It is an odd quirk of Japan that you can buy almost anything from a vending machine except, well, for things we usually expect from vending machines.
One of the first things lonely and bored foreigners discover upon their arrival in Japan, especially if they live in rural areas, is the local beer vending machine. I’ve seen grown men reduced to tears upon seeing these.
I was even more impressed when I found a machine that allowed me to buy a fifth of whiskey and a two liter bottle of sake. It’s also possible to buy chuhai, which is a kind of like vodka and soda mixed with fruit juice.
I’ve also seen vending machines that offered kerosene; five kilogram (11 pound) bags of rice; individual roses; flower arrangements; complete hot meals of hamburgers and French fries (coming soon to the $15 minimum wage city near you); ice cream; soup; and women’s underwear. (More on that later.) You can also get soft drinks, including canned coffee. During the winter, some drink slots serve hot coffee and hot canned soup.
In fact, the only thing you can’t find with any consistency is a candy bar. That has begun to change though as some train stations, to save money money on staff, have been switching from kiosks (kind of like a newsstand) to candy machines.
For a while one of the vending machines near my house offered a dodgy gambling game where for 1,000 yen ($10ish) you had a chance to win an iPod nano, an iPhone, or a random piece of cheap Chinese made crap. Now it sells, um, intimacy related products right next to the soft drinks.
There are, of course, a few rules. The beer machines usually shut down at 11 p.m., purportedly to keep minors from buying alcohol after hours. (Because, see, none of them would think of buying it at, say, 10:30.) Several years ago, under pressure from the government, and to keep teens from buying alcohol, the All Japan Liquor Merchants Association called for a voluntary ban on alcohol machines resulting in 70% of the machines being shut down. (I’m sure this had nothing, NOTHING to do with pressure from convenience stores.)
The newest trend, is touch screen vending machines which are both cool and kind of creepy. Especially if they ever start using them to sell, um, intimacy related products.