systems consume more energy than the average household. It’s been reported that it takes the equivalent of one large nuclear power plant to provide the energy needed for all the vending machines selling canned drinks in Japan.

These unmanned mini-department stores dispense all manner of things: underwear, frozen beef, Bibles, computer software, fresh flowers, you name it. Although vending machines that sell whiskey and pornography are required to be labeled “adults only”, machines have neither brains nor consciences — they don’t ask questions, but give their goods to anyone who puts in money.

My friend Keiko tells me the vending machines on the corner of her quiet street keep her awake at night. In addition to the annoying, droning white noise, the white fluorescent lighting shines right into her bedroom. Every time someone buys a pack of cigarettes the otherwise dumb machines says “Arigato gozaimashita!”

I bet manufacturers are proud their machines can ‘talk’ — but I also bet no matter how many coins you drop in you’re not going to have a conversation.

So it’s no surprise I like open markets, the simple loyalty of patronizing favorite merchants, and sense of community fostered by shopping at local stores. I’m sorry to see them disappearing. I despair that by the time we realize the many good ways we’re losing, they’ll be gone forever — swallowed up by the monsters Speed and Convenience.

I avoid using vending machines, and convenience stores too, for that matter. The main reason I don’t like these shopping shortcuts is because they’re impersonal. But apparently, that’s just what some people prefer — they don’t have to talk to anyone. I can understand that — there are days I don’t feel like talking to anyone either. But I can’t say that I every really mind saying “Hello” to a shopkeeper.

And at my greengrocer’s I don’t only say a greeting, I always have something to say about the high price of fruits and vegetables. The other day I told him that when I see my favorite fruit, black cherries, I pretend they don’t exist because they’re so expensive. (I don’t know why in Japan they’re called “American cherries” — it’s probably a trade thing. I’ve eaten them straight from trees in France, and Denmark too.)

Now there are vending machines that sell fresh vegetables — and they sell them cheaper than in the stores. So you’d think a thrift-conscious person like myself would welcome the automatic vegetables vendors.

But I have to say, I don’t care if the machines are selling cabbage for half the price, or even if you could just push a button and get carrots free. I’d rather go to the store and buy my food from a human being.

Besides, I like my greengrocer. He addresses me as o-nee-san (big sister), adds in his head faster than with an abacus, and told me the secret to making the best umeshu (plum wine). He’s used to my “I-can-buy-it-cheaper-in-America” harangue, and the last time I told him I could get better corn for half the price in California, he told me he wishes he could shop in California, too.

He has his stall in a large shopping complex, and a few years ago when they did a complete remodeling, I couldn’t find him when I went looking in the same spot he’d been for more than 15 years. After searching, I figured he must have moved. I went back to the store looking for him several times, and sadly resigned myself to the fact that he was no longer there.

Then one day, some months later, I happened to go to a part of the shopping area I hadn’t been in before, and there he was.

“O-nee-san,” he said, “Where have you been?”

I explained I’d looked for him. He said he thought perhaps I was abroad, but then thought I’d left for good.

One advantage of vending machines must be that they don’t show emotion. My greengrocer and I had tears in our eyes as he put my tomatoes, onions, and lotus root in a bag.



Wow. That really seems like a hundred years ago …

Where to begin … now we are in post-March 11-disaster-save-energy mode, and practically every vending machine across the land has gone dark. Until Fukushima, I’d bet most people didn’t know, or care, where their energy came from — or that vending machines were nuclear-powered.

I’ve let up a little. I realize when there is not a kiosk or store in sight and I’m dying of thirst it won’t kill me to use a vending machine! Ditto convenience store for an onigri (rice ball) when I’m hungry.

“American” cherries are now affordable. It’s almost hard to believe — because I clearly remember when they were like the price of gold. Just ridiculously expensive. Anyway, these days a friend on the West Coast sends a box of cherries every summer — best cherries you ever put in your mouth!

I still go to the greengrocers. (Not the same guy because I don’t live anywhere near there anymore). Just yesterday when I mentioned to my greengrocer how good (and cheap) the corn was, he replied, “Yeah, it is really good isn’t it? … not like in the old days … when it was tough, and not sweet …”  I thought I was the only one who’d noticed!


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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