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Friday, January 06, 2006


Tokyo Vending Machines and the Death of an Banal American Dream

When I graduated from college in 2001, I returned to my hometown of Portland in search of some sort of a job. I wasn't picky. My degree is in English Lit and I realized it wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. I went looking for run of the mill office work and found...absolutely nothing. Literally a day after I began scouring monster.com, 9/11 happened and it was as if someone pulled a plug in the local economic bathtub. HR reps refused to make eye contact during interviews and I felt more like an ex-con than a recent college grad.

I spent the next six months unemployed and completely miserable. I passed time by applying to Powell's every few weeks and sending out desperate applications to the likes of Intel and OHSU. That October I made a feeble attempt to flee to Japan and teach English through one of the country's franchised language centers. While preparing for the interview I scoured the internet for information on living abroad and developed an unhealthy fixation with sites devoted to Japanese vending machines and the bizarre array of products they sell. I vowed that once I got over there I would thwart homesickness by putting together the ultimate website on the subject.

While it's not the equivalent of landing a position as CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you've got to have goals. Before I graduated I figured I would become another Dave Eggers and have a novel on New York Times Best-Sellers List by my twenty-fifth birthday. Within four months that dream dwindled to cobbling a website devoted to foreign machines that dispense beer and the occasional live lobster.

The interview was a bust and I rode the # 1 Tri-Met back home feeling despondent and lousy all around. After a misguided stint in Wyoming the following summer, I wound up where I am now: a universally despised mega-corporation.

But things aren't all bad. The job financed a trip overseas with a sibling in September of 2004. In the year since I've set up a positively obnoxious amount of Flickr galleries devoted to all the cultural minutia we encountered (see left).

And here's the latest one: a tiny gallery devoted to, ta-da, Tokyo vending machines.

It's a far cry from what I would have put together had I wound up teaching overseas. Truth be told, we never encountered the vast array of machines I'd read about all those years ago on the internet. They all seemed to sell coffee, beer and cigarettes and, for whatever reason, I only took a few photos of them. Oh, well. The website was a lousy idea anyway. A search on "Japanese vending machines" turns up over a million hits on Google these days.

Since it's a slow night at work and I'm feeling even more self-indulgent than usual, let me roll out another lame anecdote about that trip.

Unwilling to travel with a huge amount of cash or fight the language barrier in order to explain travelers checks, we flew out of Portland with $20,000 yen between us (roughly $200 US). According to the internet, finding an ATM that could handle our foreign Visa debit cards wouldn't be a problem. This was the year 2004 and we were traveling to the most tech-friendly city on Earth. What could possibly go wrong?

We flew into Narita International and paid around $3,300 each to ride a train into Tokyo Station. After a subway ride and over an hour spent trying to find our inn, the next order of business was tracking down an ATM before we dropped another Yen. We tried various bank machines and hit at least four more at various convenience stores before realizing the internet had lied to us.

We seemed to be the only non-locals for miles around and the inn-keeper only spoke broken English. According to our Lonely Planet guide, a nearby post office (closed at this late hour) would contain a foreign ATM and, if push came to shove, we could ride a subway into the Shibuya ward and find several at a large department store.

But what if the guide was wrong too? Now paranoid and completely exhausted, we stopped into a place called the Firehouse. Just a few blocks from one of Tokyo University's hubs, the owners seemed to be shooting for a hole-in-wall, east-coast campus tavern vibe. Leather-bound books covered the walls, the menu was bilingual and they even had a fireplace. We traveled across the world and landed in the Nihongo-equivalent of a McMenamins.

I was so worried about cash that I stuck with water instead of beer. Since I'd been the one to arrange the trip, this was obviously my fault and my sister was on the verge of killing me. If we woke up the next day and couldn't find an ATM, we would have to sneak out of the inn without paying, spend most of our remaining cash getting back to the airport and kill an entire week sleeping on benches and eating out of vending machines. Wiring for money wasn't considered an option and contacting our banks seemed fruitless. To this day it remains one of the tensest meals I've ever sat through, mainly because I was struggling to think of a way to suggest that we immediately check out and spend the night in a public park. It wouldn't be so bad, I figured. It was a humid night.

We didn't get any sleep on our traditional tatami mats and our pillows, filled with what felt like small stones, didn't help matters. Bored with staring at the ceiling, the two of us wandered around the inn and spent an hour discussing this shit situation in front of a row of beer and soda machines in the basement. I finally landed an opportunity to take a photo of a real-deal Japanese vending machine but was too incensed and exhausted to bother heading back upstairs for the camera.

Dawn came and running on six hours of sleep over the course of two days, we headed down to the post office. Inside we found an ATM with a gleeful cartoon squirrel on the screen.

If it rejected my card I had planned on driving my fist through the screen before fleeing to the American embassy. Fortunately, the machine was feeling benevolent and spat out a fat wad of Yen. At the end of the transaction, the squirrel sweetly screamed something in Japanese and bowed politely. And dammed if we didn't bow back.

We celebrated by spending the rest of the day fighting a monsoon in Tokyo Disneyland but that's another rambling anecdote.

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