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Saturday, April 15, 2006


More than just a fair-weather friend

I've finally figured out why there are over 2.6 million beverage vending machines in Japan -- companionship.

News photo
Cozy up to the warmth of a vending machine when loneliness hits.

Think about it. Have you ever noticed how Japanese people stand next to vending machines in train stations for no apparent reason? Haven't you observed the curious Japanese habit of buying a drink, then standing next to the machine to drink it?

Surely you've watched Japanese people sidle up to a vending machine and stare into the white light mesmerized, like a deer looking into headlights. Something is going on here!

This is unlike vending machines in the U.S., which you definitely wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. These machines are likely to steal your money. And if you're in a bad mood, you do not want one of these machines to know, as it will surely make matters worse by either refusing your perfectly good quarters, or by simply sitting there with a vacant expression and a tattered "Out of Order" sign taped to it.

But in Japan, vending machines hum to a different tune. Vending machines are the answer to "samishii," the Japanese version of loneliness.

This is why when you are driving on a dark back country road, just when you're thinking "It's really deserted out here, (so samishii!) a vending machine -- with a very long cord -- will appear on the curb between two rice fields.

If you happen to be hiking Mt. Fuji alone, never fear! There are plenty of vending machines along the hiking path. These machines are there to make Japanese people feel they are not alone. A vending machine is with them.

Like Tom Hanks had beach volleyball "Wilson" in the movie "Castaway," Japanese will not be samishii as long as they have their vending machines. I bet every Japanese person has a favorite vending machine, or at least one they frequent more often than others.

It's not surprising that people return again and again to vending machines because the average beverage machine offers a variety of feelings: hot and cold, sweet and bitter, or the promise of a caffeine high or a warm tummy.

Vending machines provide a hum of companionship during the day, while at night, they offer a quiet but reassuring glow of safety. When you're thirsty and tired from a day of work, they are a light at the end of the tunnel. Vending machines understand us.

Vending machines assure us we will never dehydrate, go thirsty nor die during a drought. Their liquids will provide us with life support.

What else can quench your thirst when it's hot outside, and warm your hands when it's cold? Like a calendar, vending machines remind us of the change of seasons when the machines' selections are changed from cold to hot drinks in the autumn and from hot to cold drinks in the spring.

Like true friends, they exchange favors: You need refreshment, the machine needs money. You need change for the laundromat? The vending machine will break your 1,000 yen note. Like gifts, drinks are bought from vending machines and given to friends.

And now, drink machines are even looking after our health. With an array of energy drinks to choose from, we are reminded to get our daily allowance of iron, to replace our amino acids, to increase our fiber intake. How about an energy drink to help cure your hangover? Need a little more vitamin C? Got milk?

Since when has anyone been so concerned about your health? And with the growing number of talking vending machines, isn't it nice to get a little recognition, a little "Thank you for your purchase?" You bet it is.

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