It was 12:30 am, and we had just wandered into a 7-Eleven conveniently located right outside our hotel in search of nourishment after stepping off a 14-hour flight from New York City to Tokyo. We’d heard the legend of Japanese convenient stores from friends and food columns, but were mesmerized nonetheless as we stepped through the door under the infamous red, orange and green sign.
Conbini, as Japanese convenience stores are locally known, are actually more convenient than their American counterparts. Sure you can buy necessities like toothbrushes, soft drinks and coffee, or grab a quick bite during a rushed lunch hour. But the food in conbini isn’t scary or suspicious. The food safety laws are so strict in Japan, you can eat pretty much anything from these stores and feel totally fine.
As I browsed the shelves that first night, I settled on a chicken salad and an onigiri, a rice ball wrapped with nori and filled with raw tuna — two things I would never in a million years consume from a fast food restaurant, let alone a convenient store. Max wandered the store with more than half a dozen snacks teetering in his arms before deciding on a couple veggie and chicken onigiri. We took the bounty back to our room and spread the feast out on a side table for a late-night snack. We hungrily sunk our teeth into each one, murmuring in pleasant surprise with full mouths about how good it all tasted. Not a morsel was left. We were full and satisfied, and officially on a quest to eat as much conbini fare as we could for the rest of the trip.
For a culture that considers it gauche to eat on the go, the endless options certainly tempt you to break the unspoken rules. In NYC I’ll eat walking down the street (not often, but it happens), but that’s seen as unacceptable behavior in Japan. Just like there are designated smoking corrals on the sidewalk, where suited men and women gather in droves to have a midday or post-work cigarette before hopping on the metro, the real estate in front of conbini is where you should eat your snack if you eat it now. So we found ourselves huddled next to the 7-Eleven in train stations, gobbling down a midday nosh to fuel a few more hours of sightseeing before dinner.
There are three main convenient stores you’ll start to recognize around Japan: 7-Eleven, Lawson, and FamilyMart. 7-Eleven is the largest chain, which most American tourists will find comforting and familiar. If you need to take money out of the ATM, 7-Eleven’s are the most reliable for foreign transactions. It’s the place to go for endless snacks and instant noodles, cellophane-wrapped sandos (white bread sandwiches without crusts, cut into perfect triangles) filled with pillowy egg salad, and even a pre-packaged, starched white button down in case last night’s partying took you well into the morning and right back to the office. In that case, there’s an array of hot and cold coffee waiting for you too.
Lawson started out as an American chain. While it’s totally defunct in the United States, the store is alive and well in Japan. The go-to here is the fried chicken, which is cooked on site and served hot near the registers. Fried to perfectly crisp, golden brown morsels, they’re the most satisfying snack, maybe ever. The fried chicken is so good, we found ourselves looking for excuses to have a snack just so we could take a bite of those crunchy, just-greasy-enough nuggets. A walk to the metro quickly became an excuse to pop into Lawson for a spicy fried chicken snack to tide us over until the next meal.
FamilyMart is the second largest conbini chain and also carries great fried chicken, deep-fried pork sandos (katsu sando), and all the snacks you could want. In the cooler months, you’ll see a steaming pot of oden near the registers. This is a warming Japanese comfort food that starts with a dashi broth and is filled with things like fish cakes, sausage, tofu, eggs and daikon radish. If you need something hot on the go, their version is a safe bet. The store also stocks a small selection of Muji goods, so it’s a good place to stop if you forgot an essential back home.
Conbini quickly became destinations in themselves, whether we needed a Pocari Sweat (an amazing electrolyte drink) to nurse a hangover or simply wanted to take in the array of weird things you’d never find in American convenient stores — from baggies of dried fish to high-end Japanese whisky like Yamazaki. Living in NYC, it’s difficult to complain about the lack of corner stores, or bodegas as we call them. They’re open late-night, many of them all night, and are always there to offer a cold beverage, batteries, toilet paper, or whatever else you might need right now. Some make elaborate sandwiches and stock 100 different types of potato chips (seriously). Bodegas are great, but you can’t go there to buy a necktie or sushi or hard liquor. It sounds trite, but you just have to experience conbini to really understand the magic that awaits you beyond the store doors. Sure, Japan is home to the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, but the really good stuff can be found in a refrigerated case below the glow of those familiar neon lights.