The Japanese Konbini – The Best in Convenience Technology
Modern life is geared towards convenience. In the West, we like everything to be easily accessible, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Japan is no different. Let’s focus on one specific aspect: convenience stores. Here’s how Japan is getting it oh so right.
What Can I Expect From Convenience Stores in Japan?
Excellent question. An awful lot. They sell cosmetics, hygiene products, DVDs, books, magazines, manga, toys, snack foods, frozen foods, bento boxes (lunch style boxes popular in Japan, they also have a wide variety), hot food, cold food, drinks (hot, cold, alcoholic), umbrellas, and they all have toilet facilities, ATM’s and 24-hour opening times. Also, in nearly every city in Japan, you can't drive or walk very far without seeing one, so you’re always within reach if you need something.
What Are The Best Ones To Visit?
I’m a frequent visitor to both Lawson’s and FamilyMart. They're very similar in terms of what they offer, with some small differences. I’d say Lawson’s are more common (on Okinawa), but you aren’t hard pressed to find either really. Staff in both are always friendly and helpful, and most speak good English, so if you can’t speak any Japanese at all, you can get by just fine.
I Don’t Speak Any Japanese! How Will I Know What I’m Getting?
Fear not! A lot of products also have English translations, and those that don't have pictures on them, so you can clearly see what it is. Hygiene products and drinks especially are pretty self explanatory. Bento is a bit more of a challenge, as these are only in Japanese. They come in clear lidded boxes, so you can see inside, but of course, what looks like chicken could be seafood! If you’re really worried, ask a member of staff. I would try asking them for what it is you want, for example chicken, rather than trying to get them to explain what’s in a bento box (most speak good English, but some don’t, asking too complex a question could be awkward for both of you!). ATM’s have an English option, though sadly they don’t accept all non-Japanese cards, it’s something you’ll have to try. Toilets too are clearly marked, so you won’t accidentally end up in the wrong one!
What’s Worth Trying?
Another excellent question. Why not be a little brave and try something unusual? There are a lot of very typical foods on offer, but also some not so typical. I can highly recommend a strawberry and custard sandwich from Lawson’s. It’s exactly what it sounds like: fresh, sliced strawberries nestle between soft white bread slices, coated in whipped cream and custard. It sounds outlandish but it’s actually amazing. It’s like lunch and dessert all rolled into one! Why not wash it down with a royal milk tea? This is one of my favourite drinks. It’s basically tea as English people drink it (milk, tea, a little sugar) but cold. Again, sounds gross, but really good. Hot tea is available too, there’s a small hot drinks cabinet in every convenience store. Another good drink to try is the matcha latte. Matcha is a green leaf tea, hailing from Japan, it’s got a sweet taste, with a big splash of green tea, green tea powder, and umami flavor, great hot or cold. If you’re looking for more food options, either the soba (buckwheat) noodles or tonkatsudon (fried pork on rice) are winners in my book. I especially like the Lawson’s weenie with meat sauce (basically a frankfurter, mince sauce and cheese wrapped in a soft tortilla). They also have a great selection of desserts, the chocolate roll and the macaroons are to die for. Each convenience store also has an oden bar (help yourself to a container, and fill it with a variety of items and a loose soup base that usually contains gelatine, eggs, marrow, radish, etc.) not to my particular tastes but a popular dish in Japan. Along with that, there is a hot food counter serving steamed buns, corn dogs, chicken, potatoes and skewers. You really are spoilt for choice.
Another thing they have a lot of is free magazines. While their purchasable magazines are available, they are on another shelf. The free ones are usually just inside the store entrance, and they almost always have 0 yen written on them so you know there’s no chance of inadvertent theft. These are, however, always in Japanese. Not so great if you don’t understand the language, but for speakers and learners, these are a great free resource. They have a variety of subjects too. The fashion and beauty ones in particular are really informative on local trends, and a good practice read for a budding Japanese speaker like myself!
I’d love to know what gems you find, please leave comments with your Japanese convenience store purchases! Happy shopping!