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Vending machine selling origami toys stays open in small Japan town to delight of children

Children gather in front of an origami vending machine placed before Okano Shoten in Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture, on Oct. 21, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoe Saito)

UCHIKO, Ehime -- A unique vending machine boasting an array of origami animals and other folded designs stands in front of a shop selling daily sundries in western Japan.

    Located in the Ikazaki area of the town of Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture, the vending machine has been long known as a hangout spot for children in the neighborhood. But since a couple of years ago, when the origami machine gathered attention online and was even introduced on Japanese television, there has been an endless number of people -- some hailing from far away -- who visit the storefront to buy their own origami pieces.

    Origami pieces made by Chizuru Okano are seen in this photo taken at Okano Shoten in Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture, on Nov. 13, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoe Saito)

    The shop is about a 15-minute walk from the town hall. Grade school children and parents were seen gathered in front of the general goods store, which is in a row of old houses. Colorful origami paper folded into a horse, ohajiki marbles, and other items were displayed in the vending machine. When this reporter pressed the button beneath "balloon goldfish," which cost 10 yen (about 10 cents), a small, transparent box came down with a light clink. Inside the container was an origami goldfish that was folded precisely from corner to corner. Its body filled up with air when blown into with a lot of force.

    The town of Uchiko is located near the middle of Ehime Prefecture, and has a population of around 16,000 people. Known as a producer of washi paper and Japanese candles, dating back to the latter half of the Edo period, the town center is lined with row houses with plastered walls which leave traces of past landscapes.

    Chizuru Okano, 64, the second-generation head of Okano Shoten, a shop that has sold sundries for some 60 years, makes the origami pieces on sale in the vending machine. She started creating origami to display at the shop when her father was in charge, and got better as she submitted pieces to exhibitions that were held in the community to promote the local specialty of washi paper. Thirteen years ago, the "taspo" age verification system was implemented for vending machines selling cigarettes, which raised the problem of what to do with the vending machine that had been in use until then. At that time, an acquaintance suggested, "Why not sell your own origami pieces?" The origami vending machine came about from this casual remark.

    Chizuru Okano stands next to an origami vending machine in front of her shop in Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture, on Oct. 21, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoe Saito)

    Some 20 types of origami samples are on display, in place of the familiar array of cigarette boxes. Okano has gradually increased her repertoire and now she chooses from a stock of over 100 types of folded paper, and switches the displayed items from time to time, while being conscious of the seasons and events. Okano reuses wrapping paper or purchases materials at 100-yen shops, while also making sure that the shapes and colors match the piece. As she wishes that "children will be able to buy them with loose change after buying snacks," the pieces are 10 to 50 yen each, which has not changed since the origami vending machine was set up.

    Monthly profits from the vending machine amount to just a few thousand yen. Even when tourists flooded the spot temporarily after it was the talk of social media and online news, it only went up to 16,000 yen per month. Although profits aren't proportionate to the labor the products take to make, Okano said that the lively voices of children heard from the shopfront have encouraged her to keep the vending machine in operation.

    "I bought the kitty and drew a face," said a small girl from the neighborhood with a huge smile. She stood on her tiptoes and pointed at an origami sample that she had apparently bought in the past. However, the prolonged coronavirus pandemic has cast a dark shadow on this small shop in this regional town. More and more locals have refrained from visiting, and the already-low vending machine profit is said to have dropped by half.

    The thorough handwork put behind each origami piece reflects Okano's sincerity. She showed an origami spinning top she prepared for the New Year, and said, "The shape here is an original design of mine. The colors pop up vividly when you spin it." The colors seemed to be warding off the grave atmosphere of society today.

    (Japanese original by Tomoe Saito, Matsuyama Bureau)

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