The Konbini

Walk through any street and Japan, and you won’t go far until you encounter a konbini….or a convenience store in Japan. On the commute from my home in the suburbs of Tokyo to my school in the financial district, I probably passed at least a dozen. In America, I wouldn’t touch convenience stores with a ten foot pole- they’re a huge misnomer. What’s so convenient about dirty stores, filled with week-old rotating hotdogs, dusty packages of chips, and cigarettes?

Japan, however, has taken the idea of convenience stores and completely transformed it. Walk into any konbini in Japan, and you’ll find fresh (nutritious!) food packaged that morning, manga books, candy, and more types of drinks than you can count. All the food, which is made fresh daily, is delivered periodically throughout the day. There’s no mysterious hotdogs or molten nacho cheese here, and it’s easy to make great nutritional choices, as every package is clearly labeled.

Salad and a selection of oden items from 7-11

Salad and a selection of oden items from 7-11

Just check out a few of things I managed to try:

  • Bottled hot and cold coffee, tea, energy drinks, vitamin drinks, soda, sake, beer, wine, hot chocolate, bottled lattes, mixed drinks, etc.
  • Bread, pastries, yakisoba pan (a bun filled with fried noodles), curry bread, melon flavored bread, etc.
  • Niku-man (a steamed bun filled with meat and onions, served hot), pizza-man (cheese and tomato sauce), and anko-man (sweet red bean paste)
  • Oden (a bowl of warm soup broth, filled with your choice of fried and stewed ingredients like tofu, radish, eggs, octopus, etc.)
  • Bento boxes, karage (fried chicken), rice, fresh salads, sushi, dumplings, ramen or udon noodles in soup, onigiri (rice balls), sandwiches, ice cream, etc.
Oden at 7-11. Customers choose which items they'd like to add to their broth.

Oden at 7-11. Customers choose which items they’d like to add to their broth.

Nikuman, a meat-filled steamed bun. They're kept hot at the register all day in many konbini.

Nikuman, a meat-filled steamed bun. They’re kept hot at the register all day in many konbini.

7-11, Lawsons, and Family Mart are the top 3 convenience stores and Japan, and you can usually find one of them on every street corner. Each morning, I stopped by the 7-11 near my campus to get a drink and an onigiri for breakfast, or stopped in later to get a bento box. The convenience store would be filled with salarymen on their lunch break, either grabbing a bite to eat or checking out the selection of manga at the front of the store.

A konbini breakfast. Veggie crisps, jasmine tea, and a latte with coffee jelly!

A konbini breakfast. Veggie crisps, jasmine tea, and a latte with coffee jelly!

And while the food is outstanding, what really sets the konbini apart is the sheer level of convenience that these stores offer. While I was in Japan, I paid my health insurance bill every month at the konbini. That’s right- you can pay bills. Try doing that at your local 7-11! Many people use their  konbini to purchase train, sporting event, and concert tickets, copy documents or send faxes, print pictures, or even pick up packages. The konbini truly embodies the value of convenience…American convenience stores could certainly learn a thing or two from their competition overseas.

Melon pan (front), cake bread, and green tea from Lawsons

Melon pan (front), cake bread, and green tea from Lawsons

If you ever visit Japan, I recommend playing “The Konbini Challenge.” When coming home from a night out, get off your train a stop or two from where you live or stay. As you walk home, visit every konbini you pass and buy an alcoholic beverage.

I think you’ll quickly learn just how pervasive konbinis are in Japan.

Ramune (Japanese soda) slush from Family Mart. Much tastier than the traditional slurpee!

Ramune (Japanese soda) slush from Family Mart. Much tastier than the traditional slurpee!

Don’t you wish convenience stores were like this in America? What would you change?

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3 thoughts on “The Konbini

  1. Reading your blog not only makes me hungry but has inspired me to visit Japan! The steamed dumplings look especially delicious in your photographs!

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