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An Ode to the Japanese Convenience Store
7-Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson – it has many names and comes in many subtle forms. The Japanese convenience store, or conbini, is the ultimate daily living experience. From food and beverages to home goods and concert tickets — the conbini’s got you covered – 24/7.
The conbini stands on nearly every city block or nestled between rice fields in the countryside. The door opens with a woosh, and the clerk welcomes you with a melodious ‘irasshaimase’. The cool fluorescent lighting inside brings time to a standstill. Morning, noon, and night – there will always be the same fluorescent light. It’s as if Doctor Who owned a convenience store. It never seems particularly large from the outside, yet somehow it contains everything you need and more.
No experience required. Grab a basket and take a look around. Before you is a delightful assortment of quality fresh foods, including onigiri and sushi, fruits and vegetables, and bento. Want something else? Try looking at the ramen aisle, where you will find a mind-boggling offering of cup noodles. For your bento and cup noodles, you’ll find hot water and microwaves readily available. Looking for those trendy FamilyMart socks? Pick some up. The sky opened up and brought a downpour? Grab an umbrella.
In the spring, expect sakura (cherry blossom) flavored everything. Sakura chocolates and other candies, sakura sweets and pastries, even sakura flavored drinks. In summer, hydration is key. Look for salty delights and body wipes with menthol. In autumn, look for chestnut, sweet potato, and pumpkin infused treats. In winter, think like George Costanza and shift into soup mode. The oden soup bar will appear at the front of the store, selling fish cakes, daikon radishes, and more in a light broth by the piece. A bowl of oden will warm your soul. The steamed pork buns will emerge in the glass case. These are just the seasonal items – this doesn’t include holidays, movie and TV marketing releases, and new big brand items.
Come for onigiri, pork buns, cup ramen, hot fried chicken, or cold beer. Come for energy drinks and hangover concoctions. Pay utility bills, retrieve Amazon packages, and make color copies. Crack open a cold Pokari Sweat and enjoy the latest seasonal potato chip flavor. Grab a bento and a beer on the way to catch a bullet train. Whether your day is just beginning or finally ending, you’ll find what you need.
Don’t let it overwhelm you. My first time in a conbini was magical. I couldn’t read anything that wasn’t in English. There was so much to take in and decipher in such a small space. I wandered up each aisle marveling at everything before selecting some bottled green tea and a neatly packaged egg sandwich. These days I know where to find the items I am looking for so I can run in and out when needed. However, the conbini hasn’t lost the luster. I do find myself getting starry eyed and curious about the latest item or flavor on display.
Got everything you want? Wander up to the clerk and let them take over from there. Don’t have a reusable bag on hand? That’s okay, you can pick one up for a few yen. Don’t speak Japanese? Shinpaishinai de kudasai – no worries. Nonverbal communication has got you covered. Receive your purchased goods from the clerk along with a hypnotic ‘thank you’ and necessary utensils and be on your way. The door will open for you again, and off you go.
When I’m back in Japan, the first thing I will do is go to the conbini, pick up a bottle of green tea, and a neatly packaged egg sandwich. It’s a bit of a ritual for me. It recalibrates me. I know my trip will go well, because the conbini will always be there when I need it. The doors will open with a woosh, the clerk will say ‘irasshaimase’, and the cool fluorescent glow will welcome me inside.
by: Anna May
Anna May is a budget-minded traveler from Columbia, South Carolina. Anna’s travel blog with her husband is Away With The Mays. She believes that half of the fun of going on a trip is researching and planning the trip itself. If she’s gone somewhere she probably has a set of Google Docs about it.
An underrated place she’s been to:
“Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While visitors to the region are typically drawn to neighboring city-state Singapore, Kuala Lumpur has a similarly amazing appeal. It has incredible religious and cultural diversity, amazing food, and affordable premium accommodations. Don’t miss it!”
Illustration: Amy Siripunyo
Editing: Ash Pattison-Scott
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