A neat example of marketing to help a rural community. 

Ever since the pandemic, vending machines in Japan have become far more varied, selling more unusual goods than ever before. However, the other day, our reporter Takashi Harada was passing through a Michi no Eki roadside station in Kumamoto Prefecture when he came across a machine that wasn’t just unusual, it was the only one of its kind in Japan, leading it to be dubbed a “phantom machine” due to its rarity.

▼ He found the rare machine at the Michi no Eki in Ozu, Kikuchi-gun, located in the north-central part of Kumamoto Prefecture.

Ozu is said to be the “gateway to Aso” as it sits along National Route 57, which leads to the city of Aso, located at the foot of the Mt Aso volcano. This rural location is also a famous production area for ​​karaimo, or “sweet potato” in the local dialect, and it’s a regional product so revered that it stands in as the mascot character for the town.

▼ Karaimo is so locally renowned that it’s the star of this unique machine…

…which comes with a notice (お知らせ [“oshirase”]) that reads, “This is the only baked sweet potato vending machine in the country“.

▼ However, the small print says, “…that stocks karaimo (sweet potato) from Ozu Towm, Kumamoto Prefecture”.

Well, they weren’t wrong — despite having bought sweet potatoes from vending machines before, this was our first time to find one selling Ozu’s karaimo, and what’s more there were hot and cold varieties available.

▼ Plus, mascot character Karaimo-kun can be seen on the right of the machine, wearing its hat and scarf!

Karaimo from this region are said to be sweet, delicious and abundant in mitsu, which literally translates to “honey” but refers to the sweet, honey-like juices that appear in a sweet potato when it’s baked.

▼ Takashi usually likes his sweet potatoes hot, but because it was a warm summer’s day he decided to purchase a cold one.

Out it popped with a thud, in a convenient container to keep it from getting crushed. And when he pulled out the contents, he found the potato was wrapped in plastic packaging that resembled newspaper, as a nod to the newspaper wrapping often used to package sweet potatoes in Japan.

According to what he read on the “articles” on the packaging, this baked sweet potato is a new type of sweet, sealed in a vacuum-sealed bag and processed with a patented manufacturing method.

▼ When he took the potato out of its packaging, he could see it looked like a common sweet potato, but it was absolutely smothered in mitsu.

Takashi took a bite, and then another…and another. It was sweet, sticky and oh so good, and it really tasted different to the sweet potatoes he usually buys at the supermarket.

Having it cold made it taste like a sweet dessert, but Takashi was keen to find out what it would taste like when heated, so he popped it into the microwave to heat it up a bit.

After it had been warmed, the flesh seemed slightly softer and the juices less sticky, but it tasted just as good, if not better.

Takashi was impressed at how well the flavour stood up both chilled and heated, and because a portion of his purchase — and all the purchases made at the machine — goes towards generating income for people with disabilities, who are involved in preparing the products, it made the potato taste even better.

Both the hot and cold potatoes in the machine cost 500 yen (US$3.44) a pop, which gets you about 190 grams (6.7 ounces) of sweet potato. It’s a pretty sweet way to support the local community, so if you’re in the area be sure to swing by, perhaps while visiting the unusual brown Lawson.

Vending machine information
Michi no Eki Ozu / 道の駅 大津
Address: Kumamoto-ken, Kikuchi-gun, Ozumachi, Ooaza, Hikimizu 759

Photos ©SoraNews24
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