The Stores Without Staff

Overseas visitors to Japan are often surprised by the sheer number and variety of vending machines in the country. But there’s something which might just surprise them even more: Unmanned stores (mujin hanbai). A typical example would be a small hut or stall by the side of a field stocked with some fruit and vegetables, with a note on a box saying, “Please put the money in here.”

So, you spend a long time growing and making your crops, only to then sell them in this vulnerable way?! What about crime?! Well, it’s summer, a season where there’s lots of veggies to be harvested. What better time for PingMag to head out in search of these mysterious “unmanned shops”…

Real pop-up retail: This “shop” appears right in the middle of this residential district. You probably wouldn’t even notice it if you weren’t paying attention.

The things for sale are seasonal vegetables — cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant… There is also shiso and flowers, plus pickled cucumber and scallions.

How do you complete your purchase? Well, just choose the things you want to buy and then put the payment in this box. The box has been designed so you can’t easily pick it up and take it home.

After selling their crops to the market, farmers might then here sell the leftovers from their own personal supply. This means that the vegetables sometimes have markings or otherwise is not in the “perfect” condition demanded for sale on the regular market. But while the food may not always look wonderful, the taste will be just fine. Farmers, of course, don’t want to throw things away so by selling leftovers like this they can earn a bit of extra cash — two birds with one stone!

This unmanned shop is in Edogawa ward, Tokyo. Just a short distance from the main road and you encounter this large field and unattended stall.

This is the cute postbox where you put your money in to pay.

Retail chains extend even to the world of mujin hanbai: This unmanned store has three “branches” in Nerima ward!

Here the sellers have put up a recipe for how to make shiso juice with the shiso you can buy at the stall.

Nerima ward even has a website mapping unmanned shops, so you can see where there are stalls and what kinds of veggies are for sale there. There are over 120 unmanned stores registered! While Tokyo might have a reputation for being an asphalt jungle, it seems that if you just leave the center you can soon encounter a lot of fields.

Here the vegetables on sale are as usual left unattended but we were surprised by the use of lockers. We spoke to the person running the “shop” and they told us with a smile that “people would take off with the veggies if we just left them out.” Apparently there are more and more unmanned shops using this kind of locker system as security against theft. We could say it’s like a hybrid between a vending machine and unmanned shop.

Each locker is jam-packed with vegetables! Especially in the summer you might well worry that they would rot, but there’s a ventilator to prevent the veggies from getting too hot.

By evening everything was sold out. Local people would buy vegetables on the way back from a morning walk, so more often than not it would all be all gone by noon. If you want to get the best veggies, the early bird gets the worm, it seems.

There will no doubt be some readers wondering how you go about selling vegetables on the street. Well, in Japan you don’t need a special permit to operate a business on your own property. However, if you are selling processed goods like jam or pickles then you are apparently required to have authorization.

Other than that you just need a basic hut in order to provide shelter against the elements, and then you should make and arrange the price tags. That’s it.

We thought that these kinds of unmanned shops could only be seen in rural areas but actually Tokyo has a surprising number of them. And the vegetables are guaranteed to be fresher and better than the ones you buy in a supermarket. You might be unsure about buying something from them at first but don’t be shy — take a closer look next time you spot one!