JAPANESE CONVENIENCE STORES: A Conbini-ent ChoiceFiled Under:
The Incredible Ubiquitousness of the Japanese Convenience Store & All The Great Stuff Inside ‘Em.
Japanese Convenience stores are not your average corner shops. They are a way of life in Japan (known to them as konbini, short from konbiniensu sutoru) and are literally on every corner of all major Japanese cities; their lights shining like 24-hour beacons of life for tourists and residents. Konbini’s are so huge even American brands like 7/11 and the lesser-known once-US brand Lawson have been completely bought out by their Japanese counterparts. Reported to have over 12, 000 stores throughout Japan 7/11 is the biggest chain, followed by Lawson, while the third largest, Family Mart, was once the largest chain store in North Korea. Konbini’s have become essential in Japanese life simply because Japanese life demands it; the long hours, short lunch breaks and dense population mean people need a place close by to quickly pick up a meal or some emergency toilet paper or alcohol on the run, or just to browse at some manga or a censored titty mag.
As a foreigner Konbini’s are an oasis. Not only are they fantastic landmarks for directions (more on that later), but because of their multiplicity the prices stay low and the fresh stock stays high. So, pull up a chair and let me explain why they are such a magical place of Asian wonder.
In some Asian countries it’s difficult to source store-bought alcohol because of religious or tax reasons, but not in Japan! In Japan drinking on the street is legal and every Konbini is ready and willing to sell you bottled liquor, pre-mixed booze, beer, fake beer and the dangerous-but-awesome chu-hai.
So you’re backpacking Japan reppin’ a thin wallet and wanna hit the town on a booze cruise anyway? Well you’re going to become very well acquainted with chu-hai. It’s a uniquely Japanese drink traditionally made from shochu (a Japanese distilled beverage made from barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or rice) or, more commonly in Konbini’s, vodka. But the most impressive part is it only costs around ¥200 for a large can and at 9% alcohol, it’s way more booze for your buck. It’s available in an array of flavours including lime, grapefruit, apple, orange, grape, lime bitters, strawberry and peach, but depending on the season you could pick up (our favourites) pineapple, cherry and cream soda. It is extremely potent and dehydrating with a high sugar content and obviously high alcohol content, but like, do you want to get fucked up for cheap or not? Be warned that drinking these too quickly can cause a delayed onset effect and you might be halfway through your third can before you realise the true power of these drinks
According to our extensive research (read: Wikipedia) chu-hai is “served in tall glasses or mugs as drinks for individuals, making it less social than other traditional Japanese bar drinks like sake, beer or whisky, which can be shared by pouring portions from a large bottle.” So it’s basically for binge-drinking alcoholics and legally allowed to be consumed in public (you’re welcome!).
Konbini’s will stock all Japanese beer brands like Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory all for around ¥200 a pop. Kirin was our regular and favourite, but Suntory was great for when we desired a stronger flavour and thicker taste. You can also buy them in double size cans for less than the price of two – always good for when you’re wandering the streets or having a picnic. Though look out! There are cans in the fridge that look like beer and are much cheaper, these are called Happoshu.
Happoshu (or, Fake Beer)
The tax on beer is quite high so to combat this, and sell more “beer”, brands sell happoshu, which translates to sparkling beer. It’s pretty much imposter beer sold for ¥140 a pop; which sounds like a great deal when you’re short on cash and it will allure you with it’s low price, low malt and low alcohol content. But buyer beware: it has a taste that resembles gold bathwater and gives you a bad hangover ‘cause it gives you things your body isn’t used to. Think of it like paying for sex: if you go for cheap you’re gonna wake up feeling seedy with a headache full of regret.
Konbini’s sell other drinks, of course. Apart from your regular candy-water soft-drinks they also stock more flavours of iced tea you’ve seen in your life, a huge collection of coffee, water, energy drink, vitamin drinks and hangover cures. Our recommendation when you’ve hit the chu-hai wall or too hung-over to function, reach for a big-arse bottle of Pocari Sweat (a citrus flavoured ion-supply, like Gatorade but way better) or a Match (an orange vitamin drink similar to Berocca) to quickly hydrate you, replace those salts and get you back in the game.
Ubiquitous Vending Machines
Let’s face it, you really don’t have to go far for a drink when vending machines are literally everywhere in Japan. Even if you’re completely lost in back-alleys or hanging out at the base of a mountain you’ll find a vending machine with all kinds of drinks for as little as ¥100.
Konbini’s are snack food heaven. They stock the complete range of stoner-snacks including chips, chocolate, candy, breads, nuts, hot chicken, pork buns and dried meats, but the real MVP moment comes when you see the mecca of pre-prepared food they stock.
Konbini sandwiches are perfect for lunch on the go, pick some up before you go to a park or tourist-destination and you’ve got yourself a delicious meal for super cheap. The sandwiches come with no crust (who knows why…) and all sorts of flavours, some packs will even have 3-half sandwiches all with different fillings. My favourite was always one of these 3-filling packs with ham-salad, tuna and egg-mayo halves, while Ben preferred the equally delicious pork-and-sauce sandwiches.
Bento is a single portion meal commonly containing rice and fish or meat with vegetables. Konbini’s will also do noodles, sushi, and spaghetti in this dealio and they will also heat it up for you if you are so inclined. It’s cheap, filling and good for pretending you ingested some Japanese cultural delicacies.
Onigiri is a rice ball or triangle wrapped in seaweed, often with a filling inside like salmon, tuna mayonnaise, chicken or fish eggs. They are a cheap (around ¥100) and traditional breakfast and snack food that will fill you up. Konbini’s sometimes package them in an awesome but confusing and a truly Japanese and futuristic way, making sure the seaweed doesn’t become soggy by touching the rice (it’s like an intelligence test for foreigners).
Konbini’s also do hot foods but not in the way their deranged American cousins do it. Check the hotbox at the front of the store for their fried chicken, pork cutlets, various meats on a stick and fried potato all freshly delivered and warmed that day.
Things like salad and fruit in Japan is very difficult to find, and expensive. In fact, I’m not really sure they know what salad is or that it’s a little more than cabbage and a slice of cucumber, thankfully Konbini’s stock full western-style salads with lettuce, tomato, corn, and cucumber (with a fork for convenience – ’cause thats the name of the game) as well as veggie sticks and fresh fruits. Bananas are sold individually at ¥100 and strangely wrapped in plastic, though still great for when you feel like your ramen and chu-hai bingeing has gotten out of hand.
But wait, there’s more! Yep, believe it or not, there are even more conveniences that Kobini’s can fulfil!
That’s right, everyone’s favourite guilty pleasure: sex and nudity. You can pick up a dirty magazine and crank-down right in the store if you want! PSYCH! THAT IS A JOKE. DO NOT DO THIS unless you want to spend an unspecified amount of time in jail. But I’m serious when I say they sell a lot of porn, especially of the hentai variety (which translate roughly to, ‘a perverse sexual desire’). They’re all sealed though so you can’t flick through them willy-nilly while women and children are walking the aisles. It’s illegal in Japan to show genitals of both sexes but that doesn’t stop cartoon-porn from having full-on cream-pie box-shots on their front covers. The huddled group of men reading magazines is often a dead give-away of where each Konbini hides their porn, in case you’re looking.
This seems like a better time than any to remind you that almost all Konbini’s have clean toilets at the back of the store. So when you’re stumbling around with chu-hai in hand through the city and need to empty your bladder, don’t be a dickhead and risk getting thrown in a koban (the local neighborhood police station) by thinking a quick piss in an alleyway is a good idea, just walk a little further, find that florescent 24-hr Konbini sign and go in for a leak.
One of the greatest things about Japanese convenience stores is just how damned many of them are around. Firstly, they are amazing as a reference point or landmark when it comes to figuring out how to get somewhere. Several of our AirBnBs in major Japanese cities have doled out instructions like, “walk 300 metres down this street then turn left after the Lawson”. Secondly, the staff is normally super nice and even if they don’t speak English they will always try and help. So if you’re lost, head into your closest Konbini (which by now we’ve established isn’t far away) and use your newfound Japanese speaking skills to ask them how to get to where you want to go. They may even have a map on the counter and there might even be other customers around who want to help you and speak even better English.
Chargers & Cords
Buying a portable charger from a Konbini has been one of the best purchases of our trip so far. You can also find cords for all type of products as well as batteries and other electronics and often far cheaper than the mobile accessories store.
Most Konbini’s will sell you tickets to major tourist attractions like Disneyland as well as train tickets, plane tickets and bus cards. Personally we have never used this service but it’s useful if you’re having trouble buying them online or want to pay in cash. Be aware you may need to show your passport for train and plane tickets.
Postage & Packages
Lost your credit card? Forget to pack your prescription glasses? All good, man! Through our travels we’ve heard you can get packages sent to some Konbini’s. This is a helpful service but it may require some more advanced Japanese skills than your regular traveler, but it’s always good to know that you can get your package sent somewhere secure and pick it up at any hour.
Outside every Konbini will be bins separated into recycling categories. This doesn’t sound important until you realise that finding a bin in Japan is like striking gold in the desert and carrying around your trash is a normal habit for Japanese people.
And that just about covers it. Japanese Convenience stores are just what they say they are, convenient. As well as all the useful stuff above you can also find hardware and clothing and whatever else your heart desires. If you can’t find what you want at the Konbini you’re at just walk another 5 to 500 metres to the next one and it will probably have it. Konbini’s are something we really miss about Japan and if you are going to Japan you’ll get the chance to experience why.