TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Japan, which sells everything from live crabs to used lingerie in its ubiquitous automatic vending machines, is now staking its claim to a precious new market: gold.
A Japanese computer parts manufacturer and gold importer, Space International, has put gold into vending machines -- in the form of gold coins and bars -- in the hope of luring more customers to buy the metal.
Risk-averse Japanese have traditionally bought gold rather than other metals or exchange-traded gold funds, but the process by which they are purchased has remained bureaucratic and complicated for some would-be buyers.
"We were selling gold items through mail order until last year and thinking about ways to reduce commissions and avoid the annoying registration process," said Makishi Rokugawa, president of Space International.
"So we developed this vending machine to help our customers buy gold at a cheaper price and more conveniently."
The vending machine offers both gold and silver items including coins and mini-bars that weigh upwards of 1 gram (0.032 troy ounces.)
Prices vary by day and by item, with a gold coin from the Australian Perth Mint currently fetching top dollars or yen at about 38,350 yen ($466).
Installed in the company's lobby a week ago, the machine has already reeled in some 50 customers.
"Purchasing gold from a bank or store can be quite annoying because they require me to fill in forms, so I think this is a good idea," said 42-year-old Shinichiro Takizawa, who in the last 5 years has collected about 100 grams (3.2 troy ounces) of gold.
"Though I'm not sure the price is right because I can't ask the machine the market rate of gold."
Gold is known as a safe-haven ploy, and Japanese retail prices surged to a 28-year high near $48 a gram in December. While its luster has dimmed a bit in the past few months, it still clings near record highs.
Rokugawa hopes to provoke more domestic demand through additional machines before mining new veins of interest in Asia or elsewhere overseas.
"There were requests for the machine from customers in other regions, so we're planning to produce more machines for those areas, but no plans yet for overseas," he said.
Japan's vending machine association says there's a vending machine for every 32 citizens, with the machines raking in over $60 billion in 2009.
Reporting and writing by Hyun Oh; editing by Elaine Lies