HIROSHIMA -- Vending machines serving food are quietly gaining popularity in this western Japan prefecture, with new initiatives offering regional treats and cooked pizza popping up in its cities. Some firms here are seeking to establish new distribution routes elsewhere by utilizing the idea, seemingly unique to Hiroshima at the moment.
The machines, which can run for 24 hours a day and keep staff costs down, are increasingly being used by more companies with businesses unrelated to the beverage industry.
Among them are more traditional shops such as Momijido, an old-fashioned Japanese confectionary store in Hiroshima that serves local favorites including "momiji manju," a kind of cake shaped like a maple leaf and filled with paste. Its main branch is based in the city of Hatsukaichi, but now it also has a total of 10 vending machines selling its wares in its base city, Hiroshima, Mihara and other locations.
The machines offer a box of two for 220 yen, or three for 330 yen. Each has between six to eight flavors of fillings including bean paste, cream and others. The machines were re-fitted from ones originally intended to sell drinks.
Manju are synonymous with Hiroshima and a popular choice of gift for visitors to bring back and share with friends or colleagues. To make it easier for people in parts of the prefecture get a taste of the products, the company did a test run with three vending machines in February 2019.
As the idea was so well received, from September 2019 the firm put out machines at Hiroshima Airport and five stations on the Astram Line including Kencho-mae Station in Hiroshima's Naka Ward. Their sales exceeded expectations, with some of the machines shifting over 50 boxes a day.
The company has also had a request from a business in the neighboring prefecture, and currently Momijido aims to place 30 of its vending machines primarily in the western part of Hiroshima Prefecture.
The company's head, Motohiro Takeuchi, said, "We want local people here to have an opportunity to rediscover how good momiji manju is."
Elsewhere, a vending machine called "Pizza Self," which offers hot pizza 24 hours a day, stands by Fukuromachi Park, also in Naka Ward. It has two options, margherita, priced at 980 yen, and four cheeses at 1,280 yen. The food itself was developed with cooperation from a food company in Venice, Italy.
After choosing your variation of pizza from a touch panel on the vending machine, its built-in oven heats the frozen pizzas at up to 300 degrees Celsius. The system, which cooks the food quickly all at once, delivers steaming-hot pizzas in around four minutes.
The firm behind the vending machine is Iirain, a delivery and freight company based in the city's Saeki Ward. Acknowledging that the venture differs from their main business, company head Yoshiharu Taniguchi said, "I wanted to be able to eat hot pizza in the middle of the night."
Initially, the machine was set up in Hiroshima's Nishi Ward, where it attracted a lot of attention, and became a popular spot for some vending machine enthusiasts across the country. To increase sales, the machine was moved to its present site in July 2019.
According to the company behind it, the pizza vending machine is the first of its kind in the country. It intends to install another in the popular Ginza shopping area in Tokyo by March 2020, and has plans for nationwide expansion. Taniguchi said, "In these times of insufficient labor, I feel there are great possibilities for vending machines as they don't require human intervention to deliver products."
(Japanese original by Kazuki Ikeda, Hiroshima Bureau)