A machine created to help locals with disabilities

From nappies to edible insects and even origami, there are a lot of weird and wonderful items just waiting to be found at Japanese vending machines.

We’ve been on a nationwide hunt to track down some of the nation’s best and most unusual mechanical dispensers recently, which has brought us to today’s fantastic find: roasted sweet potatoes.

Known as “yaki imo” in Japan, roasted potatoes are hearty treats that conjure up feelings of nostalgia and warmth for many. Much like an ice cream truck, the singsong call of the yaki imo trucks that slowly drive around neighbourhood streets are a familiar sound that many grew up with, and are sadly far fewer than they were back in the day.

While they may not be as widely available on the back of vehicles now, the good news is they’re still conveniently sold at stores and festivals, and in the the cities of Hyuga and Nobeoka, in Miyazaki Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, they’re available day and night at a number of specially marked vending machines.

Not many people outside of the area know about these machines, and our reporter Masanuki Sunakoma only caught wind of them after spotting a small mention of it in a magazine issued by the local community.

He headed out to find one in Nobeoka, and when he first laid eyes on the machine, he was surprised to see it was wrapped in a stylish, eye-catching potato-adorned yellow exterior. Impressed by its appearance, which was unlike the run-down ones you usually find attached to local agricultural producers, he had high hopes for what lay inside.

The display revealed a product lineup that consisted of two varieties of sweet potato: the sticky beni haruka and the dense, moist annou imo. What was most surprising was the fact that there were temperature options for each, with the former available in hot or cold varieties, and the latter served up cold.

It was a tough choice, but seeing as it was a cold evening, Masanuki opted for a piping hot beni haruka. He popped in the 300 yen (US$2.69) required, pressed the button, and out came this.

The can was marked with a “please return” label on it, meaning he’d have to take the contents out and leave the can at the machine to be reused. So he popped the lid and pulled out the sweet potato, which was concealed in a brown paper bag.

▼ Its heat warmed his hand immediately

The word “Noh Fuku”, meaning “Good Fortune Agriculture” was written on the bag. It also mentioned that the potato was the product of a joint collaboration between agriculture and welfare, as the people who make these roasted potatoes belong to the Medaka Family Group, a local employment support facility for people with disabilities.

These vending machines were created in order to provide wages for people with disabilities, making them a hit with locals and visitors to the area who are keen to support the cause.

As he made his way home from the machine, Masanuki was warmed by both the potato and the story behind its creation. Once he got home, he opened up the package to find it contained not one but two potatoes.

Sure, it looked a bit weird, but the vacuum pack they came in is meant to help lengthen the storage period while increasing the sugar content of the potatoes.

▼ Taking them out of the vacuum pack revealed their shiny, well-roasted skins.

Tasting one brought a big smile to Masanuki’s lips. It was piping hot, meltingly moist and had a delicious honey-like sweetness. It was the perfect choice for a sweet after-dinner snack, and given their small size, he polished both of them off easily.

After getting a taste of a vending machine potato, Masanuki has now pledged his allegiance to the fun and unusual sales system. The more you eat, the more wages will be generated for those with disabilities, so be sure to seek these machines out next time you’re in Miyazaki, a prefecture that’s currently paying people to move there.

Related: Medaka Family Group Vending Machine locations
Photos © SoraNews24
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