Retro vending machines fill bellies, warm hearts

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The vending machine section of Chuko Tire Ichiba Sagamiharaten is crowded with many people in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Dec. 19. The ¥300 tenpura udon or soba are among the most popular items.

Fancy some hot noodle soup? There’s a choice of hot and fresh udon, soba and ramen. Maybe a hamburger? There’s even toast, or a nice serving of ochazuke, a bowl of rice in tea or soup. Not to mention chewing gum, fortune telling slips and Coke in glass bottles.

Lines of retro vending machines are providing such eclectic items at an unusual location on the outskirts of Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture.

The restored machines sit next to the lot of Chuko Tire Ichiba Sagamiharaten, a company that sells used tires and wheels. Company president Tatsuhiro Saito, 49, installed the machines to give customers a way to pass the time while waiting for their tires to be changed.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People eat and drink items bought from the old vending machines.

Saito started four or five years ago with five or so machines and, after they proved surprisingly popular with customers, he continually added more through online auctions and other outlets, eventually building the current lineup of about 100.

Many of the vending machines are 30 to 40 years old, making them feel like old acquaintances to people who grew up during the Showa era (1926-1989). But they also came with no instruction manuals and many were not in operating condition when he bought them, so Saito himself had to do repairs such as parts replacement and rewiring.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Chuko Tire Ichiba Sagamiharaten President Tatsuhiro Saito prepares an old vending machine for use.

Another problem was procuring the items to be sold. Saito found a vendor in Okinawa Prefecture that produces curry for use in vending machines, and had to place a special order to get hamburgers with the right retro taste and wrapper. A staff of four prepare bread, half-cooked noodles and other items on the premises before they are loaded into the machines.

Saito estimates the machines draw between 300 to 400 customers a day on weekdays, and about 1,000 on weekends. At their peak, staff will prepare as many as 600 meals in one day, but many items still sell out.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The stocking of the machines also draws a crowd of intrigued customers.

“I drove 40 minutes and brought my three children born in the Heisei era (1989 – 2019) just to eat something here,” said a 38 year-old woman from Hachioji, Tokyo, who runs a construction business and was born in the Showa era. It was her fourth trip to the retro machines.

“They beg me to bring them and we come every three months or so. They never saw ramen or udon coming out of a vending machine while growing up. I fondly remember such machines, but the kids seem to be intrigued that delicious meals come out of a machine, and it seems really fun for them.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A part of the old-fashioned vending machines at Chuko Tire Ichiba Sagamiharaten

Nowadays, Saito either repairs the machines or replaces them with “new” old ones. He says he makes use of the skills and tools with which he conducts his main business of repairing wheels and tires.

“Each old vending machine has its own unique design and mechanism, and it’s part of the appeal that in this digital age, we can buy hot food 24 hours a day from an analog machine,” Saito said. “I fix them while feeling the creative spirit of the Showa era.”

By the way, the tire and wheel business is also doing well.