Tag Archives: vending machines

Part 1: getting there

I have a longer post or possible essay brewing about why it was such a big old deal for me to go overseas this winter. The short version is that in October I’d taken on the job of general manager for a restaurant in Los Angeles; a position which–like all restaurant management positions–demanded 98% of my energy and attention 100% of the time, whether I was at the restaurant or not. Transitioning from hourly to salaried in restaurant work is sort of like going from nannying to being a parent of a toddler. Only because the flights had been booked months earlier was I able to justify leaving for 7 days in the middle of January and I’d pulled serious strings to do so. By the time I boarded my flight to Tokyo on January 12, I’d not had a day away from the restaurant since Christmas Day.

I took off from LAX on Sunday morning, flew for 12 or 13 hours, and landed at Haneda on Monday afternoon. Knowing that this was a work trip, I decided my actual “vacation” would be the flight over and was determined to enjoy it. Twelve glorious hours to turn off my wifi, nap, listen to books and practice my Hiragana. I had gone to Daiso to get comfy slipper socks and a neck pillow, and stocked up on bourgie snack foods the night before.

A "Welcome to Tokyo 2020" poster
Simpler times, like when we did things like plan Olympic games

To my surprise and delight, this coach LA-Tokyo flight included 3 very respectable meals and an individual seat-welcoming package of slippers, blanket, pillow, and extra headphones. After eighteen days of straight stress-nightmare-inducing restaurant labor, this was the goddam height of luxury in a 17-inch-wide airplane seat. I felt like a baller in my un-reclined middle seat, if only because I wasn’t standing at the pass in the kitchen yelling for the next order.

My feelings about Japan and Japanese culture have conflicted and changed over the years. My brother and I used to stay up late at our parents’ house cheering along to samurai movies on cable, and of course in recent months I’d become enmeshed in a society of Japanese sake lovers in Los Angeles. It’s a culinary culture I admire for its precision, depth, and commitment to quality. However, there is something creepy about Americans who are, like, really into Japanese pop culture, for what feels like the wrong reasons. Japanophilia exists in an uncomfortable borderland of fandom, admiration, appropriation, and fetishization and I wanted to be on the right side of it.

Aside from all that, as a large, ungraceful westerner with less-than-great attention to detail, the stereotype of a culture defined by precision and perfectionism made me itchy.

Holding my insecurities and my travel anxiety inside like an air bubble in my belly, I disembarked. I’d come with what I thought was a really cool but not particularly practical carry on bag. I’d packed outfits with sensible cold-weather staples that I thought would be casual yet professional, and sleepwear I didn’t mind throwing away to make room for all the sake I was going to bring back.

Photo of a stiff leather carry on bag.
Cool but impractical handmade bucket bag I got at a sample sale. Compliments welcome to offset back pain.

Let’s go: I landed in Tokyo. I had the evening to get my bearings. I’d been practicing phrases on my Japanese! app and the audiobook I’d borrowed from the LAPL and gotten about halfway through. I was medium confident I could order a drink, ask where the restrooms were. I attempted to take out my entire trip budget from the 7-11 airport ATM as I’d read these were more likely to connect with international bank accounts, and also that it was important to have cash on hand.

After three failed withdrawal attempts and a google search, I realized I’d misplaced the decimal point in my exchange rate calculations and was asking the 7-11 for roughly three times my net worth. A quick online conversation with the bank cleared things up and I was soon in the black again.

I pride myself on my public transit skills. Having lived in New York for ten years and ridden every single line on that spaghetti-looking map, I’ve confidently navigated Paris, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Boston with panache. I won’t say I could’ve made it from the airport to my hotel without a smart phone, but that I could do this without having to talk to a human being was a huge relief.

From my travel journal:

I’m grinning with the very excitement I was too young and numb to allow myself to feel in Paris ten years ago, when I was obsessed as appearing like a savvy local instead of a wide-eyed tourist. What a waste. We should all strive to have more wide eyed days.

According to Google I’d arrived on “coming of age day,” a bank holiday. The streets were pretty deserted, as were many of the restaurants. The hotel room was close and tidy and utterly comfortable. I considered just going to sleep, but rallied, put on some lipstick, and set out to walk the neighborhood. This lasted all of 10 minutes. Passing well-dressed couples with small children walking, students, trying to remember what I’d read about escalator etiquette and stay focused in search of food, I caved and turned around.

A quick stop in at the hotel bar met with a few blank stares from some bored looking bartenders. None of us were up for this. The jet lag tugged on me. Not even the promise of affordable superior quality whisky could keep me out. I wanted to eat, but I didn’t want to talk. Malaise, hard. I remembered part of my aversion to travel was how much energy it takes to engage socially in any language. Fatigue brought a need to dive for cover like a prey animal.

Thank the gods for totally adequate in-flight meals. Not all that hungry, I stopped at one of those famous vending machine stations on my hotel floor. With my newly withdrawn Yen I took out two lagers and a can of tomato juice to go with my stash of bison and venison jerky, Cliff bars, Lara bars. I got into my pajamas and ate on the bed. I’m not sure how this is, etiquette wise; pause was given. I was supposed to be making the most of a rare opportunity and all. But whatever, there I was in my “western style” hotel room acting like a western girl and in bed by 8:30. Authenticity could happen tomorrow.

A vending machine full of beer cans
Dinner is served.
Suntory brand tomato juice. Ready to increase some lycopene, snitches.

From the Chocolate Files: Whole Triumph

I developed a deep seated love for many things during my 2002 spring semester in London: public transportation, drum & bass, Stongbow, Caryll Churhill and – most fervently –  Cadbury Whole Nut chocolate bars.

The Whole Nut, not to be confused with the much busier Fruit and Nut, is a magnificent combination of sugary smooth chocolate and whole hazelnuts.  It’s as if Mr. Goodbar had a cousin with a cute accent, and after the first time Goodbar brought him by your house, you secretly wished he was your friend instead.

They were at the time sold in vending machines on the London Underground platforms.  This is a game of chance for the consumer, as you never could tell if your delicious snack would dispense before the train rolled into the station.  One such machine provided me with the singular triumph of my chocolate-eating existence, one that I still marvel at years later.

It was a rainy Saturday morning, as most Saturday mornings are in London in March, and I was waiting on the platform at Regent’s Park station to catch the Bakerloo line to Paddington Station. My friend S. was arriving on a 10:30 train from Bath, where he was also spending a semester.  Actually, we were not quite friends, per se.  We’d dated the entire previous year and arranged to go to the UK together, until we broke up just before departure.  It was very, very important that I was nice to him this day.

Unfortunately, the previous night had been spent at a very cheap comedy club located in London’s financial district, stealthily finishing off half-empty bottles of red wine my friends and I lifted from the tables of early-departed middle-aged Brits. Even in 2002, the dollar was doing us no favors and none of us could afford to drink.

We stayed through all three sets, not caring that it was after midnight and the tubes had stopped running. The trek back to our at-critical-mass student flat just south of Camden Town, though not normally that far, was as long and arduous as a Dickensian-era breach birth. I recall lying down in a bus shelter at one point and imploring my brave comrades to go on without me, and the frenzied joy of finding a pay toilet after what felt like hours, holding the door open a crack so that each of us could go using the only 20p coin we had on us.  By the time we reached home, it was after three. But I could not face the guilt of leaving S. stranded at Paddington on his first trip to London.

So with a hefty quantity of red wine still sloshing in my head, I waited dutifully the next morning on the platform, wanting to die.  What could possibly ease my suffering?

The Cadbury machine shone in its royal purple glory, offering chocolate salvation from halitosis and headache.  A quick search of the crevices of my bag yielded two 20p coins, just shy of the 50p needed. I peered from the edge of the platform into the tunnel and saw no train lights approaching. One more desperate plunge into my jeans pockets miraculously came up with a shiny 10p.

In went the coins into the slot. I punched the Whole Nut button.

Not a sound.

I punched the button again. Still nothing.

That is, except for the sound of the train trundling down the tunnel toward me.  My heart leapt. This was no time to be picky.

I rabidly punched the Fruit & Nut, Dairy Milk, the chewing gum, praying for some sugar to get me to Paddington.

The machine reacted nonchalantly as the train doors slid open.  Bleary passengers stared flatly as I waved my hands in front of the slot to get it to hurry. The cheery auto-announcement voice called out the station stop and instructed us to stand clear of the doors.  I hovered halfway between the open doors and the vending machine, full of woe.

Something thunked in the machine.  The train doors began to close.

I lunged at the candy slot, jamming my hand inside and closing a tight fist around the contents.  I threw myself across the platform, diving through the encroaching doors, hitting the train floor and pulling my feet in just as they came to a close.  The passengers stared at me, faces full of English disdain.  Just as I started to feel embarrassed, I opened my fist.

Not one.  Not two.  But three.  Two Fruit & Nut and one Whole Nut bars clenched in my clammy hand.  I held them up for all to see, grinning my victory throughout the train car, dared anyone to mock me. I was Boudicca sacking the Romans.  I was Churchill weathering the storm. The day was mine.

I consumed two of the bars on the way to Paddington and presented the third to S., to welcome him to the city that had been treating me so well.