PHOTO: The Japan News/Asia News Network
MIYAZAKI - Vending machines aren't just for buying drinks.
Nowadays, specialised versions are popping up to sell unique products such as desserts and sports paraphernalia.
These machines have even managed to thrive as convenience stores, which sell a wide variety of goods, have seemingly appeared on every corner.
Upon hearing that Miyazaki has a number of unique vending machines, I set out for the city to explore them.
Kisakihama beach, south of central Miyazaki, is a popular surfing spot.
Along a nearby main road, you can find a vending machine bearing the images of a blue sky and a red surfboard.
The machine sells wax, screwdrivers and screws.
These items, which sell for ¥300 (S$3.80) to ¥1,000, come in plastic containers.
I couldn't tell what they were, at first glance.
Kazunori Fukushima eats a bowl of udon in front of the vending machine he bought it from in Minamisatsuma, Kagoshima Prefecture.
"These are all indispensable to surfers for things like adjusting boards," said Yuichi Ikeda, who set up the machine in front of his New Wave shop in February.
The machine is for surfers who arrive before the shop opens at 10 a.m. but have forgotten to bring important gear.
Having surfed for 24 years, Ikeda said he has experienced such frustrations.
Takahiro Itai, a company employee from the town of Aya in Miyazaki Prefecture, said he used the machine after running out of wax early one Sunday morning.
"I don't have time to buy stuff on weekdays, so it's very convenient," he said.
"I think many surfers find it useful."
I next headed to JR Miyazaki Station to visit a machine selling seven varieties of crepes.
As I excitedly checked out the lineup, I was joined by a boy in school uniform.
"Wow, there's still a lot today," he joyfully said, adding that he regularly visits the machine to check for new offerings.
Each variety sells for ¥200.
On this day, the boy pushed the button for fresh strawberries and condensed milk.
Out popped a container with his choice of crepe inside.
The crepes are made by Yukari Sakoda from Ebino in the prefecture.
She operates similar vending machines at three other locations in Miyazaki and one in Kobayashi in the prefecture, changing their contents every two days.
Sakoda used to sell crepes by mobile catering, but switched to vending machines about nine years ago because they "make it easier for many people to eat crepes whenever they want," she said.
I eventually decided on two varieties: chocolate and banana, and kinako soybean flour and mochi.
The cold crepes had a pleasantly firm texture, while the mix of fresh cream, kinako mochi and banana created a harmony that was much more delicious than I expected.
The Ota district of Miyazaki operates a vending machine that sells amulets next to a small unmanned temple called Ota Kanzeon.
Managed by locals for generations, the temple offers amulets that are popular among expecting parents seeking the blessing of Kanzeon, believed to be a deity of safe birth. A local resident once sold them from home, but eventually had to quit due to old age.
Locals discussed alternative ways to sell the amulets and settled on installing the machine.
Each one is purified in the traditional way and contained in a box.
They are priced at ¥500 each, and about 130 are sold a year.
"We grew up watching our parents honour local traditions," community leader Eitaro Shimizu said.
"We can't let them fade in our generation."
Appetite for nostalgia takes hold
MINAMISATSUMA, Kagoshima - Just insert ¥350, press a button and wait 25 seconds.
That's all it takes for an old vending machine to serve a bowl of steaming udon with tempura.
On a winter day, company employee Kazunori Fukushima drove a full four hours from his home in Miyazaki to Minamisatsuma, Kagoshima Prefecture, to visit a vending machine serving bowls of udon and soba.
It was his second time buying noodles from what he said is the only vending machine of its kind still operating in the Kyushu region.
"I came to enjoy a feeling I can only experience here," Fukushima said as he slurped the udon.
"It's worth driving a long way."
Udon and soba vending machines that were manufactured decades ago have received renewed attention for their old-fashioned feel and the nostalgic flavor of the noodles, although more and more have been suspending operations as convenience stores multiply.
The vending machine in Minamisatsuma was installed by local noodle manufacturer Akune Shoten about 40 years ago as a direct sales channel.
The machine became especially popular among night fishermen who had no other nearby dining options late at night.
According to Yusuke Uotani, who promotes food vending machines on the internet, such devices were installed across Japan beginning in the 1970s.
Thousands of similar machines once operated at drive-ins and other places, but their number has decreased in the face of more round-the-clock shops.
Just over 100 such vending machines remain in operation nationwide, according to Uotani.
The renewed interest in vintage machines is believed to have started when an NHK documentary featured one in Akita Prefecture in March 2015.
Uotani says his website has been getting more views, and more people have been posting videos on social media showing themselves buying noodles at machines nationwide.
The machine in Minamisatsuma used to sell 50 bowls at most per day, but the number has now increased to 70 to 80.
Some fans visit the machine all the way from the Kanto and Tohoku regions, according to the operator.