This small Japanese town is a paradise for vintage slot machines

Editor’s note — Monthly Ticket is a CNN travel series that focuses on some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In August, we’re going back in time to revisit some of the greatest vintage travel experiences.

(CNN) – There’s a reason Sagamihara, Japan isn’t in the guidebooks. It’s a sprawling city for trips to nearby Yokohama and Tokyo; a mix of main roads, light industrial areas and quiet towns that people pass through instead of stopping.

However, a 30-minute bus ride from Sagami-Ono Station and tucked behind a main road is Tatsuhiro Saito’s Used Tire Shop, an unexpected and notable destination for those seeking a taste of Japan’s recent past – separated from some 70 restored and working Showa era (1926–1989) food vending machines.

Japan has long been addicted to vending machines, with more per capita than any other country. While some rare examples in parts of Tokyo dispense curiosities such as jewelry and collectible toys, most (more than half of the four million machines currently operating in Japan) dispense drinks.

Saito’s collection of vintage machines – commonly referred to in Japanese as “natsukashii” or nostalgic – are a rare treat.

Most displayed along two covered walkways next to the dusty parking lot are from the 1970s and 1980s. Sweets and snacks that were common decades ago are available and are often met with happy coos from patrons. If that doesn’t evoke a nice nostalgic feeling, there are vintage toys, Kodak camera film, AA batteries and even some arcade machines.

Feeding from a machine

It is the models serving hot food that attract hundreds of people every weekend.

For just ¥280 ($2), burgers — classic or teriyaki-flavored — pop out of machines that date back to the mid-1980s in cheery, bright yellow boxes. Almost scalding hot cha sui ramen, just ¥400 ($3) per serving, is served in wobbly plastic bowls in just 25 seconds.

A visitor checks out the options at a noodle vending machine.

Dean Irvine

Other machines dispense hot Japanese-style curry over large bowls of rice; a nice red digital countdown informing customers how long they have to wait before they can tuck in.

The “American Popcorn” machine rattles and hums to some cheerful tunes.

Thirsty patrons must apply some muscle to a few charming but clunky vintage Coca-Cola machines to part with their classic drinks in glass bottles, which cost ¥100 (75 cents) each.

Find a follower

The unique design and artwork of the machines are an attraction for many visitors, as is the food and drink itself.

Goro Seto, head of the Kanagawa Vespa Club, is old enough to remember some of the machines from their heyday. He recently added it as a stop for his group’s latest ride after watching YouTube videos about Saito and his collection.

Other visitors are more interested in the mechanics. A local couple who visit the site regularly return regularly to see what new machine Saito adds to the collection. They claim that Sharp’s “Noodle Shop” ramen machine is the best because it made the feeding hatch bigger and the food is not hot when served.

Gamma drink machines sell sodas and coffee.

Gamma drink machines sell sodas and coffee.

Dean Irvine

Some visitors have taken their enthusiasm even further. Yusuke Watani has published books on nostalgic vending machines and is on the way to regularly finding and reporting new finds through his website.
Another well-known destination for nostalgic vending machine enthusiasts is in Marumiya in rural Gunma Prefecture. It has a similar collection to Saito’s, but is less accessible than Tokyo.

Behind the mystique

Saito, 50, says he never expected to start a business around his love of vending machines and their inner workings.

He realized that these types of machines from his childhood were becoming a rarer sight in Japan and saw it as a challenge to restore or maintain them. He buys the machines mostly through online auctions or finds them through word of mouth.

As of 2016, the collection of vending machines takes longer than the tire fitting business.

Saito now employs almost as many people to work in the kitchens and maintain the machines as it does to change tires.

Saito poses in front of two of his automatons.

Saito poses in front of two of his automatons.

Dean Irvine

Spoiler alert: For those deluding themselves that the machines are so high-tech that they prepare and cook all the food they serve – they don’t.

While the burgers are made especially for Saito from an original recipe by a caterer in Ebina (if you want to know the ingredients, you probably shouldn’t eat them), almost all other dishes – toasted sandwiches, udon, curry, soba, rice and green tea salmon ochazuke – are made in the on-site kitchens.

Saito and his staff have to refill the machines daily, and sometimes several times a day on weekends.

Food safety laws require anyone in Japan who owns a hot food vending machine to be properly licensed and maintain sanitary standards, just like restaurants.

This is the main reason why vending machines were located near roadside cafes, and why, since the rise of convenience stores in Japan over the past 30 years, their number has dwindled.

Food vending machines in Japan peaked in 1985, when there were 250,000 nationwide, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association. As of December 2021, it has dropped to 72,800. This number includes frozen foods such as ice cream and pastries, so hot food machines are rare.

Not all news is bad, though.

Some machines have enjoyed something of a resurgence over the past two years, driven in part by the pandemic’s effect on restaurant hours. Frozen ramen machines, for example, have popped up outside restaurants in Tokyo in the past year.

For now, though, it looks like it will be left to Saito and other mechanically minded enthusiasts to keep the flavors and memories of the Showa era alive.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.