If you’ve ever been to Japan, then you will know that there are vending machines everywhere. Seriously, in bigger cities, you can’t walk 20 meters without spotting a vending machine that sells various drinks. Hot and cold, Tea and coffee, lemonade, coke, energy drinks, sometimes even alcohol like beer, wine or sake, there is almost no drink that you will not be able to find in a vending machine somewhere. You can find them in malls, train stations and other public places, but also often in residential areas, just along the street, in house foyers, almost everywhere you go you will be greeted by the familiar hum and glow. As you leave the city, there will be fewer machines, but even in the countryside, you will still be able to find lots of them all over the place. Due to the sheer number of machines, there are also many variations. From modern ones, that accept cashless payment via your smartphone, to older ones that will not even accept paper money, only coins. As to why these drink vending machines are so ubiquitous, it is hard to say. Japan can be pretty hot and humid in Summer, so it is important to stay hydrated and they often sell isotonic drinks in summer. But then, you could simply walk to the convenience store that is just a further 30 meters down the road. Another reason I’ve heard mentioned, especially by older folks from the countryside, is that they are good for public safety because they emit light and make it harder for criminals to use the darkness to be criminal. Japan is a pretty safe country, and considering that there are lots of vending machines, there just might be some connection there. Maybe other countries could follow suit and replace their police force with vending machines. They are also less likely to shoot someone.
But back to the topic of vending machines. While there are all sorts of different machines, selling goods like the aforementioned drinks and alcohol, soup, snacks, cigarettes and kid’s toys, there are also more obscure ones, selling adult goods or even (allegedly) used underwear. Another common type is found in restaurants, where you choose what you want to eat at the machine, pay upfront and then simply hand the slip of paper that you receive to the staff and they will prepare what you ordered. These machines are commonly found in ramen shops, but also other restaurants and fast-food chains. While there are modern machines with a touchscreen that shows you exactly what you ordered and might even have an English menu option, the ones that you will find in ramen shops are usually more akin to the picture on the right, and can be hard to navigate if you are not used to them.
Getting your ramen-ticket
I greatly prefer ramen from a mom-and-pop style restaurant, so I will use this opportunity to tell you all about these machines. Usually, the menu options will only be written in Japanese and there will be no pictures. The upper section usually contains buttons for the different kinds of ramen soup that you can order, while the lower section is reserved for toppings and extras, such as eggs, rice or fried dumplings (Gyoza). Another quirk of these machines is, that they often only accept coins or 1000 Yen bills, so if you only have a 5000 or 10,000 Yen bill, you have to ask the staff to change it for you (just walk up to the counter and say 両替ください, ryougae kudasai, please exchange money for me). Many machines will not automatically return your change, so after you have ordered something and received your paper slip （食券, shokken, meal ticket）, make sure to look for a button that says おつり (otsuri, change), and crank/push it to receive your change, otherwise, the person behind you will probably notify you that you’ve forgotten your change. Then, simply take a seat at the counter and hand your paper slip to the staff. Sometimes they might ask you questions, like what kind of noodles do you want, if you want them hard or soft, or other things. But if they notice that you do not speak Japanese, they will probably just prepare it like they think you might like it.
And that’s it! At first, it can be a bit daunting to walk into a mom-and-pop style ramen shop but trust me, the ramen here tastes so much better than in the tourist-friendly chain stores that it is worth it. Sometimes you might make a mistake and get something different from what you wanted to eat, but in that case, just treat it as an experience and try again another time. Enjoy ramen (and all the other various things that Japanese vending machines have in store)!