It’s certainly true that you can buy all sorts of things in these machines (rice, toilet paper, kid’s toys, beetles) but the most common item dispensed is some sort of drink.
Big deal, you say; there are soft drink machines all over the world. Yes, but the Japanese definition of “all over” is just a little more “all over” than you can imagine.
Commensurate with the country’s extraordinary population density, the vending machine count is staggering; “5,582,200 vending machines in Japan, or one machine for every 23 people” according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturer’s Association. Because the petty crime/vandalism rate is so low, you will see machines in the diciest neighborhoods and out in the middle of nowhere on the highway, just plugged in and glowing at night like a thirst-quenching beacon, without any burglar bars, either.
This means that no matter how dried-out and miserable, you are usually only a block or two away from cold tea (green or oolong,) coffee, soda, water and sometimes fruit juices or beer. What a country. Prices for the non-alcoholic items range from about 120 to 150 yen (a little over a dollar US or about .90 Euro cents, and some take credit cards) and you’re satiated.
Under each row of lighted display cans/bottles in the front is a blue or red bar — blue for chilled and red for heated. They are swapped out seasonally, so there are more chilled items in summer than heated, but there are always some of each. (In winter, I highly recommend popping one hot can of coffee or tea into each jacket pocket for the snuggly effect before you drink them.)
I am more of a coffee than tea drinker, and my favorite is the Georgia brand (owned by Coca-Cola.) Pretty soon I learned that the light brown can is coffee with sugar and cream; just right for Goldilocks. Suntory makes “Boss” coffee for the machines but I didn’t like it as well — it has a logo with a Titan of Industry man’s head smoking a pipe, a very Old School boss. There’s another brand that has a Starbucks-ish green logo.
Sports drinks include the famous Pocari Sweat, which is basically like Gatorade, and Calpis (known as “cow piss” amongst some expats.) My favorite water bottle has a nice Mt. Fuji drawing on the label.
One summer, the Dr Pepper cans had a really neat manga character on them; I enjoyed the dissonance of drinking my favorite Texas soda while strolling the tiny streets in Asakusa.
Thank you, Japanese civility and low crime rate, for quenching traveler thirst.