After a brief wait to the faint whirr of moving machinery parts, the tiny cardboard box that drops into the plastic-covered tray is reassuringly warm. Inside is a perfectly passable burger in a chewy white bun, topped with a blob of ketchup and diced fried onions.
No human interaction occurred in the making of this transaction. The Guardian’s alfresco lunch came courtesy of one of dozens of vending machines in Sagamihara, an unglamorous town near Tokyo.
Nostalgia has preserved the 90 or so jidō hanbaiki here, but after decades of steady decline in their number nationally, the coronavirus pandemic has triggered a vending machine revival in Japan as retailers pin their hopes on “untact” sales to customers still nervous about buying food, drink and other items in the traditional way.
As the lunchtime trade picks up, truck drivers join young couples, customers at a nearby tyre garage and curious tourists as they edge along the row of machines on a chilly day in early winter.
They are spoiled for choice. The ageing machines – whose contents are impeccably fresh – offer a multiple-course meal, perhaps beginning with tempura soba noodles or curry and rice, with an ice-cream for dessert and a cup of hot matcha tea to finish.
Despite their declining numbers, it is practically impossible to walk down a street in any Japanese town or city and not spy the telltale light emitting from a vending machine in the distance.
According to the Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association, the number peaked at 5.6m in 2000, or one for every 23 people. That had fallen to just over 4m by last year, but the country still has the largest number of vending machines per capita in the world.
More than half of Japan’s ubiquitous machines sell food or drink, but their eclectic stock extends to items that appear slightly out of place behind a pane of glass: anime and manga merchandise, figurines, underpants, toothbrushes, skincare products, umbrellas and, since the start of the pandemic, masks and Covid-19 test kits.
Kenmin Foods is one of a growing number of firms turning to non-contact customer service to make up for sales lost during the pandemic. The rice-noodle maker installed a vending machine in front of its headquarters in Kobe in September and pulled in ¥23m (£153,000), three times its initial target, according to the Yomiuri newspaper. A seafood seller in Hokkaido, meanwhile, has started fillets of fresh salmon and mackerel after many of its regular clients closed due to the pandemic.
In the central city of Nagoya, three companies have joined forces to sell food – including bread and instant noodles – nearing its expiry date from vending machines at up to 50% off its normal price.
Maruyama Seimen now sells its frozen noodles and dumplings via vending machines in 30 locations and plans to expand that to 100 by April 2023. At the peak of the pandemic in Japan the machines were being emptied of more than 10,000 packs a month, the Nikkei business newspaper reported, while traditional sales slumped by a fifth.
“The convenience of vending machines is being re-evaluated because of the pandemic,” Prof Hidehiko Nishikawa, a marketing expert at Hosei University, told the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. “Efforts to increase added value, such as giving points through apps for vending machines, are important to draw in customers.”
In Sagamihara, two women pull down their masks and eat just-dispensed bowls of steaming udon in the back of their people carrier, while a couple feed coins into a machine selling sweet snacks. After a lunch comprising a burger and a bowl of noodles, the Guardian decides, with a carb-heavy heart, not to join the queue.