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It’s late, you’re tempted to watch another episode of your favourite TV series and a snack would be the cherry-on-top to your night in. But how to find a place that can give you exactly what you’re craving? Maybe you want a sandwich. Maybe you want ice cream. Maybe you want to pay your bills, send a package, check your bank account and pick up some extra quarantine toilet paper. Wait, what? In Japan, there exists a one-stop-shop for life: the conbini. And they’re everywhere.
Japan has many densely populated cities, so just like anywhere else, real estate is in high demand. Whereas supermarkets take up for too much space in the middle of a neighbourhood, conbini are just the right size to be sewn into the fabric of society. Conbini are a neighbourhood staple in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, so much so, that you can narrow down online apartment searches by how close conbini are to your prospective living quarters. Even in more rural areas, there’s bound to be at least one of the “big three” convenience store chains to be found, likely near the area considered to be “city centre.” The big three conbini giants are 7-11, Family Mart and Lawsons, the majority of which are open 24/7.
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Conbini in Japan is a complete 180 to what you may already be used to finding at home. In the US, where 7-11 originated, its primary purpose is to be a place where you fill up your gas tank and get you some munchies and soda for the remainder of your road trip. The best food options you have awaiting may be a day-old hot dog, a sizzling taquito, or an oversized candy bar, which is fine if you have a junk food itch to scratch. However, what would you do if 7-11 served…tiramisu? Bento boxes with fried chicken and pickles? A full plate of “not-sketchy” sushi? Well this, and much more, is exactly what awaits you on the shelves of convenience stores across Japan. For anyone who has been to Japan before, it’s precisely the satisfying, not-too-guilty junk food you crave most when you’re dreaming of your next big vacation to the Land of the Rising Sun (the rice balls, or onigiri, certainly was that for me).
And the convenience doesn’t stop at snacks and accessibility. The many tasks of adulthood that take a toll on your weekly errand runs, get slashed down into one stop with the conbini (and what better to reward yourself than some melon bread on the way out). After a late night in the office, an afternoon cramming for entrance exams, or just not having the energy to make it to the supermarket before closing time, being able to go to ONE place to check off all the boxes on your to-do list makes the conbini an indispensable part of everyday life.
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Kids love perusing the isles for classic, beloved snacks and weekly comic series. Students can utilize the printer for homework or stop by one of the ticket machines to get concert tickets for their favourite boy band. Young adults have an easy and cheap source for quick lunches, pre-or-post-party drinks, or easily shareable snacks for a karaoke session. Working parents have the option of picking up coffee or dinner on the way home from work when they want to have a lazy day without cooking. Japan’s older demographic, who in large part live alone, benefit from single portion sizes of food or just not have to worry about straying too far from home when trying to accomplish the many errands that come with city life. And of course, no one can resist the many adorable seasonal options that have but a fleeting moment on the conbini store shelves.
Then, there’s tourists.
When confronting a conbini for the first time, which all visitors to Japan inevitably will, people are enamoured with the service, the cleanliness, and the plethora of snack and ready-made meal options that are just begging to be tasted. How the conbini manages to pack nearly every object you’d find yourself in need of inside its small walls seems like magic Your battery to your camera died; you accidentally spilled soy sauce on your white shirt (you can remedy this with a stain remover pen or WHOLE NEW SHIRT); or maybe, you’re exhausted from a day of walking and you need some Pocari Sweat to help push you through the rest of your journey. The conbini has you covered.
Whether you have had the pleasure of visiting Japan or not, when you do find yourself in one of the many convenience stores looking for something to eat, I highly implore you to savour the journey of “the search.” Japan is known for celebrating the seasons, so keep an eye out for everyday items with new seasonal flavours. For example, you may find a peach flavoured Coke, a cherry blossom flavoured Kit-Kat, or a sweet potato flavoured latte. Without a doubt, make sure you try one of the delicious little triangle treats, onigiri (rice balls). Consider these the sandwiches of Japan. Nutritious fillings such as salmon roe, pickled plum, or the infamous natto (fermented soybeans that are not to be trifled with) are packaged in a portable rice and seaweed combo. They are a simple work of culinary art. If the Japanese version of the sandwich doesn’t exactly “spark joy,” you are in luck, take the advice of famous chef Anthony Bourdain, and try the tamago-sando, or egg sandwich. Even better, have a go at the egg-sandwich/shrimp-fillet combo, which is my personal favourite. Most importantly, keep an open mind, trust that the ready meals will blow your mind (but not your budget) and keep your eyes peeled for new and exciting (and sometimes perturbing) things to taste.
It’s a joy to live in a country where conbini is King.