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Sendai's Wild and Wacky Vending Machines

by Justin Velgus

· Shopping,Souvenirs,Downtown

Vending machines are everywhere. Standing guard outside office buildings, ready and waiting in quiet suburbs, and bizarrely even at the entrance of convenience stores. These days, vending machines offer so much more than a quick, refreshing drink. A simple YouTube or web search highlights Japan has many interesting varieties. Look hard enough and you’ll find that Sendai also has some unique vending machines of its own. Let’s check out a few.

Convenience You Never Asked For

1. Farm Fresh

While downtown may be all cityscape, some suburbs of Sendai still have active farms. Local farmers, working in the fields each day, “set up shop” with an unmanned vending machine near the Driver License Center in Izumi ward. Specifically, look behind GU Yorktown Ichinazaka strip mall for a shed across the street.

Forget sugary drinks, tea or coffee. Here you can get a healthy recharge by grabbing some king-sized cucumbers, a pack of potatoes, leafy lettuce, or delectable daikon on your way home for a nutritious home-cooked meal. The fresh veggies are replaced each morning, selling at the bargain price of just 100-200 yen!

The shed door to the vending machine is usually closed and locked after dark, though there are no clear “business hours”. Recommended to visit during the day.

2. Hot Off the Presses

Across from one of the ever-increasing Don Quijote (“Donki”) sell-anything-and-everything-stores in Kita-Sendai is this vending machine selling today’s newspaper. I feel this kind of machine has some actual potential on a train platform or in a cafe, but why here on the sidewalk?

Right behind the machine is the answer: an Asahi Shimbun newspaper delivery center branch. A few copies are put into the machine each day as a form of advertisement, or possibly at the request of a local resident not wanting a subscription and also not wanting to walk into the nearby convenience store to make a purchase. Unexpectedly, two of the three papers available are actually Nikkei, distributed as part of a collaboration between the news giants.

3. Kanpai Convenience

This sake sample vending machine has been a big hit with locals, Japanese tourists, and increasingly foreign tourists. It first appeared in 2016 when the east side shopping center of JR Sendai Station opened for business. Find this adult favorite parked in front of Fujiwara-ya Sake Shop.

A 100 yen coin grants you a small tasting size (~30ml) of your choice of four chilled sake. Brands are rotated each week, so check back regularly. If you find one you like, pop into the store to bring a bottle home or pick up as a souvenir. Or do what some train commuters do, myself included, and stop by for a quick refreshment on the way home.

How popular is this machine? Shop Manager Mr. Shiramatsu tells me 100 samples are sold per day on weekdays, and easily double that on weekends. He encourages you ask the knowledgeable staff which sake they recommend, but you can never go wrong with your own tastes.
Like the sample you try? Pick up a bottle. Otherwise, try your luck with another sake.
*Obey the drinking laws in Japan and drink responsibly. You’ll need to be 20 years or older to enjoy this vending machine. Do not drink and drive or ride a bicycle after consuming alcohol in Japan.

4. The Best Exchange Rate in Town

How about spending a little money for some… money? For just one 500 yen coin you’ll get some old Japanese coins at this capsule machine— which is really just a sibling of the vending machine. You’ll either get a bunch (like 20) small coins, one super-nice coin, or often a mix of keepers and meh. Most designs and dates can still be read. Some of the coins in this machine are over 150 years old! I love the Meiji-era coins: big, heavy and brown, with dragon designs.

Mr. Saito owns and operates this stamp and coin collectible counter inside Fujisaki Department Store on the 5th floor. As far as he is aware, this coin counter is the only one in Tohoku and the vending machine selling Japanese coins is the only such one in the country. As Japanese coin collectors are exceptionally picky with quality, he came up with this fun way to sell off coins most serious diehards would never buy. Great for us. He says recently more tourists are visiting thanks to recommendations from the Sendai Tourist Information Desk on the first floor.

The coins in that tray are from just one capsule!

5. Safety First

Outside a small health clinic in the sleepy Ichinazaka suburb of Izumi ward is... a condom vending machine. I will let those interested hunt down its exact location. While quite common in bars in the UK apparently, as an American, I was shocked. “Oh, you fiends! You can't even make it to the drugstore, could you?” I quietly congratulated myself on my hasty conclusion and expert knowledge of Japanese hentai culture.

Then I realized the one-in-a-million situation: I was wrong. Condom machines, just like porn magazine vending machines (haven’t found any of those in Sendai yet), are really just a matter of convenience. This location is far from supermarkets or convenience stores. Also, buying these kind of things are a matter of privacy. Does anyone not feel awkward buying condoms at the store in front of another human at the register?

6. 24-hour Emergency... Broth

One of Sendai’s newest vending machines sells soup broth. Located on the first side street from the Disney Store across from Namahage Dining, this machine sells, again, nothing but soup broth. Dashi, as it is called in Japanese, sells for a pricy 700 yen. It is perfect in case you needed some for your soba— which they do not sell.
I am really confused who the target market is. The cost is much more than when bought at a store. Plus the location isn’t a residential area, so this won’t appeal to housewives. Possibly one of the restaurants in Kokubuncho can have a staff run over if they are in a pinch. Otherwise the occasional drunk salaryman may buy one and get a nasty surprise. Most likely it is a fun form of marketing to get free advertising through word of mouth, social media posts, and people writing articles about vending machines…

Happy vending, Sendai!

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