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Automated future

Tokyo (Japan) Kiyomizu Kannon-do
Buddhist Temple in Ueno Park
Thursday, 17 July 2014

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In Japanese cities, there is hardly any main street which does not have at least five automatic drink dispensers, neatly arranged in a row mostly. Even while out on a off beat destination or a trek, one can suddenly find oneself staring at a gleaming automat quartet in the middle of a wood which, in spite of a lacking public, patiently carries on with its little musical score: pips and mechanical voices with an undertone of muffled trembles emitted by the cooling units.

It's puzzling why there are several automatic dispensers, which offer more or less the same drinks, standing next to one another. Especially given that there aren't great numbers of thirsting people at most of these locations. Are competing business interests hiding behind these machines? Or, do people in the homeland of the Tamagotchi imagine that a solitary machine will feel lonesome standing on its own in the vast dark woods?

In Japan there are innumerable other automats from which one can buy cigarettes, books, museum entry-tickets, local transport tickets, massage coupons, etc. – not to mention the great array of game- and karaoke-machines, most of which stand in vast casino caves and lend a whole new dimension to the word «nervousness». A number of things are immediately clear at such places.

A big question-mark however hangs over those automats that stand in almost all modest noodle bars. Even when the space is tight there’s always enough room for an automat. They operate somewhat like (public transport) ticket-vending machines: one chooses from a good one dozen options that are presented in scripture and tone, inserts a note into the slot, presses a button and out comes, along with the change, a little ticket which one then gives in at the counter that is usually located not more than two steps away. The noodle cook takes the ticket and starts to prepare the food – when he does not require, as happens now and again, to fix a little defect in the automat or adjust the offer. Even Japanese people I spoke to about this issue could not explain the need for these automatic vending machines. Was it to reduce the workload? Hardly. To control the employees or business partners, perhaps? Protection against assault? Or reasons of hygiene? Some antiquated law or absurd rule definitely lies hidden behind this. I’m however inclined to imagine that the Japanese love for automatic machines is so great that they do not want to be left without them even in noodle bars.

And this love goes far, from the here and now into the distant future, about which the Omikuji explains to those seeking direction and orientation. Standing before the Buddhist temple in Ueno Park is, in any case, an automat which spits out a slip of paper with my future written on it by a hidden oracle, in exchange for a tiny compensation. For «long noses» (foreigners), the Omikuji also spells it out in English – and after reading it there is absolutely no doubt: the translation, too, has been done by an automatic machine.

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First Publication: 25-8-2014