(CNN) — There’s a reason Sagamihara, Japan isn’t listed in travel guides. It’s a sprawling suburban city for nearby Yokohama and Tokyo; a mix of main roads, light industrial areas and quiet towns that people drive through rather than stopping at.
However, a 30-minute bus ride from Sagami-Ono Station and tucked behind a main road is Tatsuhiro Saito’s second-hand tire shop, an unexpected and remarkable destination for those looking for a taste of the recent past of the Japan – exonerated from about 70 restored and in working order. Showa era food vending machines (1926–1989).
Japan has long had a soft spot for vending machines, with more per capita than any other country. While a few rare examples in parts of Tokyo dispense trinkets like jewelry and collectible toys, most (more than half of the four million machines currently operating in Japan) dispense drinks.
Saito’s collection of vintage machines – commonly referred to in Japanese as “natsukashii” or nostalgic – is a rare treat.
The majority on display along two covered walkways beside the dusty parking lot date from the 1970s and 1980s. Sweets and snacks that were commonplace decades ago are available and often welcomed by visitors. If that doesn’t spark a nostalgic feeling, there are retro toys, Kodak camera film, AA batteries, and even arcade machines.
A meal from a machine
It’s the hot food models that attract hundreds of people every weekend.
For just 280 yen ($2), the burgers — classic or teriyaki flavor — roll out of machines that date back to the mid-’80s in cheerful, bright yellow boxes. Hot, almost searing cha sui ramen, at just 400 yen ($3) for a serving, are served in wonky plastic bowls in just 25 seconds.
A visitor checks options on a noodle vending machine.
Other machines dispense hot Japanese-style curry roux over large bowls of rice; a pleasant red digital countdown informing customers how long they have to wait before they can return.
The “American popcorn” machine rings and hums to playful tunes.
Thirsty visitors must apply some muscle to a few charming but clumsy vintage Coca-Cola machines to part with their classic glass-bottled drinks, each for 100 yen (75 cents).
Find a suite
The unique designs and illustrations of the machines are an attraction for many visitors as much as the food and drink itself.
Goro Seto, head of the Kanagawa Vespa Club, is old enough to remember some of the machines from their heyday. He recently added it as a pit stop for his group’s final race after watching YouTube videos about Saito and his collection.
Other visitors are more into mechanics. A local couple, regulars at the site, return regularly to see what new machine Saito is adding to the collection. They claim that the “Noodle Shop” ramen machine made by Sharp is the best because it has enlarged the dispensing hatch and the food is not hot when served.
A range of beverage vending machines sell sodas and coffee.
behind the mystery
Saito, 50, says he never expected to start a business around his love of vending machines and their inner workings.
He realized that these types of machines from his childhood were becoming increasingly rare in Japan and saw it as a challenge to restore or maintain them. He mostly bought the machines through online auctions or found them through word of mouth.
Since 2016, vending machine collection has become more time-consuming than the tire fitting business.
Today, Saito employs almost as many people to work in the kitchens and supply the machines as to change the tires.
Saito poses in front of two of his vending machines.
Spoiler alert: For those under the illusion that the machines were so high-tech that they prepped and cooked all the food they served, that’s not the case.
While the burgers are prepared especially for Saito from the original recipe of a food supplier in Ebina (if you want to know the ingredients, you probably shouldn’t eat them), almost all other meals — grilled sandwiches , udon, curry, soba, rice and salmon ochazuke with green tea – are prepared in the kitchens of the site.
Saito and his staff have to restock the machines daily, and sometimes several times a day on weekends.
Food safety laws require anyone in Japan who owns a hot food vending machine to hold an appropriate license and adhere to hygiene standards, similar to those in restaurants.
Food vending machines in Japan reached their peak in 1985, when there were 250,000 across the country, according to the Japan Vending Systems Manufacturers Association. By December 2021, it had fallen to 72,800. This number includes frozen foods like ice cream and sweets, so hot food machines are rare.
However, it’s not all bad news.
Some machines have seen something of a mini-renaissance over the past couple of years, triggered in part by the pandemic’s effect on restaurant hours. Frozen ramen machines, for example, have been popping up outside restaurants in Tokyo over the past year.
For now, however, it looks like it will be up to Saito and other mechanical enthusiasts to keep the flavors and memories of the Showa era alive.