(CNN) — There’s a reason Japan’s Sagamihara isn’t listed in travel guides. It is a great commuter town for nearby Yokohama and Tokyo. a mix of main roads, light industrial areas and quiet towns that people pass through rather than stop at.
However, a 30-minute bus ride from Sagami-Ono Station and hidden behind a main road is Tatsuhiro Saito’s Used Tire Shop, an unexpected and remarkable destination for those looking for a taste of Japan’s recent past — which dispensed from approximately 70 restored and functional food vending machines from the Showa era (1926–1989).
Japan has long dabbled in vending machines, with more per capita than any other country. While some rare examples in parts of Tokyo dispense curiosities such as 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 displayed along two covered walkways adjacent to the dusty parking lot date from the 1970s and 80s. Sweets and snacks that were common decades ago are available and often greeted with delight by visitors. If that doesn’t evoke a nostalgic feeling, there are retro games, Kodak camera film, AA batteries and even a few arcade machines.
A meal from a machine
They are the models serving hot food that attract hundreds of people every weekend.
For just 280 yen ($2), hamburgers — classic or teriyaki flavor — come out of machines dating back to the mid-’80s in cheerful, bright yellow boxes. Almost scalding hot cha sui ramen, just 400 yen ($3) for a serving, is served in wobbly plastic bowls in just 25 seconds.
A visitor checks the options at a noodle vending machine.
Other machines dispense hot Japanese-style curry over large bowls of rice. a pleasing red digital countdown telling customers how long they have to wait before they can enter.
The “American Popcorn” machine shakes and spins over some cute songs.
Thirsty visitors have to muscle in on some charming but boring vintage Coca-Cola machines to dispense their classic drinks from a glass bottle, 100 yen (75 cents) each.
Finding a follower
The unique designs and artwork of the machines are as much of a draw for many visitors as the food and drinks themselves.
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 latest ride after seeing YouTube videos about Saito and his collection.
Other visitors are more concerned with mechanics. A local couple who are regulars at the location return regularly to see what new machine Saito adds to the collection. They claim that Sharp’s ‘Noodle Shop’ ramen machine is the best because it made the dispensing hatch bigger and the food doesn’t scald when served.
A range of drinks machines sell soft drinks 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 such machines from his childhood were becoming a rarer sight in Japan and saw it as a challenge to either restore or preserve them. He bought the machines mostly through online auctions or found them through word of mouth.
As of 2016, collecting vending machines has become more time-consuming than the tire fitting business.
Now, Saito employs almost as many people to work in the kitchens and keep the machines stocked as to change 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 prepared and cooked all the food they served — they don’t.
While the hamburgers are made especially for Saito from the original recipe by 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, salmon rice and green tea ochazuke — prepared in the hotel’s kitchens.
Saito and his staff have to refuel the machines every day, and sometimes several times a day on weekends.
Food safety laws require anyone in Japan with a hot food vending machine to be properly licensed and maintain hygiene standards similar to restaurants.
Food vending machines in Japan reached their peak in 1985, when there were 250,000 across the country, according to the Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association. As of December 2021, it has dropped to 72,800. This number includes frozen foods such as ice cream and sweets, so hot food machines are few.
However, it’s not all bad news.
Some machines have enjoyed something of a mini-revival over the past couple of years, sparked in part by the pandemic’s effect on restaurant hours. For example, frozen ramen machines have been popping up outside restaurants in Tokyo in the last year.
For now, though, it looks like it will be left to Saito and other engineering enthusiasts to keep the flavors and memories of the Showa era alive.