Most travellers who have been to Japan come back raving about its version of the convenience store. Known as konbini, which traces its roots to the English word “convenience,” it can be found at every corner of major Japanese cities: a 24/7 wonderland where you can get lost in the aisles, awestruck by the sheer variety of ready-to-eat food, snacks, confectionary, beverages, basic necessities, household products and magazines. More than just a source of basic needs, the konbini has become part of everyday life for many Japanese people.
Japan's first convenience store opened in 1969 and today, there are more than 55,000 konbinis scattered across Japan. The largest chain in the country is 7-Eleven, followed by Family Mart, then Lawson.
The konbini culture in Japan is unique and significant. Even during times of recession in the early 1990s, these convenience stores did not fade away. In fact, they adapted to the changing needs of the consumers and became a one-stop-shop with an emphasis on convenience and practicality.
In a country where almost everything is fast and efficient, from train schedules to toilet systems, convenience is a characteristic that is highly sought-after by the workaholic culture of the Japanese working population. Thus, the konbini is the perfect solution to Japan’s growing need for convenience. But more than just a convenience store, neighbourhood konbinis also serve as a post office, as well as a reliable community shelter or crisis hub in times of emergencies.
Here are some ways to immerse in the konbini culture when travelling to Japan:
Try foods that are only available in Japan
If you are the kind of traveller who likes to plan your sightseeing activities beforehand, just head over to the nearest konbini to buy tickets for major tourist attractions such as theme parks, museums and even concerts! Fret not, these machines have English language options and are very easy to use. Certain konbini chains, including the top three, even allow you to pay for aeroplane tickets.
Buy limited edition travel souvenirs
You'll be delighted to find limited edition snacks that are launched during special events such as the cherry blossom season and Christmas. You may also chance upon unique products that are only sold in konbinis as a result of exclusive collaborations with other brands, such as the vintage edition Tomica 7-Eleven van model below.
Another great travel souvenir idea is puchipura cosme, or affordable drugstore beauty products. Popular with young Japanese women are beauty brands like Integrate by Shiseido, Majolica Majorca, Para Do and Canmake.
Ask for directions
Japan is so tourist-friendly that it is hard to get lost. But in situations when your mobile phone runs out of battery or you need assistance to locate a particular address, the staff in konbinis are always ready to help. In fact, their hospitality is a heartwarming experience by itself. What’s more, most konbinis have free wifi that you can use to access Google maps and a language translation app if needed.
Whether you are a new traveller to Japan or you have been living there for years, the brilliant world of Japanese convenience stores never ceases to amaze and empower daily life. The konbini is inextricably linked to the lifestyle of everyday Japanese people, and it is not hard to understand its appeal.
(Cover photo from: Unsplash/Andrew Leu)