Featured image by Ruby Khoesial on Unsplash
Picture this: it’s late, you’ve had a busy day, and you still have some errands to run. You need to pay your hydro bill, get some dinner, and buy a train ticket. Where would you go? Well, I suppose you could go online… but what if you also had to print some photos and withdraw some cash? There’s no place you could possibly do all of that, right? Wrong. There are over 50,000 convenience stores in Japan, many of which offer all of these services and more.
Japan’s first 7-Eleven opened in 1974. Since then, the country has perfected the very idea of the convenience store, so much so that the Japanese word konbini (short for ‘convenience store’) has taken on its own meaning. For a konbini is more than just a corner store. It’s a place people have come to depend on in a world that grows ever more fast-paced.
So, just who is frequenting Japanese convenience stores? In short, everyone. Years ago, the konbini was seen as a place where busy salarymen could get a quick, unhealthy meal and take it back to a tiny apartment to enjoy in solitude. However, a lot has changed, and convenience stores in Japan now have something to offer for everyone. Sure, you can buy snacks, ice cream and soft drinks, or even beer, but you can also find any fun and interesting types of alcohol, sushi, and fresh vegetables. Busy parents can go there to pick up healthy meals for their families, or find that one missing ingredient they forgot to get at the grocery store.
Convenience stores in Japan offer a wide array of food and drink, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s say you were at work and spilled coffee all over your white shirt. Well, you could simply walk on over to the nearest konbini and pick up a new one, as well as a tie and some socks if you so desired.
If you were to survey the people of Japan, you would quickly find that many are loyal to certain convenience stores, or that they rely on different stores depending on what items they are looking for. One of the most famous specialty items is Family Mart’s fried chicken (‘famichiki’). Those loyal to the chain will swear that this juicy fried chicken holds the top spot among all konbini cuisine. Daily Yamazaki, another convenience store chain, is known for having the best fresh bread of all the konbini. You can find delicious melon pan (pan means bread), curry pan, and other favourites in their ‘Daily Hot’ bakery section. This is no surprise as their parent corporation, Yamazaki, is Japan’s largest baking company.
Now, the next contender vying for convenience store supremacy is Lawson. This company has made their name through continuous innovation. Aside from their regular stores, they also have Natural Lawson and Lawson Store 100 (usually referred to as ‘Hyaku-en Lawson’). Natural Lawson is a favourite among the health conscious, and offers a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, supplements, and other items for healthy living. As for Hyaku-en Lawson, the name simply means ‘100-yen’, as it is a discount convenience store, offering high quality items at a lower price. Hyaku-en Lawson locations tend to be much simpler than Natural Lawson or Lawson stores, and are unlikely to offer many services such as printing or paying bills. One advantage Lawson tends to have over its competition is its selection of craft beers, so if you are looking for something a little different than Asahi or Sapporo, then look no further.
There are many different convenience stores in Japan, all with something special to offer, but 7-Eleven might just reign supreme. Consider this the quintessential konbini. It might not have one item that stands out, but it has a great selection of bread, salads, and bento available all hours of the day and night. They also offer a wide range of services for travelers, including the best bilingual ATM machines! When you walk into 7-Eleven and hear The Monkees’ ‘Daydream Believer’ playing on a loop (as it does constantly), you’ll know you’re not just in a convenience store, but a konbini.
Now, before I go I will leave you with a couple of konbini-related tips for travelling around Japan. First off, most Japanese convenience stores are open 24 hours a day, so if you ever need something in the middle of the night, it is probably a safe bet that the konbini will have it. Secondly, it can be difficult to find public restrooms or garbage cans in Japan, and convenience stores are often able to provide both of these for those in need (though perhaps you should purchase something in exchange for using the facilities). So, with convenience stores on seemingly every corner in Japan, you should now be ready to take on any challenge you may face on your travels!