Vending Machine Culture and Green Tea Trend in Japan

July 23, 2017

Vending Machine Culture and Green Tea Trend in Japan

Japan loves its vending machines (known as jidōhanbaiki 自動販売機, or jihanki for short 自販機) and its green tea, so it's no wonder the combination of both is a hot trend across the country. The Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association notes that there is roughly one vending machine for every 23 people; this means there are more vending machines per capita in Japan than in any other country. Surprisingly, even Buddhist temples have vending machines that sell amulets.

Green tea, in its multitude of forms, is the most commonly sipped beverage in the country. Hot or cold, green tea fuels Japanese society in a number of ways, and one of the most popular means is through countless vending machines that stand like ready-to-serve sentinels throughout the country. In fact, vending machines that sell green tea, whether hot or cold, are located not only on nearly every street corner, but down alleyways, and in train stations too.

 Japanese Green Tea

 In a nation with an unquenchable thirst for green tea (ryokucha), the vending machine is a perfect partner for doling out Japan's most-consumed drink whether it's Sencha, Maccha/Matcha, Kukicha, or another iteration of green tea, it's a sure bet you will find your favorite combination at a vending machine regardless of whether you are visiting Tokyo, Osaka, or Sapporo. However, if you are in the mood for hot green tea, keep in mind you are more likely to find it in vending machines during the winter rather than the summer since the demand for hot tea changes according to the season.

The trend in readily available green tea from a myriad of vending machines all over Japan is a great fit for the country's busy society. It serves Japanese culture well because, as columnist Harrison Jacobs of Business Insider notes, it's common knowledge that Japan is famous for a hard-working society where jobs take up much of its time. Thus, the need for a quick, green tea pick-me-up means taking only a few moments to feed a yen note into a machine, grabbing your tea, and heading off to the next business meeting. This is preferable in Japan's busy society than lingering in a shop waiting for tea to be prepared.

Jacobs also mentions that Japanese culture is comfortable with automation and is usually on the cutting edge, developing evolved high-tech machines. This too fits with Japan's need for convenience and ease when it comes to products – especially its craving for green tea.

Green Tea Bottles

Massive consumption of green tea from vending machines spans the country as 2.5 billion green tea containers are sold in Japan every year. The Japan National Tourism Organization estimates those billions of containers means that Japan gulps down vending machine green tea to the tune of about 6.95 trillion yen annually, and most machines accommodate coins, bills, various yen notes, and IC cards, such as Suica, Kitaca, Icoca, and Pasmo, among others.

When it comes to grabbing a bottle or a can of green tea from a vending machine, people in Japan have a large selection to choose from. Different green tea drinks include Genmaicha (green tea with brown rice), Gyokuro, Hojicha (roasted green tea), Maccha (otherwise known as Matcha), Tencha, and Sencha, which is the most popular type of green tea in Japan. If there is a type of green tea that can be bottled or put into a can, you will find a machine that serves it.

Japan's Vending Machines not Only Deliver Green Tea, but Say “Thank You” in Japanese

Vending machine culture, and the green tea trend in Japan show no sign of slowing down. In fact, you can probably expect automated machines to become more high tech and consumer-friendly in the future. Not that they aren't already friendly to those who patronize them; after all, some jidōhanbaiki offer a spoken “thank you” once your order has been delivered. Politeness is a characteristic in Japanese culture, and manners even extend to vending machines! As Kontaku.com noted in an article, some jihanki (a shorter reference for vending machine) even update you on current events or the weather.

A History of Unmanned Sellers

Part of Japan’s history with jihanki has to do with the country’s post-World War II rebuilding efforts. Throughout the 1940s, jihanki gave Japanese consumers quick, easy access to the food goods they needed throughout their day and kept operating costs low for food sellers. A related tradition is the “unmanned seller,” which describes fruit and vegetable stands, often in the Japanese countryside, at which customers pay and pick their produce without interacting with a vendor. Low operating costs for food vendors helped consumers get more value for their food money.

Mujin Hanbaizyo

 

Low Crime Rate and Vending Machine

Japan’s low crime rate is another factor in its vending machine culture. Unmanned sellers were, and still are, unlikely to be stolen from. Likewise, Japanese citizens are quite unlikely to vandalize or attempt to rob jihanki.

Jihanki continued to gain popularity in the 1960s when Japan’s population expanded and its infrastructure grew. Access to vending machines became part of everyday life, and Japanese citizens became familiar and comfortable with jihanki, eventually growing to expect them. Because the vending machines are generally kept in good working order and are rarely vandalized, consumers trust that the food, cigarettes, and drinks offered by the machines are safe to consume. 

vending machine green tea

The Many Drink Makers

In addition, Japan is also home to a large number of soft drink manufacturers. Jihanki serve as point-of-purchase advertising for beverage companies like Asahi, Calpis, Ito En, Kirin, Pokka Sapporo, and Suntory. Each company crafts its vending machine to be eye-catching, and to be branded with the company’s unique visual language. Consumers just have to glance at the machine to know what kind of drinks to expect.

However, unlike in the United States where vending machines are associated with unhealthy drinks full of sugar, artificial colors, excessive sodium, and empty calories, jihanki tend to serve healthy beverages. Japanese consumers often choose healthy drinks such as water, mineral water, plum juice, coffee, and unsweetened green tea over sugar-laden sodas and energy drinks; of course, U.S.-based brands such as Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper, Minute Maid, and Fanta do also take a share of the Japanese vending machine market.

Green Tea Vending Machines

Some jihanki specialize in green tea; you can spot these by the tea theme of the machine, which might include the kanji character for “tea” written all over the outside of the vending machine. Japanese tea beverages are served unsweetened, and without sugar or sugar substitutes with the exception of black teas which are available from jihanki with sugar and milk, the way black tea is often served in Europe.

2.5 billion green tea cans are sold in Japan per year. Many brands, including Ooi Ocha (which translates into English as “Hey, tea”), opt to package their products in transparent plastic bottles that allow consumers to see the green color of the tea. The labels of these bottles are often green themselves and depict leaves. This design makes the tea appear refreshing, but also makes many of the tea brands look almost identical.


Namacha

Ito En, the maker of Ooi Ocha, was the Japanese company that first introduced bottled green tea in vending machines. The traditional tea company introduced cans of sencha green tea in 1985 and followed up with bottled Ooi Ocha in 1989. Ooi Ocha is the most popular bottles green tea in Japanese vending machines.

The Coca-Cola company’s bottled green tea brand is called Ayataka, which earns the manufacturer over $1 billion in sales per year. Coca-Cola developed its green tea flavor in partnership with Kanbayashi Shunsho, a traditional tea maker based in Kyoto.

Major Green Tea Manufactures in Japan

Bottled Green Tea

Ito En, the Originator

Ito En

Ito En is Japan’s #1 manufacturer of canned and bottled green tea products. The company was the first to make a canned green tea drink that sold in Japanese vending machines, debuting its canned sencha green tea in 1985.

Today, Ito En’s signature bottled green tea product is Ooi Ocha-Ryokucha, which translates into English as, “Hey, Tea!” Sold in a transparent plastic bottle with a leaf-green wrapper, Ooi Ocha-Ryokucha is Japan’s best-selling vending machine green tea.

Ooi Ocha

The tea is made from tea leaves grown in Japan, using only water and vitamin C as its other ingredients for a natural, fresh taste. Light-tasting beverages without sugar are a popular tea trend in Japan, and these drinks are beginning to be increasingly consumed worldwide. Ito En’s tea products come in two different plastic bottles: one designed to be served cold, and the other designed to be held at a specific warm temperature range inside the vending machine.

Ito En’s other bottled green teas include:

  • Ooi Ocha-Koicha: This variety has a stronger taste than the Ryokucha variety.
  • Ooi Ocha-Hojicha: The other varieties of bottled tea are light yellowish-green in color, but this tea is brown due to a light roasting of the tea leaves. 
  • Ooi Ocha-Genmaicha: Genmaicha is a mild green tea that pairs well with tempura and other fried foods. The ingredients include a combination of green tea and lightly roasted brown rice, giving this bottled tea a distinctive yellow color.
  • Jasmine Green Tea: This blend combines green tea with jasmine flowers for a highly scented, yet delicate-tasting brew. 
  • Golden Oolong Tea: Oolong tea has less caffeine than Ito En’s other green tea offerings, so this iced tea variety can be drunk closer to bedtime. 


Vending machines in Japan continue to offer Ito En’s  canned sencha, as well as canned versions of matcha and oolong tea. Over 2.5 billion green tea cans are sold in Japan per year, with Sapporo making up an 80% share of the entire market. Ito En began importing Chinese tea leaves in 1979, becoming Japan’s first importer of Chinese oolong tea.

Suntory: A Functional Favorite

Suntory

Japanese food and beverage maker Suntory offers bottled green tea beverages available in vending machines all over Japan. Its products include:

  • Iyemon: The #2 selling bottled green tea in Japan. To make this blend, Suntory partnered with a traditional Fukujuen tea grower in Kyoto for a rich flavor.

Iyemon Cha

  • Iyemon Tokucha: A functional drink, this green tea variation is specifically for those drinkers who are trying to lose weight as it contains a polyphenol that is said to help break down stored body fat. This is part of the FOSHU drink trend–Food for Specified Health Uses.
  • Suntory Oolong Tea
  • Suntory Black Oolong Tea: Combining oolong green tea with black tea, Suntory produces this bottled cold tea for consumers looking to avoid the bitter aftertaste that green teas can sometimes have.

Ayataka, the American Upstart

Ayataka

Ayataka is a Japanese arm of the U.S. based Coca-Cola company. The Kyoto-based company’s bottled green tea products are known for their cloudiness, unlike the clear beverages made by Ito En and Suntory, which comes from the use of specially milled powdered tea leaves of very high quality.

  • Ayataka Heaven and Earth Green Tea: Available from vending machines in cans and bottles, this unsweetened green tea blend is noted for its cloudiness, and is said to taste very similar to tea poured from the teapot.
  • Sokenbicha: Available in five flavors. Some of Sokenbicha’s brews are green or oolong teas, and others are barley teas that contain no actual tea leaves. Each flavor represents one of Japan’s traditional five elements

Ueshima Coffee Company: Not Just Coffee Anymore

UCC

Ueshima Coffee Company, or UCC, originated the canned coffee beverage available in vending machines in Japan. Although coffees remain the company’s most important product, it has also branched out into tea. UCC makes a traditional, canned green tea without sugar or calories as well as a canned oolong tea.

UCC Barista is a canned beverage available in many coffee flavors, but there is also one Uzi Matcha variety. The matcha latte beverage contains sugar and whole milk powder and is said to be lightly sweet.

The company also makes Paradise Tea, which has a black tea base and incorporates herbal flavors like marigold, rose, and cornflower.

Beer Companies that also Brew Tea

Another trend in the Japanese beverage market is companies that sell beer and other alcoholic beverages producing lines of tea products and other soft drinks that can be found in vending machines across the nation. Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo are three of the most prominent.

Asahi

Asahi

Asahi’s soft drinks include bottled 16 Blend tea, which is a barley-based herbal tea product that, ironically, doesn’t actually contain any tea leaves. The Asahi company also makes the extremely popular lactic acid beverage, Calpis, a sports drink; under the Calpis name, Asahi makes a FOSHU green tea called Calpis Kenchao.

Kirin

Kirin
Like Asahi, the Kirin company is mostly known in Japan as a manufacturer of alcoholic drinks. Kirin does make soft drinks, however, including Japan’s most popular line of black tea beverages, Gogo-no-Kocha. Kirin introduced this ready-to-drink black tea blend in 1986. Kirin makes an unsweetened black tea called This Afternoon, which is also available in a milk tea version that has whole milk and sugar added. Kirin also sells a peach-flavored tea made with Dimbula tea leaves imported from Sri Lanka. Interestingly, Dimbula is a kind of black tea, but Kirin’s peach tea has a light, yellowish color, almost like an oolong tea.

Kirin’s green tea product is called, Nama-cha. With the popularity of Ayataka’s cloudy products, Nama-cha recently underwent a makeover to make the tea cloudier. Japanese consumers approve of the change, even though, by Japanese standards, Nama-cha is one of the sweetest of the bottled green tea beverages.

Pokka Sapporo

 Pokka



Pokka is Singapore’s top food and beverage company and the #1 seller of green tea in Singapore. In partnering with the Sapporo Brewery, the oldest beer brewery in Japan, Pokka sells Japanese consumers bottled green, white, and oolong tea beverages along with iced fruit teas and Afternoon Tea (black tea) in unsweetened and sweetened/milk varieties. One of its specialties is a roasted green tea.

Above is part of a chapter from my recent book: Green Tea Cha : How Japan and the World Enjoy Green Tea in the 21st Century  

Please Click Below Image to Get My Book Green Tea Cha : How Japan and the World Enjoy Green Tea in the 21st Century from Amazon  (Both Printable Format and Kindle Version Available)

Green Tea Cha

Green Tea Cha - How Japan and the World Enjoy Green Tea in the 21st Century
Paperback: 152 pages
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1546704418
ISBN-13: 978-1546704416
Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
Shipping Weight: 9 ounces
Book Description: 

Kei Nishida is back with his latest book on the subject of Green Tea, Green Tea Cha, How Japan and the world Enjoys Green Tea in the 21st Century. In this 143 page book Tokyo native Nishida covers the changing use and appreciation for tea in the 21st Century. He brings together a collection of facts and observances that allows the reader to peer into the cultural mindset of those who enjoy Green Tea. He begins by explaining how tea is enjoyed in Japan today and the merger of traditional Japanese culture with that of the jihanki (vending machines) and ends with a discussion of Green Tea Beverages that “you’ve never heard of before but are drop dead delicious.” Each chapter brings together a plethora of information about the uses of Green Tea in his pleasant, informative style, encouraging the reader to seek out these drinks and dishes for themselves. By the end of the book readers will not only have a list of “must try” drinks and dishes but also an appreciation for this powerful, tasty antioxidant.

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