(CNN) – There’s a reason Sagamihara, Japan, isn’t in the travel guides. It is a popular commuter town for nearby Yokohama and Tokyo; a mix of main roads, light industrial estates and quiet towns that people pass through rather than stop.
However, a 30-minute bus ride from Sagami-Ono station and tucked behind a main road lies Tatsuhiro Saito’s used tire shop, an unexpected and unusual destination for those looking for a taste of Japan’s recent past. Japan — distributed by about 70 restored and worked. food vending machine from the Showa era (1926–1989).
Japan has long had a thing for vending machines, with more per capita than any other country. While a few rare examples in parts of Tokyo dispense curiosities such as jewelry and collectible toys, most (more than half of the four million cars currently operating in Japan) dispense beverages.
Saito’s collection of vintage machines—commonly referred to in Japanese as “natsukashii,” or nostalgic—are a rare treat.
Most displayed along the two covered walkways near the dusty parking lot date from the 1970s and 1980s. Sweets and snacks that were common decades ago are available and often greeted with delight by visitors. If that doesn’t trigger a fond nostalgic feeling, there are retro toys, Kodak camera film, AA batteries and even a few arcade machines.
A meal from a car
It is the models serving hot food that attract hundreds of people every weekend.
For just 280 yen ($2), the burgers — in classic or teriyaki flavors — roll out of machines dating back to the mid-’80s in cheerful, bright yellow boxes. Almost scalding cha sui ramen, just 400 yen ($3) a serving, is served in wobbly plastic bowls in just 25 seconds.
A visitor checks out the options at a noodle vending machine.
Other machines dispense hot Japanese-style curry roux over large bowls of rice; a nice red digital countdown informing customers how long they have to wait before they can get inside.
The “American Popcorn” machine beeps and beeps to some hilarious tunes.
Thirsty visitors should flex some muscle in some charming but clumsy vintage Coca-Cola machines to part with their classic glass-bottled drinks, each 100 yen (75 cents).
Finding a follower
The unique designs and artwork of the machines are as much 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 cars from their heyday. He recently added it as a stop for his group’s latest road trip after watching YouTube videos about Saito and his collection.
Other visitors are more into mechanics. A local couple who are regulars at the site return regularly to see what new machine Saito adds to the collection. They claim that the ‘Noodle Shop’ ramen machine made by Sharp is the best because it made the dispensing hatch larger and the food is not hot when served.
A variety of beverage machines sell sodas and coffee.
After the mystique
Saito, 50, says he never expected to start a business around his love of vending machines and their inner workings.
He realized that those kinds of machines from his childhood were becoming a rarer sight 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, the car collection has taken up more time than the tire fitting business.
Now, Saito employs almost as many people to work in the kitchens and keep the machines stocked as he does to change tires.
Saito poses in front of his two 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 burgers are made especially for Saito from an original recipe from a caterer in Ebina (if you want to know the ingredients, you probably shouldn’t eat them), almost all the other meals — toasted sandwiches, udon, curry, soba, salmon ochazuke rice and green tea — made in on-site kitchens.
Saito and his staff have to refill the machines every day, and sometimes several times a day on weekends.
Food safety laws require anyone in Japan who owns a hot food vending machine to have an appropriate license and maintain sanitary 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 fell to 72,800. This number includes frozen foods such as ice cream and cakes, so hot food machines are few and far between.
However, it is not all bad news.
Some cars have enjoyed something of a minor resurgence in the past two years, driven 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, though, it looks like it will be left to Saito and other mechanically minded enthusiasts to keep the flavors and memories of the Showa era alive.