I’ll Drink To That! Okinawa’s vending machine drinks

On Okinawa, and in Japan in general, there are what seem like a babillion vending machines. I heard once that there was a machine for every 5 people, but the number seems to be more around 1 machine for every 23 people, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association.

I decided to do my own scientific survey, a complex system that involved taking my dog, Bosley, for our usual 30 minute walk around our Okinawa City neighborhood (a good mix of urban and residential areas), and counting the number of drink vending machines I saw. Guess what my total was:

A. 17

B. 25

C. 31

And the answer is. . . (cue the drumroll!)

IMG_4668 red hot drinks million

drink machine drink machines

C. 31  (Come on, now! When in doubt, always choose C!) I didn’t post them all, though–that’d be a LOT of extra scrolling!

I say drink vending machines, because there are also 4 cigarette vending machines in my neighborhood.

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Where were these when I was a rebellious teenager?

Where were these when I was a rebellious teenager?

Unfortunately, there aren’t really any crazy cool vending machines selling neckties or sneakers, like you’d find in mainland.

The selection of vending machine drinks in the U.S. is pretty drab compared to that in Japan. In the States, there are the predictable Coke and Pepsi products, the  “healthier” water and sports drink machines, and a few exceptions in between.

Trust me: It's not as awesome as you remember.

Trust me: It’s not as awesome as you remember.

In Okinawa (and mainland Japan, too), they do have Coke and Pepsi machines. In fact, I think the Coke tastes way better, because they use real cane sugar, not that high fructose corn syrup junk in American Coke.

150 milliliters of delicious.

150 milliliters of happiness.

But there are also other drink companies like UCC, Dydo, “Cheerio,” Million, Georgia (Coke’s coffee line), Suntory (affiliated with Pepsi),  and Boss, Suntory’s coffee line, all competing for your yen.

Even the Japanese know that Tommy Lee Jones is the BOSS!

Even the Japanese know that Tommy Lee Jones is BOSS!

And, there aren’t 5 to 8 drink choices per vending machine. Oh, noooooo. Try 20-30 different drinks. Then multiply that by however many drink companies there are, and you’ve got a different drink for each day of the year. Well, maybe not quite that many, but you get the picture.

So little time.

An indecisive person’s nightmare.

How is there so much range? Well, I’m going to feel like Bubba rattling off all the different kinds of shrimp to Forrest Gump, but here goes: We already mentioned soda (or “pop” as they call it where I’m from), but there are also different kinds of coffee, both the espresso and “American kind,” which can be bought with milk, with different amounts of milk and sweetener (designated as cafe au lait and cafe latte sometimes), just with sweetener, black, strong, mild, cappuccino, the occasional caramel flavored, shall I go on? I found this “Flavor Chart” that explains the difference between all the different Georgia coffee drinks, aligned from bitter to sweet:

Georgia flavor chart

You can also choose if you want it hot or cold. That’s right–the Japanese have put hot and cold drinks in the SAME vending machine, and the hot drinks usually have red signs, say HOT!, or blink red. Is your mind blown, yet?

Hot drinks! Get yer HOOOT drinks!

Well, hello there, Hottie McHotpants.

Of course, there’s a bajillion different kinds of tea: green, black, oolong, jasmine, yerba mate, with or without sweetener, strong, kinda bitter, with milk, flavored with fruits like apple or lemon or peach, and hot or cold.

Even shisa tea. Made with real shisa.

Even shisa tea. Made with real shisa.

There’s also hot chocolate, which sounds amazing–I mean, how can you go wrong with hot chocolate? Let me tell you, the Japanese have found a way to mess this up sometimes!

Van Houten, you fooled me once with your European-sounding name. But your grainy, watered-down Yoo-Hoo texture won't fool me twice.

Van Houten, you fooled me once with your European-sounding name. But your grainy, watered-down Yoo-Hoo consistency won’t fool me twice.

There are sports and “healthy” drinks. I put “healthy” in quotes because I’m pretty sure they’re loaded with sugar, but I can’t really tell because the nutrition facts are in Japanese.

I don't know who Pocari is, but his sweat is refreshing.

I don’t know who Pocari is, but his sweat is refreshing.

Although this sugar packet-per-drink graphic seems to confirm my theory:

Liquid diabetes. Awesome.

Liquid diabetes. Delicious!

Mineral water, with or without flavor:

Aloha, I Lohas. You're just what the Okinawan heat ordered.

Aloha, I Lohas. You’re just what the Okinawan heat ordered.

Veggie drinks:

I'll be the judge of that.

I’ll be the judge of that.

Fruit drinks in different flavors (like the sour Okinawan citrus fruit shiquasa–one of my faves), fruity carbonated drinks, fruit flavored water, fruit drinks with pieces of gelatin in them:

Because  you know you've always wanted to try drinking and swallowing Jell-O at the same time.

Because you know you’ve always wanted to try swallowing Jell-O and drinking at the same time.

Yogurt drinks, yogurt soda drinks:

Sweet yogurt-y goodness, and worth having to peel off that label for recycling later. Oh, who am I kidding--it'll sit on my windowsill under the false pretense that I'll reuse it for a mini vase or something.

Sweet yogurt-y goodness, and worth having to peel that label off for recycling later. Oh, who am I kidding–it’ll sit on my windowsill under the false pretense that I’ll reuse it for a mini vase or pencil holder or something.

And your occasional really-strange-and-therefore-must try drinks (or dare someone else to try):

The Japanese sure do love them some corn.

Is it a soup, or is it a drink? Is it salty or sweet? Is it thick like creamed corn? Does it have chunks of corn in it? So many possibilities. I feel queasy.

The variety is both good and bad. It’s fun to try something new, but there’s maybe a 50/50 chance (and that’s me being generous) that you’ll actually really like it. Some of the flavors are pretty strong and, well, different from the mild, sugary stuff your palate might expect from a vending machine. I have a theory that Japanese drink marketers focus more on funny sounding names than flavors people will like, because they know that we’ll buy it for the novelty even if they never buy it again (or at least I will buy it for its funny name–I can’t speak for you).

I hate black coffee, so why did I try this? Because I want to know what "Silky Black" tastes like! A heads up: Surprise! it tastes like black coffee!

I hate black coffee, so why did I try this? Because I want to know what “Silky Black” tastes like! A heads up: Surprise! it tastes like black coffee!

That said, it’s a good idea to carry extra yen in case things don’t go over well with your taste experiment.

Some drink machines even talk to you, and thank you for buying from them! Next level politeness maneuver! I also recently learned that some vending machines have a slot machine-type game, and if you get three of the same picture lined in a row, your drink is free! I’m on the hunt for that one, and will post video once I find it.

In this inaugural edition of “I’ll Drink To That!” I present you with one of the most bizarre drinks I have come across so far:

Who doesn't love pancakes? Now how 'bout pancakes you can DRINK?!

Who doesn’t love pancakes? Now how ’bout pancakes you can DRINK?!

A can of pancake drink. Intriguing and horrifying, all at the same time, isn’t it?! What do you think–delicious or nasty?

Here’s what it tastes like: Imagine making a batch of pancake batter, pouring in half a bottle of syrup and blending, then thinning it out with water, and sticking it in the fridge. Yep, that’s what it tastes like. Slightly creamy syrup. Sweet, but not good. Not at all. Unless I were three years old. Or Buddy the Elf.

There's always room for syrup.

“We elves try to stick to the four main food groups. Candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.”

What are some of the amazing/bizarre/horrible vending machine drinks you’ve seen or tried?