(CNN) — There’s a reason Sagamihara, Japan isn’t in guidebooks. It’s a sprawling commuter town for nearby Yokohama and Tokyo; a mix of high streets, light industrial areas and quiet towns through which people walk rather than stop.
A 30-minute bus ride from Sagami-Ono Station and tucked away down a main street is the Tatsuhiro Saito Used Tire Shop, an unexpected and remarkable destination for those wanting a taste of Japan’s recent past – from around 70 tires restored and in service Food vending machines from the Showa era (1926–1989).
Japan has long had a fondness for vending machines, with more per capita than any other country. While some rare specimens in parts of Tokyo dispense curios like jewelry and collectible toys, most (more than half of the four million machines currently working in Japan) dispense drinks.
Saito’s collection of vintage machines — commonly referred to as “natsukashii,” or nostalgic in Japanese — is a rare treat.
Displayed along two covered walkways adjacent to the dusty parking lot, most date from the 1970s and 1980s. Sweets and snacks that were common decades ago are available and are often greeted with coos of delight from visitors. If that doesn’t invoke nostalgic feelings, there are retro toys, Kodak films, AA batteries, and even some slot machines.
A meal from a machine
It’s the models serving hot food that draw hundreds of people every weekend.
For just 280 yen ($2), hamburgers — classic or teriyaki-flavored — come in cheerful, bright yellow boxes from machines that date back to the mid-’80s. Almost piping hot cha sui ramen, just 400 yen ($3) for a serving, is served in rickety plastic bowls in just 25 seconds.
A visitor checks the offer at a pasta machine.
Other machines dispense hot Japanese-style curryroux over large rice bowls; a pleasant red digital countdown that lets customers know how long they have to wait before they can consume.
The “American Popcorn” machine hums and whirrs to happy tunes.
Thirsty visitors will have to make an effort at a couple of charming but clunky old-school Coca-Cola machines to part with their classic glass bottle drinks, which cost 100 yen (75 cents) each.
The unique designs and artwork of the machines are as much of an attraction to many visitors as the food and drink itself.
Goro Seto, head of the Kanagawa Vespa Club, is old enough to remember some machines from their heyday. He recently added it as a pit stop for his group’s latest ride after watching YouTube videos about Saito and his collection.
Other visitors are more interested in the mechanics. A local couple who are regulars at the site return regularly to see what new machine Saito is adding to the collection. They claim that the Sharp-made “Noodle Shop” ramen machine is the best because they made the dispensing hatch larger and the food isn’t boiling hot when served.
A number of vending machines sell sodas and coffee.
Behind the mystic
Saito, 50, says he didn’t expect to start a business around his love of vending machines and their inner workings.
Realizing that these types of machines from his childhood were becoming increasingly rare in Japan, he saw it as a challenge to either restore or maintain them. He usually bought the machines through online auctions or found them through word of mouth.
Since 2016, automated collection has become more time-consuming than the tire fitting business.
Today, Saito employs almost as many people working in the kitchen and filling up the machines as he needs to change tires.
Saito poses in front of two of his vending machines.
Spoiler alert: for those who are under the illusion that the machines are so high-tech that they prepared and cooked all of the food they served – they don’t.
While the hamburgers are made specifically for Saito from the original recipe by a caterer in Ebina (if you want to know the ingredients, you probably shouldn’t be eating them), almost all other meals are — toasted sandwiches, udon, curry, soba, rice, and green tea -Salmon Ochazuke – Prepared in on-site kitchens.
Saito and his employees have to fill up the machines every day, sometimes even several times a day on weekends.
Food safety laws require anyone in Japan who owns a hot food vending machine to be licensed and maintain hygiene standards similar to those in restaurants.
According to the Japan Vending Systems Manufacturers Association, vending machines in Japan peaked in 1985 when there were 250,000 nationwide. In December 2021 it had fallen to 72,800. This figure includes frozen foods like ice cream and candy, so hot food machines are few.
It’s not all bad news, however.
Some machines have experienced something of a mini-revival over the past two years, partly prompted by the impact of the pandemic on restaurant opening hours. For example, frozen ramen machines have sprung up outside Tokyo restaurants in the last year.
For now, though, it seems it’s up to Saito and other mechanically-minded enthusiasts to keep the Showa-era flavors and memories alive.