If one of Eiji Ohashi’s friends spots a vending machine is some obscure, out-of-the-way spot in Japan, they tell him about it. The Hokkaido photographer has been chasing the machines for nine years now, venturing out on the coldest winter nights to see them glittering against their sleepy surroundings. Roadside Lights, now on view at the &co119 gallery in Paris, is the result of his adventures.
Japan’s vending machine trend dates back about three decades; according to the Japan National Tourism Organization, the first vending machine was installed in the late 1980s. Today, the country is home to an estimated 5.52 million vending machines. Many of them are outside, where they could easily be robbed, but in a country with a low crime rate, the machines are safe and reliable, even in extreme weather. Even on days when local transportation has been halted due to snow, Ohashi has found working vending machines.
Despite their omnipresence, Japan’s vending machines have a short lifespan. The moment they cease to be profitable, they’re discarded. Many of the individual machines in Roadside Lights are no longer standing. “I do not see many old vending machines,” the artist tells me. In some ways, he sees them as metaphors for human beings who toil, sometimes in harsh conditions, without ever being acknowledged or thanked for their efforts. “The appearance of a vending machine shining on a snowy night is very lovely,” he adds.
But while they might be disposable to the public, the vending machines of Japan become beacons and guiding lights in Ohashi’s pictures. In his artist statement, he mentions Hat Jizo, an old folktale about a kindly hatmaker who, after failing to sell his hats at market, offers them to a group of stone statues to protect them from the falling snow. That night, the statues show up at his home, surprising the hungry man, his wife, and even the local mice with gifts of rice and miso.
It’s a strange comparison to make– these are, after all, modern machines–but it’s also fitting. Like the hatmaker, Ohashi keeps a watchful eye over these lonesome structures, even when they’re covered in snow. And like the statues, they’ve given him something in return. On dark winter evenings, when he’s commuting home from work, the light from the machines have led him safely home.
All images © Eiji Ohashi