text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
They are one of the first things you see when you get to the airport but no one really notices them; they get lost in the clatter and the countless stands selling everything travelers need to forget the 40,000 feet anxiety that lies ahead or behind them. But even the less observant will soon realize that they continue outside the airport. And that they are everywhere in the streets, big and small, crowded or deserted. And the stores. And the public services. And the temples. And the stations –even on the platforms. And on the top of Mt. Fuji, at 12,389 ft. And they don’t just sell water, tea and coffee, hot or cold depending on the season or candy; they also sell food, newspapers, umbrellas, flowers, cigarettes, sacks of rice, toys, charms and talismans, fresh fruit and pretty much anything else.
The Japanese word for them is “jidou-hanbaiki” (自動販売機) or more simply “hanbaiki” (販売機) or “jihanki” (自販機): automatic selling machine. Like many things they weren’t invented by the Japanese (the first one was made by Heron of Alexandria in the first century AD) but like many things the Japanese took them, developed them and turned them into an obsession –to the extent that they are now one of the most recognizable images of their country. They are rarely found alone –mostly they are installed in pairs, threes or fives- and they are always filled and in good repair; even the ones you come across in deserted areas, left in the middle of a country road, next to a gas station closed for years are still functioning flawlessly, with no broken displays or graffiti, always ready to offer their goods to passersby.
Colorful and lit twenty four hours a day, vending machines give life to the streets, indicating that even when there are no people around, some services never stop, they are always available and in the most effective way; this in a country where the service industry works with an almost unreal precision. Most people, when they think of a combination of the words “Japan” and “technology”, they think of robots, cars, the electronics industry or the countless automations but the jihanki are something much more ordinary and basic –almost primordial. They are the technology you don’t even think about, the artificial version of a fountain where you will drink some water before you go on your way; in a place where everyone is constantly moving, they are an indispensable break, a reminder that you occasionally need to stop.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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