Unlike most other countries, Japan is dotted with thousands of vending machines that allow consumers to buy a wide range of products at any time of the day or night, eliminating the need for inconvenient trips to the store.

These days, you can get practically anything out of them: alcohol, soft drinks, cigarettes, instant noodles, “natto” (fermented soybeans) or even underwear. And the machines themselves are becoming ever more sophisticated as they are transformed by state-of-the-art technologies.

Following are some questions and answers about vending machines:

When was the first vending machine invented?

According to the Japan Soft Drink Association, the genesis of the vending machine goes back more than 2,000 years, to devices in Egyptian temples that dispensed water at the drop of a coin.

In Britain in the late 19th century, machines were developed to sell beverages, candy, food, tickets and cigarettes.

In Japan, the first vending machine, a device invented by Koshichi Tawaraya to sell tobacco, appeared in 1888.

The oldest surviving machine, also made by Tawaraya, is a wood-frame contraption that sold postage stamps and postcards and even doubled as a mailbox.

But it wasn’t until 1962 that the vending machine really took off in Japan, as major American beverage manufacturers brought them in to boost sales, according to the association.

How many vending machines are there?

There are fewer here than in the United States or Europe, but the per capita rate in Japan is one of the highest in the world.

According to the association, the U.S. has around 5.5 million machines, Europe around 3.8 million, and Japan about 2.8 million.

However, in terms of sales, Japan outstrips even the U.S. — ¥6.8 trillion to ¥5.5 trillion — according to the association.

One reason is innovative technology: The same machine here can store both hot and cold drinks, which contributes to stable year-round sales, the industry group said.

“Vending machine penetration is a reflection of domestic peace, safety and economic stability, such as no soaring inflation,” the association boasts.

What can be purchased from vending machines?

An astonishing variety of items are available.

Most common, of course, are soft drinks, beer and cigarettes. You might also find instant noodles, popcorn and sweets. If you’re lucky you might even find a machine serving “oden,” a Japanese stew.

Caught in a downpour, or need a quick gift? Umbrellas and flowers can also be found in machines.

Machines that sell books and newspapers are also popular with commuters.

What other roles do vending machines play?

They are a convenient way of fixing your location. Most have stickers that display the address, which is particularly useful in emergencies, such as when the police or fire department need to be called in.

Some are even designed to provide information in the event of natural disasters. Their screens can issue warnings or evacuation instructions. Some will even dispense drinks for free.

Some machines help citizens contribute to society. Proceeds from some sales go to help wildlife preservation, forestation, child cancer patients or street children.

Other machines are equipped with defibrillators to assist rescuers of heart attack victims.

How can visitors to Japan purchase cigarettes from machines?

With the introduction this year of the taspo card, which has an IC chip that verifies age, it is no longer possible to buy cigarettes from a machine with money alone. Card application forms are available at tobacco shops, from the machines or from the taspo Web site: www.taspo.jp. The site has detailed instructions in Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and Russian.

The cards are free and are valid for 10 years.

How might vending machines evolve in the future?

Vending machines will likely become interactive, the association said, even to the point of recommending a drink that fits your mood.

Some may one day also be able to judge your health and offer a suitable beverage, the association said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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