In Photos: Japan’s Greatest Overlooked Urban Design Feature

From black-bean soda to underwear, photographer Eiji Ohashi captures the millions of vending machines that are a fixture of cities and towns across Japan.

Japanese vending machines are magical dispensers of useful, wonderfully weird, and sometimes disturbing objects. From beverages of every imaginable flavor (pancake soda!), eggs, and neck ties, to croque monsieurs, fresh produce, and umbrellas, these colorful boxes are staples of the built environment across the entire country. They’re so numerous and brightly lit that Hokkaido-based photographer Eiji Ohashi refers to them as Roadside Lights in his beautiful and sometimes eerie photo essay on these dispensers of everything.


Ohashi told Co.Design that he focuses on vending machines because they are an intrinsic part of Japanese culture and its obsession with convenience–according to him, they’re part of an urban landscape that is shaped by that convenience: “In Japan, vending machines are everywhere. Japanese people love convenience so much that they place them everywhere in the city landscape. When we make a city, convenience is given priority over design.”

Vending machine destroyed by the Great Tohuku Earthquake. Taro Miyako-city/Iwate. October 2011. From Roadside Lights 2011. [Photo: Eiji Ohashi]
Ohashi has photographed these coin-operated boxes under a number of circumstances. In his 2011 work Roadside Lights 2011, he captured them against the destruction caused by the Great Tohoku Earthquake–the seismic event that caused the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Other images are happier, like the ones set against Hokkaido’s deep snowfalls. Encrusted in ice and snow drifts, the machines look like strangely warm and happy beacons of coziness-to-go.

From the series Existence of. [Photo: Eiji Ohashi]
Still other times, the machines look like a refuge of single-serving civilization in the middle of nature’s harsh nothingness. But perhaps that feeling is illusory. As Ohashi told the Japan Times: “Life in Japan has become extremely convenient, but still there seems no end to the pursuit of greater comfort. That quest continues relentlessly, but we don’t need this degree of convenience in order to live. Rather, having achieved this level of comfort, we should now be asking what is the true essence of happiness.” True. Perhaps he’d be able to find the essence of happiness if people could buy his work in a roadside vending machine, too. Ohashi will have a solo exhibit at Gallery &co119 in Paris, from December 7 to December 30.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.