This morning on my way out of the hotel I noticed it was raining. The Japanese love umbrellas, and wouldn’t be seen dead in a waterproof coat except when hiking in the mountains. For a 500 yen coin (between two and three quid) I bought an umbrella from the, yes!, umbrella dispensor in the lobby.
Earlier in the week I was outside an electronics store and spotted an amazing machine for creating digital photos. For 50 yen a piece, you could pop in any sort of digital media card, select the photos you want from the screen, and print them out within a minute.
It’s possible to spend an entire day in Japan subsisting entirely by putting coins and notes into machines without having too miserable a time. Dinner is the hard one, until you find the fast food chains where you pay at a machine and hand a ticket over the counter to get your meal. This system is excellent – more hygenic as staff don’t handle food and money, safer as there are no tills for robbers to raid, and reduces both queues and misunderstood orders. Local fast food is very varied and very high quality in Japan, with real tasty meals in actual dishes that somebody washes up after you; I can’t quite understand how McDonalds manages to compete at all.
They’re rare but you can also track down fully automatic meal machines. Some of them contain frozen food, and I can only assume microwave it for you after you put the money in, delivering fresh hot fried chicken and chips. Others are vacuum packed with a cord that you pull to heat it up by dissolving lime.
There are drinks machines literally everywhere. On every floor of every hotel, at the remotest local train station, on a boring suburban street corner, and even on board trains. They sell canned and bottled stuff, mainly iced coffee and tea, but also an isotonic sports drink called Pocari Sweat, and lemon pop. Coca Cola the drink isn’t very popular at all, but Coca Cola the company competes quite well selling drinks unavailable in the west. At first I kept accidentally buying cans of hot instead of chilled tea, which might be nice in the winter. Unfortunately it doesn’t work too well as the metal can almost burns you, while the drink inside remains unpleasantly tepid.
These machines are truly amazing works of engineering. They accept notes or coins, never break down and always have enough change. Nobody really trusts machines in Britain, in Japan everyone trusts them implicitly. When you press the button for your drink there is a satisfying instantaneous thunk! as the can falls down for you to collect. You sometimes see people filling up the machines, and I wonder how the business model works that has caused such proliferation of them. Does the owner of the land rent or buy the machine from the drinks company, or does the company pay rent for the land?
The best thing about the drinks machines is that they always have can and bottle recycling points next to them. These have round shaped holes to indicate what rubbish you are meant to put in them. The Japanese are enthusiastic recyclers, including bins with long flat thin holes on train platforms for you to dispose of your newspaper after the daily commute.
My favourite automated food machine is the ice cream vendor. These are delicious. For a small fee at any time of day or night, without a queue, they deliver you a choice of 17 sorts of ice cream. One day when I’m very rich I’ll import one and put it in the front lobby of my mansion.