17 Mar 2011

Driving and drinking: Alex Thomson meets the extraordinary Japanese vending machine

Alex Thomson falls in love with the extraordinary Japanese vending machines that he encounters on his journey on the long road north

Japan road and volcano (Getty)The Channel 4 News northern Japan unit has a little issue just now. We are in grave danger. The fact is, we are beginning to run out of Japan.

Because of events further south quite understandably ITN decided we should put some distance between ourselves and possible meltdown. This we have endeavoured to do. Or rather, our astonishing driver Makita has done it – driving  endlessly today – an experience he describes as: “a bit boring”.

Who said the Brits had the copyright on understatement?

The plan has been to drive north until we ran out of Honshu Island and then catch the ferry for four hours or so across the straight to Hokkaido Island.

It has been a wonderful journey in many ways, passing through the glorious mountains of northern Japan with perfect Fuji-esque snowy volcanoes popping up to greet us as the hours rolled by.

Across the course of this we’ve been entertained variously on Japanese radio by Dame Vera Lynn with “We’ll meet again”, through to Sinead O’Connor once again informing us that “Nothing Compares to You” and all this – would you believe – via a remarkable orchestral reworking of “You’ll never walk alone”.

Yup – say what you like, they keep it eclectic as you ride through the night in the company of Japanese FM stations.

Speaking of radio stations, various ones from Dublin to Vancouver via Chicago Illinois have been in touch to get our views on how our little team sees things in the terrible quake zone of north eastern Honshu.

Such is the sometimes odd world of on-the-road news gathering – simultaneously global and yet somehow rather intimate.

Let’s face it, you don’t make a journey like this one every day and you need some entertainment. For the ignorant Englishman abroad, like me, this comes in the form of our various rest breaks along the way. For I have fallen in love, hopelessly, deeply, with the art form which is Japanese drinks vending machines.

No, I don’t care what you say about Bonzai, Origami, or even the fantastic Shinkansen Bullet trains – they’re all wonderful. But as Sinead would have it, nothing compares to a Japanese drinks vending machine.

Please skip the next bit if you know about this. But I don’t. And I’m in love. It is incredible. We’ve just been shown one which played a four camera video shoot from inside the machine, portraying in loving detail and with sensitive lighting, the production of your instant coffee. Yes! Really, I’m told that in Tokyo you get machines with videos on the front which will respond to your mood.

For instance smile at the machine – and it will suggest a frothy latte or some such.  Should you frown however, you will be instantly counselled to a lavish can of Red Bull to pep you up.

All in all an instructive journey in between the long hours on the road and intermittent blizzards.  It’s 2.47am, about a zillion and four below zero, and still Makita drives steadily on. Clearly not a man who likely needs recourse to the Red Bull. Oh and by the way in case you wonder why we are doing this, it’s a sensible temporary regrouping.

Tomorrow we hope to be filming with the US military up here, unless we overshoot and get lifted by Putin’s boys. After that? Hopefully we move back down to the quake zone carefully and cautiously from vending machine to vending machine.

Red Bull anybody?