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Tea Leaves

Japan's vending machine culture is ahead of the curve

In an insecure world, automatic dispensers may be our last hope

TOKYO -- When I was a child, growing up in England, just about the only coin-operated machines were for bars of milk chocolate. The machines were vandal-proof but could not withstand the summer heat, causing the chocolate bars to stick like melted cheese to their silver foil. Rather than consume the deformed bars in solid nuggets, buyers were required to lick them in the manner of a stray dog foraging for edible garbage.

In today's Japan, millions of vending machines dispense a mountain of goods and services ranging from green tea, umbrellas, canned cakes, bananas, omikuji fortunetelling slips, noodles, batteries, T-shirts and shampoo. You can even buy a shot of restorative oxygen. If you forget to put on a tie before leaving for work, or overlook that bouquet of flowers, there is a vending machine somewhere to help you.

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