Conbini: Convenience Stores in Japan

If you’ve never visited any convenience stores in Japan, or Japan at all for that matter, and somebody were to tell you that they were craving something from a Seven Eleven, you may initially shoot them a glance. Really? You want to grab a bite at some rundown gas station?

You may even go as far as to imagine those scraggly men who lurk just outside the store. You know the guys; they usually have a cigarette in one hand and a lotto ticket in the other. Foreheads gleaming with sweat, and baseball cap covering a head of hair so oily, you’d think it only sees shampoo as often as your recycling bin sees the garbage man.

Well, allow me to put you at ease. Convenience stores in Japan are on a completely different level than their western counterparts. You can forget your past experiences of yellow liquid on the dirty floors accompanied by “Slippery When Wet” signs. You can also forget about those red-eyed employees behind the register when you do a quick run-in at 6:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. Let’s take a quick trip, so you can see for yourself.

A typical Seven Eleven in suburban Japan. [Photo by Michael Lemmone]

Welcome to the Conbini. Step Inside.

As you approach the conbini (or convini), the bright lights illuminate a sidewalk otherwise obscured in darkness. The automated doors swoosh open, and you are greeted with a cheerful word, Irashaimase, from the smiling employees from behind the counter. The bright lights and white interior put you at ease, and pushing the surrealness aside, you take your first steps into the Apple Store of Seven Elevens.

You take a look to your right and find a number of magazine racks set up behind the front windows. Your choice of tabloids, comics, magazines, and more, all on front display; some with more questionable content than others. There’s even a section of movies and video games for sale. Across from the magazines, you see a variety of men’s and women’s goods. Hair gel, razors, painkillers, women’s sanitary products, you name it. There’s also some neatly packaged underwear, ties, and t-shirts too.

It’s not uncommon for people to be here just to read the manga. [Photo by Michael Lemmone]

All Your Favorite Things. And More.

Looking straight ahead from the entrance, you can see a nice selection of hot and cold meals up against the back wall. Pasta with meat sauce, chicken katsu curry over rice, and onigiri (stuffed rice balls) catch your eye, but those sushi platters in the back are the real head turners. You start walking over, but about halfway, you’re stopped by the smell of steam pork buns. You turn your head over to the glass next to the register, and notice the assortment of hot foods and pastries.

A young woman is loading up the racks with Nikuman (steamed pork buns). The steam from the buns starts to fog up the glass, obscuring some of the other pastries inside. You look at the small photo beside the glass, pointing out the other flavors: pizza, curry, and azuki bean fillings. Beside the steamed buns is another glass, this one filled with french fries, fried chicken, hot dogs, and other common western foods. Your mouth starts to water as you take a few steps back.

You bump into a row of freezers behind you. You turn around and see they stretch out all the way down the aisle. The mother-load of ice cream in a variety of flavors, some better than others. You have your chocolate bars and vanilla cups, even your matcha flavored ice cream bites. There’s also lemon sorbet, other fruit bars, and then the questionable stuff: Gari Gari Kun, which can be found in flavors like soda or pasta and potatoes. And don’t even get me started on the mayonnaise ice cream bars.

Parm and Super Cup are heavenly. Yukimi Daifuku is a treat too. [Photo by Michael Lemmone]

Just One More Look Around.

You pace back and forth down the aisle of baked goods. The aroma of sweet bread fills the air. You give yourself a moment to take in the assortment of sandwiches, donuts, cakes, mochi, danishes, and the whole lot. You scan the shelves on more time before you spot it. The legendary egg sandwich.

Is what they say true? You pick it up and look it over. Is this really what all the fuss is about? You’ve certainly heard your friends talk about it on more than one occasion. Everyone you know who’s lived in Japan has inevitably discovered the egg sandwich. You pick it up and decide to browse one more aisle before making your way out.

In the next aisle over, you see a variety of chips, candies, and chocolates. Black Thunder tends to stick out among the others. You also see few familiar brands, albeit different flavors from what you remember from back home. Doritos, Cheetos, Pringles, and others. You pick up a bag of Pizza Chips, intrigued, you look it over. You glance back over to the Black Thunder, shortly before making up your mind. You pass by a dozen or so flavors of KitKats and other odd candies, before making your way back to the register.

Hungry yet?

Conbini Check Out Time

You wait in line and give the store one last glance. You someone missed the cakes in the back corner of the store, but you think to your self it was probably for the best. You notice the man in front of you is actually paying his water and electricity bills, in addition to picking up his latte from behind the counter.

They call for next in line, and you hand them the egg sandwich. There was no way you were walking out of here without one. The price flashes on the screen of the register. You fumble through your coins and manage to hand over the exact amount. The young lady behind the register hands you your receipt and before you know it, you’re on your way out.

At least you think you are, when you notice the rest area. You decide to take a seat, charge your phone, and unwrap that egg sandwich. As you bite into bliss, you realize, convenience stores will never be the same again.

This is what it’s all about; why you are here. Don’t lie to yourself. [Photo by Michael Lemmone]

Afterthought: Conbini & COVID-19

Due to COVID-19, it’s extremely important to be always aware of your surroundings and prioritize social distancing. Most convenience stores in Japan today have a sheet of plastic hanging over the front of the register counters, and staff are all wearing masks. Do you part to stay safe, and if you can, just stay home. Click here to see more info and read up on available COVID-19 Japan resources. To see the current COVID-19 data trend in Japan, click here.