Why do I love Japan so much? To be totally and horibbly honest, it’s the fact that at 3 in the morning I can go to the nearest brightly lit convini (convenience store) and buy a super noodle cup, a candy bar and a lemon chu-hi. The convini is there for me like a good, good friend that never lets me down.
Okay, maybe that’s not why I love Japan so much, but it certainly helps. In the US, your local convenience store has nothing but questionable taquitos rotating in a grisly slow death on a filthy grill and nachos whose cheese comes from a ‘bladder.’ Oh, not to mention liquid meth energy drinks and frozen pot pies.
But convenience stores in Japan are amazingly convenient and they make life that much more pleasant. Not only do they sell all kinds of food, some of which amazingly enough is fresh, but there are a whole lot of other things you can do at the convenience store. You can pay bills, pick up your mail, buy tickets, make photocopies, hit up an ATM, use the toilet, throw stuff away, have your fortune told*, buy schoolgirl panties*, take English lessons*, renew your visa* and be transported to anywhere in the country instantly Star Trek-style*.
(*not true actually)
Two amazing things you actually can do at convenience stores:
Read – People stand at the magazine counter and read for hours at a time, everything from manga comics to porno mags, and nobody says, ‘This is a convenience store, not a library.’
Drink your just-purchased alcoholic beverage in the parking lot. This is probably frowned upon but prevalent. I’ve seen whole parties going on in convenience store parking lots.
The convini is a relatively recent phenomenon in Japan. The first one was opened only about 30 years ago. The first convini in Japan wasn’t Family Mart, Sunkus or Lawson (or Attack!, my personal favorite), but good ol’ American Seven Eleven. It was a combination of American business practices and the Japanese commitment to customer service and fresh food that made it happen.
There are a couple of reasons why convenience stores became so ubiquitous in Japan. First, they get several deliveries daily of fresh packaged food and that’s why you can eat the stuff wrapped in plastic. No sad rotating hot dogs that have been there for days here. There are fresh salads, sandwiches and seafood treats.
Convenience stores grew to prominence also by offering unique twists on traditional Japanese foods. You might be surprised to know (I was) that sea chicken and mayonnaise aren’t traditional onigiri ingredients. Convenience stores have a wide range of unique treats, from pancake sandwiches to donuts filled with curry.
In fact, convenience store owners worked so hard to please their consumer base that they not only survived but grew during the recession in the 1990s after the bubble burst. The decade even saw Japanese convini expanding into foreign markets, opening stores in Taiwan, Hawaii and China.
Today the convini is a fixture of Japanese culture. You see them everywhere and everyone shops at them. People buy their groceries at them and even wander around in them checking out snacks and reading magazines on a Saturday night.
There’s a spot near Yawatajuku Station on the Uchibo Line here in Chiba where you can see the shining signs of three Lawson convenience stores. I’m trying to turn it into a photo spot like all the famous spots in Tokyo where you can take a snapshot of Tokyo Sky Tree but no takers yet.