You know someone has familiarity with Japan when they are able to compare Japan’s three most popular konbini. It’s a test of cultural sophistication.
Forget reviewing which city has the best temples or most beautiful cherry blossoms. The simple act of being able to seriously debate the merits of Lawsons, 7-Eleven, and Family Mart are enough to elicit a grudging respect and recognition that you know Japan better than most. You are not a mere tourist passing through. You are a serious and sophisticated PERSON IN THE KNOW.
What is a Konbini?
A konbini is a Japanese convenience store that is typically open 24/7. Japan boasts over 50,000 such stores, with the three most popular being 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawsons. As Japan’s economy developed, convenience stores became critical places for urban dwellers to procure food.
It is fascinating to consider that 7-Eleven, a store that originated in Texas, has the vast majority of its stores in Japan.
How important is a konbini to Japanese culture? The stores are marked online and on printed tourist maps for easy reference.
What makes a Japanese convenience store special? Let me count the ways:
Interestingly, a Japanese bank is NOT where a foreigner should go to withdraw yen. (Their machines only work with a Japanese bank account.) The best place for foreigners to head to for cash withdrawals is a konbini. Not to worry – guidance is displayed in multiple languages.
Special Events Tickets
Do you want tickets to a show, a musical, Tokyo Disneyland or DisneySea? You can buy them via a machine at a konbini. However, unless you read Japanese, you’ll need to ask an employee for help. Buying tickets at a convenience store can save you the mark-up fee you would pay for purchasing from a third party site.
A konbini is immaculate. No matter the time of day, you can expect the bathrooms to be clean and brightly lit. There is no need to ask an employee for the key.
Seriously, the bathrooms are SPOTLESS. Somehow, the sinks are always clean, the mirrors glisten, and there is always toilet paper on the roll and plenty of hand soap.
Konbini employees take customer service seriously. If you order food that requires utensils, they will immediately hand you the appropriate utensils and a disposable wipe at the register. It is a small but incredibly thoughtful gesture.
I have yet to meet an employee who did not go out of their way to make you feel like a cherished guest. Konbini employees have patiently marked out recommended walking routes on a map and graciously called for taxis during heavy rainstorms. They operate with the seasoned hospitality of a luxury hotel concierge. And in case of emergency, they will make certain you get home safely.
A Wide Variety of Healthy Foods
Convenience stores back in the U.S. generally have a bad rap for having aisles of junk food. That is not the case in Japan. Do you need fresh fruit, eggs, and vegetables? You can find a seasonal selection at a konbini.
As a single Sailor not known for her cooking skills, I am thrilled by how inexpensive it is to eat in Japan! On my way into work, I can grab breakfast AND lunch for between ¥980 and ¥1120. ($7.50-$8.57). A satisfying dinner costs less than ¥700.
Seasonal and Exotic Foods
One of the best things about konbini is that it allows you to experiment with new food. Many people are hesitant to order similar dishes at a restaurant. However, there is something fun about being able to sample small quantities of food. Is anyone up for some boiled octopus, shrimp flavored crackers, onegiri, and spicy roe potato salad?
I love that as the New Year approaches, you can order your ornate osechi riori boxes directly from a convenience store.
A Place to Pay Utility Bills
Although I use G.I. Bill Pay to automate my utility bills, every convenience store in Japan is able to process utility bill payments at the cashier’s counter.
Faxing and Printing Services
Do you urgently need to print out a document, or fax something at 2 a.m.? Your favorite konbini has you covered.
They Adapt to the Environment
It is super impressive how the exteriors of a konbini will adapt to suit the architecture around it. This is especially true in ancient parts of Japan, which recognize the importance of konbini while wanting to preserve the historic ambiance that makes the town special. I’ve seen stores deliberately mute the color of their logos in order to camouflage. For example, at Kusatsu Onsen, the 7-Eleven logo is designed to blend with the “creams” and “browns” color palette of one of Japan’s oldest onsen towns.
They are Full of Practical Items
Aside from carrying basics such as toiletries, I love how the stores in Japan reflect the priorities of the Japanese consumer. For example, most konbini carry an assortment of dress shirts and stockings for the hard-charging urbanite. They also have an impressive range of charging devices, pens, and stationary…because this is Japan, and you must always have a charged phone and pretty stationary!
The Bottom Line
I feel a warm glow of affection every time I think of Japan’s konbini.
It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite. That being said, I would love to know…what’s yours?