CONVENIENCE STORES: GET EXCITED!
You may be confused by the title of this post if you come from the West. Convenience stores, in America at least, have never really been a cause for celebration. Sure, they're convenient, but they can also be kind of gross and are generally pretty taken for granted. Growing up, if I ever told someone that I ate lunch from a convenience store (in the form of some old lukewarm hot dogs or "taquitos" that had probably been left out for hours if not for the entire day), I was likely to receive a glance of disgust or concern. However, in Japan, it's a completely different story.
Japanese convenience stores are seriously one of my favorite parts about living in Japan, and I am NOT exaggerating. I promise.
To attempt to list somewhat comprehensively all of the different kinds of goods and services which you can find at your neighborhood konbini (Japanese term for "convenience store"), there are: both cold and hot foods which include small packaged snacks as well as fuller meals in the form of bento boxes and bowls of pasta/noodles (you can have any pre-packaged meal heated up for free by your cashier via a high-powered microwave), etc.; both cold and hot drinks including but definitely not limited to alcohol, coffee and sports drinks (Japan is notorious for how many different kinds of crazy but delicious soft drink products it sells via convenience stores and vending machines) ; all sorts of household and useful appliances from batteries and toothbrushes to toilet paper and beauty products; photocopiers and printers; postboxes and postage stamps (you know, like for mailing); ticket vending machines which allow you to purchase and print tickets for sporting events, concerts, theme parks, museums, and so forth; ATMs which, like virtually all of the convenience stores, are 24/7-operable and may not even charge you a service fee depending upon your bank (for international travelers, 7/11 is your best bet in this regard); and I've even heard from friends that they've been able to purchase vehicle insurance from their local kobini as well... which kind of blows my mind.
Japanese convenience stores, which are ubiquitous to the extent that one should be visible from if not directly located on almost every single street corner in the country, are just so damn multi-faceted and, well, convenient. Ah, I almost forgot- I, along with most Japanese people, actually pay my utility bills at the convenience store as well. That's right. You can just bring your gas, water, or electric bill to your preferred local konbini, hand it to the cashier along with the cash value due, they'll stamp it to show that it's been paid, and then scan it with a device to electronically notify the utility company that your account has been balanced. It's awesome.
I think by now you're probably understanding what sets Japanese konbini apart from that run-down 7/11 you stop at for gas and a Slurpee sometimes (granted, Slurpees are pretty great...). The one thing I want to stress about konbini though, before I finish this post, is the food. It really. Is. That. Good.
There's really no end to the deliciousness that oozes forth from the Japanese convenience store. I think what really distinguishes the convenience store food from that in America is the variety and the freshness. Some of my personal favorite konbini snacks are onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed and typically containing some variety of fish, egg, meat, or vegetable inside), Burugaria (ブルガリア) aka Bulgarian yogurt, protein bars which cost just over a dollar and have got over 10 grams of tanpaku (protein), pork cutlet and egg salad sandwiches, fried chicken bites and spicy corn dogs which somehow always seem fresh, and so much more! Celebrity chef, food critic, and travel guru Anthony Bourdain has actually gone on record stating that egg salad sandwiches from Japanese konbini are one of his favorite snacks on the planet- google it! If you're a sweet tooth, there are SO many different kinds of sweet snacks, candies and chocolates available including a constantly stocked ice cream freezer-bin with all sorts of Japanese ice cream products which can't be found elsewhere. Everyone's got their favorite, but mine are the Janbo ("Jumbo") ice cream bars which are basically giant waffle bars filled with ice cream. They're delicious and super refreshing, especially in the spring and summer.
On the note of freshness, I think it's important to note that those aforementioned hot dogs and taquitos which are likely to sit out for hours and eventually victimize some reluctant teenager or truck driver in American convenience stores would NEVER be passed off as acceptable for consumption in konbini. The food that is found on the shelves and in the hot food warmers is never allowed to sit for too long. If it's packaged, I have heard that it is not allowed to stay on the shelves for longer than a day despite the fact that it's wrapped in plastic. You can actually witness new shipments of packaged food being delivered and stocked onto the shelves at regular intervals throughout the day to any given store, even in the late hours of the night or wee hours of the morning. As for the hot food like fried chicken which is kept in warmers at the cashier counters, I suspect that the cashiers regularly do away with anything that's been sitting too long because I really can't recall ever seeing anything that looked as nasty as the hot food in American convenience stores. It always looks and tastes good, at least in my opinion.
The awesomeness of the konbini really has to be experienced for one's self, but as I tell my friends who come to Japan on travel- don't be afraid to eat entire meals from the convenience stores! The food really is that good and there really is so much of it that you could eat from it every day and by the time you actually somehow tried everything, there would be new products on the shelves. I, as well as Japanese people, have no shame in eating entire breakfasts, lunches, and dinners by consuming only convenience store food, and guess what- they're always delicious and I can make them different every time if I want to. I'm excited by the prospect of any of you readers coming to Japan and having your first konbini experiences. Enjoy this fun and hilarious video as well as some closing facts below which didn't make it into the main post.
Thanks for reading!
*The three main chains of convenience stores in Japan are 7/11, Lawson, and Family Mart, though there are others which are prevalent such as Sunkus (Circle K) and Ministop. 7/11 actually has more locations in Japan than anywhere else.
*Most if not all konbini have free wifi which can be accessed by selecting the network from your smartphone, opening your browser, and hitting a series of on-screen buttons which may or may not ask for you to enter basic information like your e-mail address.
*Konbini all accept credit cards for payment though many if not most Japanese restaurants do not, so it's a great option if you're low on or trying to conserve cash!
*There seems to be a common unofficial debate in Japan about which convenience store has the best fried chicken. I hear this topic discussed often by both my Japanese friends and fellow foreigners. Most commonly, Lawson chicken and Family Mart's "Fami Chicken" seem to be the given answers, though Japanese people tend to tell me that they find 7/11 to be the best and most prolific konbini chain.