At slightly over 5 million nationwide, vending machines are everywhere in Japan.
They are on nearly every block in Tokyo and dotted across even the most spartan landscapes in the country's vast rural expanse.
Photographer Eiji Ohashi began documenting Japan's vending machines nearly a decade ago after getting caught in a blizzard in his native region of Hokkaido. He navigated home using only the lights from the vending machines, which are often placed on the roadside.
Since, he has come to see the vending machines as a symbol of modern Japan — full of convenience, safety, and loneliness.
There is approximately 1 vending machine per every 23 people in Japan, with annual sales totaling more than $60 billion.
They can be found just about everywhere: down alleyways, in front of convenience stores and road stops, and even in the remotest places.
The vending machines offer a wide variety of products from expected fare like soft drinks and coffee to rice, batteries, junk food, noodles, and even glasses.
Winter in Hokkaido, Ohashi's home, is long and brings 200 inches of snow per year. Snow inspired Ohashi's project.
Source: Current Results
"Snow looks so beautiful when it reflects the glow of a nearby vending machine," Ohashi said. "When I enter into this quiet world, where all sound is absorbed by the snow, I feel at peace."
Ohashi uses the vending machines and their locations to show the diversity of Japan's many regions and the contrast between Japan's urban future and its rural past.
Ohashi told Business Insider that the prevalence of so many vending machines in even remote places is "evidence of how safe a country Japan is." Vandalism, property crime, and robberies are exceptionally rare in Japan.
Ohashi said that his friends and family will frequently tip him off when they see a new vending machine that he should photograph. He also uses Google Street View to locate the most remote machines.
Street-side vending machines like these in Otaru, a small seaside town, would be unthinkable in the US due to fears of property crime and vandalism.
Traditionally, rural areas often have wooden stalls where farmers leave fruit and vegetables for passersby to purchase by leaving the correct change. The vending machines are just a new version of that tradition.
Some economists have speculated that vending machines are so prevalent because the country's declining birthrate, aging population, and lack of immigration has made labor both scarce and costly.
Japan is one of the most population-dense countries in the world. The population density has led to high real estate prices, meaning that most Japanese people don’t have a lot of room to store consumer goods.
Though 93% of the Japanese population lives in cities, that hasn't stopped companies from placing vending machines in small towns like Tōbetsu.
Japanese companies would rather stick a vending machine on a street than open up a retail store, because the machines generate more revenue for each square meter of land.
Ohashi suggested the vending machines show that Japanese people place "a high value on convenience in everyday life."
Journalist Tsutomu Washizu, who has written a book on the history of vending machines in Japan, has attributed Japan's fixation on automation and robots as the main reason for their popularity.
"Life in Japan has become extremely convenient, but still there seems no end to the pursuit of greater comfort," Ohashi told The Japan Time in July. People should stop pursuing convenience, he said, and instead pursue "the true essence of happiness."
Source: The Japan Times