Saturday, August 9, 2008

Time in a bottle

Aug 9, 2008

By Janice Tay
I TAKE a picture of a vending machine (almost) every day. Sorry.

Well, I don't. But a man living on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido does. Calling himself Motomachi Nijuuyon Ken, he puts up the snapshots on a website he calls 'I take a picture of a vending machine (almost) every day. Sorry'.

But what would make a man photograph the same vending machine - and not one that sells underwear either - nearly every day for three years and counting?

Motomachi-san, who is in his 40s, writes on his blog that he has no interest in either vending machines or canned drinks. Claiming to dislike 'troublesome things', he looked about for undemanding content and 'ended up doing this'.

'I get annoyed on days when there are changes,' he adds, 'because it means work'.

Whatever the reason, as I sifted through three years of vending-machine photos, I started to keep a sort of meta- diary, a log of a log.

Aug 5, 2005: First post of the blog. A picture of a drinks machine.

Aug 8, 2005: Second posting. Another photo of the machine with the words 'No change' over it. This will become the blog's most common post title.

Sept 14, 2005: About a month after the launch of the blog, one of the drinks is... replaced! Motomachi-san commemorates the big moment with tidy blue arrows, red boxes and yellow labels.

Sept 19, 2005: A day of upheaval. Products are added, others taken away, designs changed. Even the items that remain are moved about. 'A change of this scale could well be called a revolution or a coup d'etat,' says Motomachi-san.

Feb 2, 2006: Motomachi-san notes that the display looked different on his way home, presumably from work. 'Details will come tomorrow,' he writes. 'But it's a bit sad that I've turned into someone who can tell the differences with just one glance.'

March 6, 2006: Seven items sold out. For the first time, Motomachi-san lists all the drinks in the machine, can volume and availability. Also, for the first time, he assigns a label to each product, depending on where it appears in the display. So the 300ml Fanta Grape, fifth from left in the bottom row, is C05: A sign of a man getting organised about his hobby.

March 8, 2006: Sayonara cocoa, says the title of the post. The Europe Premier Cocoa introduced in December has been ejected by Royal Milk Tea. Truly, we live in a world of transience.

March 17, 2006: With spring, life returns to the world - and heads for the vending machine. The phenomenon began four days ago, with three products selling out. Today, eight items are unavailable. 'It's the Sell-out Fest of Spring,' declares Motomachi-san.

May 10, 2006: A revolution such as we have not seen in ages. To indicate the changes, Motomachi-san scrawls red arrows all over a photo of the revitalised line-up. It looks like someone has turned the vending machine into a game of Snakes and Ladders.

Aug 1, 2006: The blog won't be updated for a week because of Motomachi-san's work commitments. 'What do you think will have happened when I return?'

His post draws more than 60 comments. 'The machine will be taller and look a little grown-up,' says one person.

'It'll have a TV attached,' says another. (No idle threat in technology-mad Japan.)

A third has an even grander vision: 'It'll have declared independence and will no longer accept Japanese currency.'

Aug 6, 2006: Motomachi-san's wife takes a picture of the vending machine and sends it to him. He puts it up on the blog with the title, 'No change', and adds: 'It's good to have a beautiful wife who takes photos well.'

Aug 4, 2008: At last, we learn the reason behind the postings. Motomachi- san writes: 'The blog turned three today. On the first anniversary of my younger sister's death, I thought about coming up with one of those silly, meaningless things that she loved and on the following day, Aug 5, 2005, started keeping these records. And that's how this blog began.'

He planned to wrap things up after a year, he says, but now aims to keep going for five: 'If you would, every now and then, come to take a look and say, 'That idiot still hasn't stopped!', I would greatly appreciate it.'

The loss of a close connection prompted Motomachi-san to forge a new one, though not something one would have expected. He simply picked an ordinary vending machine and devoted three years of attention to it.

In the process, he has helped others connect with something so ingrained in the urban landscape that we look at it without actually seeing it. He has done this by noting minute changes in a vending machine and opening up a whole new world. I now find myself wondering who on earth would buy a drink called Hokkaido Milk and Vegetables.

And because of his photos, I've watched time pass in a new way: Snow encrusting the vending machine buttons melted into summer glare, which yielded in turn to plastic maple leaves in autumn.

If you can see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, imagine what you'd find in an entire vending machine.

Motomachi-san's blog is at

[I agree with his 6 Aug 2006 post: It is good to have a beautiful wife who takes photos well. :-) It is the simple things in life that matters. I also love to see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. ]

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