By Matt Hickman, Mother Nature NetworkLive bait vending machine.
Remember when your typical vending machine sold Doritos, Diet Pepsi, Dorals and Doublemint Gum? And when they (gasp!) accepted only nickels, dimes and quarters? As eating and other habits have evolved - and junk food has become less of a 24/7 self-serve munchie-machine staple - so too has the vending machine industry. Things that you thought you'd never be able to purchase out of a giant rectangular box plugged into the wall are now available - whenever you need them. (Case in point: the morning-after pill uproar in Pennsylvania.)
This trend goes way beyond apples, baby carrots and whole grain crackers. We're talking about live crabs, gold, acne medication and swim apparel. These odd vending machine items aren't just in Japan, a vending-crazed nation that boasts one machine for every 23 people, selling such useful items as electronics, umbrellas, rice, eggs, instant noodles and "used" women's panties. Vending machines with decidedly eclectic inventory are sprouting up in North America, too.
Here you'll find nine vending machines from around the world that offer more than a bag of chips or a cold soda. Have you stumbled across - or even used - a vending machine that you found peculiar?
1. Bait and tackle (U.S.)
If you're a fisherman, sometimes you just need trout nuggets, night crawlers and crayfish at 3 a.m. As a result, vending machines that sell fishing bait - both live and frozen - and supplies are an increasingly common sight outside of rural gas stations and convenience stores. Bait and tackle vending machine industry leader, Elverson, Pa.-based Live Bait Vending, offers three types of machines: the standard-model Liberty, the energy-efficient Sportsman and the Coastal, a high-tech frozen machine with a robotic arm specifically geared toward the saltwater market.
2. Live hairy crabs (Nanjing, China)
Have you ever had emerged from a stuffy, overcrowded subway car and craved a snack that's cool, crisp and soothing - something to refresh that stressed-out straphanger palate, perhaps? For when a fresh fruit smoothie or frozen yogurt just won't cut it, commuters in Nanjing, China, have the option of purchasing crustaceans - specifically live hairy crabs (scrumptious!) - from refrigerated vending machines placed throughout the city's metro stations.
3. Bananas (Tokyo and the U.S.)
Don't feel like indulging in a live crab after a trying subway commute? We don't either. In June 2010, Japanese commuters were blessed with a popular, potassium-centric vending machine installed at Tokyo's bustling Shibuya station that dispenses a decidedly more appealing snack item: Dole bananas for 130 yen ($1.50) apiece. Vending machines that stock fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy options have also started to appear stateside although early models went over "like a turd in a punch bowl," Spencer Cox of Vending Services, Inc. delicately told the Wall Street Journal.
Related: Japan's vending machines sell chilled bananas, read minds
4. Wine (U.S.)
To circumvent the Keystone State's archaic liquor laws, some Pennsylvania grocers have experimented with installing high-tech vino vending machines that not only peddle bottles of wines from Yellow Tale and Sutter Home but also perform a Breathalyzer test and, of course, verify your age. MNN's resident foodie, Robin Shreeves, who is appalled that local wines aren't available through the kiosks, writes: "There are many things I find ridiculous about this process. The amount of resources it takes to create these vending machines, or wine kiosks, is unnecessary. The wines aren't refrigerated. They are at room temperature behind glass doors that look like a refrigerator. A shelf would work just as well. The person determining if the photo ID matches the face in the screen couldn't possibly do as good of a job as a live person could do - especially in the limited time available."
5. Gold (U.S., Europe, Dubai, Abu Dhabi)
Although on-the-go gold diggers can find self-serve bullion dispensaries in somewhat predicable locales - the Frankfort airport, hotels in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas - courtesy of German company GOLD to go, America's first vending machine to sell 2-ounce bars made from precious metal arrived just in time for the 2010 holiday shopping season at a mall in … Boca Raton, Fla., a retiree-heavy town where you'd think most of the flash comes from chintzy costume jewelry and dental crowns, not 24-carat ATMs. Unlike most vending machines, this one has a 10-day return policy.
Related: World's Most Expensive Burger to benefit charity
6. Acne medication (U.S.)
Picture this: You're spending a perfectly pleasant Saturday afternoon at the local mall with your girlfriends. Becky's mom is picking you up in 30 minutes so you're trying to cram in as much as possible.
But everything comes to a screeching halt when Madison points out a fresh crater that's emerged on your forehead somewhere in between Hollister and Panda Express. Embarrassed and remembering that you're fresh out of acne serum at home, you panic and consider fleeing into the ALDO to take cover. But wait … isn't there a Proactiv vending machine just outside of J.Crew? Yes, there sure is. Crisis averted.
7. Prayer candles (worldwide)
Putting the class into mass is a most blessed breed of vending machine that sells prayer candles to 24-hour party pious people at various houses of worship including St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Miami's Little Cuba district. Not included in these machines: edibles (holy water, communion wafers), trinkets (rosary beads, miniature crucifixes) or salvation.
8. Fresh pizza (Italy)
So much for Sbarro … where else but in Italy (except for Japan, of course) can you find an oversized vending machine that actually mixes and kneads dough, adds your favorite fresh toppings and bakes a fresh "genuine Italian pizza" in an infrared oven in less than 3 minutes? Head on over to Let's Pizza to watch the sexiest pizza vending machine spokeswoman this side of Naples gives a thorough demonstration.
Related: Girl slaps mom with piece of pizza, saves life
9. Swimsuits (U.S.)
So you've just checked yourself into one of Andre Balazs's super-trendy, pool party-friendly Standard Hotels in Hollywood, downtown L.A., Miami or New York. You remembered to pack your cool kid clothes, but you forgot one little thing: your swimsuit. But not to worry, as you can purchase a pair of sporty, $75 Quicksilver board shorts - or a simple black bikini for the ladies - at a poolside vending machine that also peddles pool-appropriate paraphernalia like sunglasses and $28 sunscreen. Or, if you'd like to pretend that you purchased your eye-catching trunks at a poolside vending machine at a hip boutique hotel in Miami, you can just order them online.