KONBINI – JAPAN CONVENIENCE STORES
Why is Japan one of the most immensely popular places to visit in this world?
The answer obviously lies in their amazing scenery, traditional culture, fabulous food, architecture, art and not forgetting their unique pop culture for the anime, manga and video game lovers out there. Foodies will spend their days on the hunt for renowned Japanese dishes like sushi, ramen, teppanyaki, yakitori and much more.
But in this article, we will be checking out food, drinks and other offerings in the one-of-a-kind konbini – the Japanese convenience stores which are an integral and important part of the country’s culture. These one-stop shops grace nearly every corner of nearly every Japanese street. Unlike convenience stores in other countries, in Japan the 24/7 konbini is an essential part of Japanese life – here you can pick up and drop off packages, pay bills, use the multifunctional printers, shop and get a little giddy from the choice of food – from snacks, desserts to full-blown hot meals.
Did you know? Japanese convenience stores are called konbini in Japanese which is the abbreviated word for konbiniensu sutoru. Which if you say aloud sounds a lot like a convenience store (surprise surprise!)
LET’S EXPLORE THE MAIN JAPANESE CONVENIENCE STORES AND THEIR INCREDIBLE OFFERINGS!
Amazingly, there are over 50,000 Japanese convenience stores run by over 60 different companies. To a first-time visitor, there may not be much difference. But locals will have their favourite brands and these depend on the quality of products, services, varieties, food specialities and so on.
The three main konbini chains are 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson. There are also smaller ones that you will find if you meander around enough; residential districts have Ministop, Circle K Sunkus and Daily Yamazaki whilst you can find NewDays in the many, many train stations.
Japan is famed for long working hours, short break times and fast-paced modern life, especially in cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Thus, convenience is of the utmost importance. Japan convenience stores are aimed at making life easier, providing services like wifi, ATMs, printers/scanners, ticket reservations services, payment of bills and not forgetting the all-important toilet stop.
The ATMs in Japanese convenience stores almost always accept foreign cards, unlike Japanese banks. Online shoppers, you can get your parcel delivered at your favourite konbini so you can pick it up on your lunch break instead of having to wait at home for the parcel to arrive.
The undisputed King of Japanese convenience stores is 7-Eleven. The chain was founded in 1927 in Dallas, Texas and in 1974, it became the first konbini to open in Tokyo. The rest is history. With over 20,000 stores (2022), Japan has the highest number of 7-Elevens of any country in the world.
Here, you can purchase tickets for films, concerts, exhibitions and much more. There are also foreigner-friendly ATMs with English menus.
7-Eleven even has its own private label, Seven Premium and you can distinguish the products by the bright Seven-Eleven logo on them.
My friend, Sebastian Tan, 39, a fitness coach cum photographer is an avid lover of Japan who aims for annual holidays there. (His next trip is in November 2022 to see the snow monkeys – yes, we’re super jealous too ) As his aim is more on sight-seeing and photography, he proudly claims that he eats most of his meals at Japanese convenience stores.
His favourites at 7-Eleven are the Japanese curry and their popular Seven Premium Golden Bread or Kin-no-shokupan. According to Sebastian, the Golden Bread is thick (around 3cm), luxurious and made from French fermented butter and Hokkaido cream. Even more delicious if eaten toasted with butter. With its uber-delicious taste, texture and smell, it’s no wonder it can sell over 15,000,000 products in 4 months.
As for the Japanese curry, Sebastian says that goes down well with a shochu highball, especially after a particularly successful photo shoot.
This famous chain of Japanese convenience stores originated in Japan with the initial branch opening in the prefecture of Saitama around 1973. In August 2018, FamilyMart merged with Circle K Sunkus, the fourth-largest convenience store chain. The merger turned FamilyMart into Japan’s number two konbini in terms of size. Today, Family Mart, like 7-Eleven, has expanded to Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Indonesia, China and other countries.
Family Mart has ATMs, and you can purchase tickets for major attractions such as Disneyland and Legoland. Some stores even have a special MUJI corner, where they sell toiletries and basic clothing items.
As for food, Family Mart is well known for its fried chicken snack, the FamiChicki. The draw of this Japanese snack lies in its juiciness, crispiness and tenderness. An interesting fact – it is customary for Japanese to eat fried chicken during Christmas, so FamiChicki tends to be very popular during this holiday season.
With around 14,000 Japanese convenience stores, Lawson is a worthy third in the konbini race.
It has its own special appeal, focusing on products that are beautiful to look at, nutritious and of high quality. It’s no surprise that it tends to attract a large female clientele. Famous for its outstanding desserts and sweet treats, Lawson has their own brand called UchiCafe Sweets.
Su, 50, who travels annually to Japan for work says that her favourite dessert is the Premium Roll Cake, one of Lawson’s signature desserts. Su says “The quality of this cream-filled sponge cake is so amazing that you can’t believe for a second that it’s from a convenience store.”
Anime fans, pay attention – this chain of Japan convenience stores has the exclusive rights to sell tickets for the Studio Ghibli Museum.
Lawson also has other stores with different focuses. Natural Lawson caters to those who are health-conscious with its vast array of health foods including organic, gluten-free and vegan items. Whilst Lawson Store 100 offers daily necessities and perishables at a low price, from 100 yen upwards. Check these speciality stores out in large cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama.
MUST-TRY SNACKS AT THESE JAPANESE CONVENIENCE STORES
1. BENTO BOXES
Japan is known for its super-fast way of life and long work hours. Many people do not have the luxury of time of making home-cooked meals. Luckily, this is where bento, or obento (the more formal way of calling it) boxes come to the rescue. The ready-to-eat meal usually consists of a portion of yummy white Japanese rice accompanied by fish or other meat and vegetables. There are many varieties of the bento box with the most typical style being the Hinomaru Bento, where there is a pickled plum called the umeboshi sitting on top of the white rice, making the bento box resemble a Japanese flag.
It is not uncommon to see queues outside Japanese convenience stores at lunchtime, as this is when workers at offices, construction sites and all other places come to get in and out with their mid-day meals.
Usually at konbinis, you will notice the section of bento boxes and right next to them will be row upon row of onigiri. These are Japanese rice balls, a snack that is made up of compressed Japanese rice and seasoned with various furikake or dried rice condiments, sesame seeds, and a filling which can be tuna, flaky salmon, cod roe or even wasabi! All this is wrapped up in nori or seaweed.
JAPAN CONVENIENCE STORES AND ONIGIRI IN THE LIMELIGHT
During the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2022, these weird and wonderful Japan convenience stores were thrust into the limelight thanks to a series of social media posts from foreign journalists and athletes who were blown away by their amazing offerings as well as their top-notch customer service.
Anastasia Bucsis, a sports reporter for Canada’s CBC network called out for help on her Twitter account on the correct way to unwrap her onigiri. The video of her failing to open her onigiri properly without tearing the exterior seaweed gained over 82k likes and was retweeted over 35k times.
In response, 7-Eleven posted a how-to video explaining the correct way to open the packages – cleverly designed but able to stump newbies – on their Twitter account. In the post, 7-Eleven said, “Today, we would like to introduce how to open a package film of rice balls for customers who are visiting Japan from overseas.”
Instagram was flooded with journalists and athletes sharing their favourite Japanese experiences which included konbinis. 13-year-old Sky Brown, who won Great Britain a bronze medal in skateboarding shared on one of her Instagram stories, an image of sesame onigiri, pickled plum and shiso.
3. INSTANT NOODLES
It’s not far-fetched to say that there is hardly a soul in this world who would have never tried a bowl or cup of instant noodles. Japan convenience stores are the place to search for your favourite type of instant noodle. There’s a dedicated section, with never-ending flavours so you can grab and go with your favourite brand and flavour for the day!
Some of the many brands include Nissin, Shin Ramyun, Sapporo Ichiban, Maruchan and many more. Nissin’s Chikin (Chicken) Ramen was the world’s first instant ramen that was invented by Momofuku Ando under Nissin Foods in 1958. In 1971, he then introduced the first cup noodle product, making life even more convenient!
4. SNACKS – OF EVERY VARIETY YOU CAN DREAM OF!
Need to bring back souvenirs from your Japan trip? You can pretty much do your souvenir shopping from a konbini. The super vast array of selections can be overwhelming but rest assured, you can almost definitely find what you’re looking for – plus add on a whole lot more other stuff you didn’t know you needed or wanted!
Looking for something savoury? Why not try Japanese pringles or Baby Star Ramen, a savoury and crispy noodle snack. For the more adventurous, you can even try the Fanta-flavoured version of the snack.
Or maybe you prefer something sweet. Konbinis stock a great variety of Japanese candies. There’s Kit Kat, Pocky and even reverse Pocky, Toppo. (Yes, really! ) Whilst Pocky’s exterior is the sweet chocolate coat, Toppo’s goodness is on the inside.
The universally famous mochi deserves a mention here – the sweet dessert that is glutinous rice pounded into paste and moulded into small balls. And of course, as with all the snacks we’ve mentioned, there’s variety galore from red bean mochi, cheese mochi, ice cream mochi, and cherry blossom mochi amongst others.
Need a drink after all that sight-seeing? Quench your thirst with the incredible selection of Japanese drinks – from every flavour of Fanta, and Calpis Soda or have your caffeine fix with a Pokka Milk Coffee.
5. JAPANESE BREAD
This one is for the carb, particularly bread lovers. Japanese convenience stores are where you can satisfy your craving for delicious bread and high-quality baked goodies.
For classic Japanese bread, there’s melon pan (melon bread), anpan (Japanese red bean filling), curry pan and yakisoba pan.
And you cannot leave Japan without trying an egg salad sandwich from a konbini – these popular Japanese snacks that feel like a gourmet meal! The late foodie legend Anthony Bourdain is coined as saying they are “unnatural, inexplicable and delicious.” The design of their sandwiches is perfectly thought out, with the bread soft enough to ensure the filling doesn’t seep out but always fresh so that the bread never gets soggy. (They are made twice a day to ensure this, and they still sell out fast!) The bread used in all konbini sandwiches is soft as a pillow and served with the crusts cut off.
There are also strawberry cream sandwiches, Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) sandwiches, veggie sandwiches packed with six types of vegetables, curry bread and more. There’s also other baked treats such as croissants, scones, danishes and doughnuts. Konbinis are carb-heaven!
ARE YOU MISSING JAPAN TRAVEL? DO YOU MISS THE KONBINI?
REACH OUT TO US AT +603 6286 6128 OR
You may also be interested in: