Unmanned roadside stores in Japan

One of the things I've always really liked about Japan is that once you get out of the big cities, you start coming across these things called mujin hanbai, literally "unmanned selling." Mujin hanbais are simply small, open-faced huts with shelves and a roof. Owned by a nearby local farmer, more often than not, they're shoddily -- but cleverly! -- built, and stumbling across one is always a treat.

You see, early every morning, a farmer will totter over and stock the shelves with freshly picked fruit, vegetables or even flowers. They'll set out a price tag (often just a propped up, torn piece of cardboard) and leave some kind of container for the passerby to drop in his or her coins. At the end of the day, they'll return to collect their profits and hurry home to get some sleep before they're up at dawn to pick more produce to once again stock their little unmanned shop.

Some mujin hanbai are just people who have family gardens and grow too much to eat. Others are farmers with bigger fields, but have vegetables or fruit that, while perfectly delicious, might be blemished or oddly shaped and cannot be sold to a supermarket. All those misfit veggies find themselves on an outdoor shelf to be sold using the honor system.

That is what is so endearing about this whole system. In my 28 years of living in Japan, I've never seen or heard about anyone taking advantage of these unmanned, self-serve, roadside stores. You go for a walk and come across one, check your pockets for change, and purchase some fresh greens for the night's meal. No one would think of stealing the food or the money that's been left by customers, even though, more often than not, it's just a piece of tupperware with a hole cut on top.

It's a small thing, but it's sweet, and when I see one of these mujin hanbai for a moment, at least, it makes me feel a little bit better in this ever uncertain world.

Photos by Thersa Matsuura

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