When you’re in Japan, your options for a cheap meal are overwhelming! (I bet you didn’t expect that, eh?)

From convenient stores and supermarkets with prepared bento boxes to cheap gyudon beef bowl restaurants, a meal can cost as low as 500 yen, often even less depending on your timing. Now, let’s add some technology to the mix and take this to another level.

Japanese vending machines are simply awesome. The variety and  convenience—like getting a hot drink in the winter on any street corner—make them must-stop spots for everyone. That’s why when I heard about a vending machine restaurant with no staff that also sells tasty burgers for 300 yen, I had to make the burger run from Tokyo to nearby Gunma prefecture to check it out.

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Isesaki City is where you’ll find Jihanki Shokudo (自販機食堂) an unstaffed restaurant that has three retro vending machines serving hot noodles, sandwiches and burgers.

The first thing that impressed me with Jikanki Shokudo was that there was no staff yet the restaurant was still amazingly clean. Everything was recycled. Whatever soup and noodles you didn’t finish went into a special bucket. The tables were spotless with a clean damp towel to wipe up after yourself. Every seat had access to free condiments, chopsticks and napkins just like any other restaurant. There are even a couple of racks of manga to borrow if you want to come and just chill out.

Totally unstaffed?

Okay, the owner does stop in a couple times a day to take out the trash and restock the machines so one could argue that it is “staffed”—but come on! Is there any other country in the world where the owner will leave his mobile phone number on the side of a vending machine for customers to call in case of a problem?

vending machine restaurant in japan
Mr. Tomaru – Owner of Jihankishokudo | Photo by John Daub

That’s right, Mr. Tomaru works nearby and is always on call so don’t worry if you lose a few hundred yen. Someone will appear quickly to assist you.

So you’ve heard me ramble about how convenient, cheap and clean this place is, and now you’re hungry as heck and what to know about the food. You are probably wishing you’d just watched the video, right? Too late now—here we go!

Noodle Vending Machine

Photo by John Daub

400 yen

The chashu-men (ramen with thin pork cutlet) was pretty good although the noodles didn’t all fall in my bowl. The toppings were loaded first and on the bottom warmed by the boiling hot broth.

The taste? Good. The noodles were a little soft but the chashu and the broth were tasty.

Photo by John Daub

330 yen

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The tenpura udon was average.

I thought the stock was too salty and oily, but all in all it filled me up and the udon noodles were good.

Burger Vending Machine

300 yen

The Curry Burger was good. The meat was moist and that curry smell and taste was a great benefit to the experience.

Photo by John Daub

300 yen

The tar Tar Meat Sauce Burger is the most popular entree at the restaurant.

It smelled great. After unboxing, it didn’t look pretty.

However, looks can be deceiving. The burger scored high and I’d eat another one again—if I can get the look of it out of my mind first.

The Toast Sandwich Vending Machine

Photo by John Daub

250 yen

The Italian Toast Sandwich is advertised having tomato sauce, basil, bacon and cheese. Sound good, right? On closer inspection after unwrapping the foil, there was very little of any of those ingredients and the bread was on the thin side. However, on a positive note, I must give high marks to the retro vending machine! The sandwich was not microwaved and it came out freshly toasted, smelling fantastic!

Photo by John Daub

To drink, the restaurant sells small glass bottles of soda for 100 yen which I thought was a great touch to the retro feel of the place.

I asked the manager what the deal was with an all-vending, no-staff restaurant.

He replied that food vending machines are not uncommon, but they are combined with game centers. He took the games away and made this as a way to attract families and kids to a convenient and fun meal. I have to agree. More than being just a cheap and fast meal, it was absolutely fun!

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