Grabbing a pack of smokes, going on a munchie trek, or just picking up some essentials – it's no news that convenience stores are absolutely central to the modern lifestyle. How many times have you wandered the oh-so-brightly lit aisles of your local 7/11 looking for the perfect munchie? It's practically a rite of passage for stoned teenagers in many parts of the world. In Japan, the perfect convenience store munchie is closer than you think.
Known as combini, Japanese convenience stores are a step above. Not only are they absolutely everywhere (in 1996 there was one convenience store for every 2,000 people), but they've taken the concept of convenience to the next level. Here's why: services and food.
Combini are like so good when it comes to the services they offer. At the machine above, you can:
A) Withdraw cash and send bank transfers
B) Print documents from a USB or smart phone
C) Print documents from an online upload service
E) Fax (Japan must have missed the memo on fax machines being a thing of the past)
D) Print photos on professional photo paper
E) Buy event tickets (to anything from concerts to festivals to conferences)
F) Buy bus and train tickets
On top of the above, you can also pay your bills and arrange shipping and regular mail at the cashier. Combini also offer free wifi (keep this in mind if you're visiting Japan as it will be very useful), free public restrooms, and easy access to trash disposal. If you're wondering why I mention the last item, you've never been to Japan – finding somewhere to get rid of your used tissue, beverage can, or food wrapper (everything, even produce, comes wrapped in plastic) can be next to impossible.
In the hot snacks area next to the cash register (pictured above), you can find the best ever fried chicken – both Japanese style breaded fried chicken known as karaage and regular (amazing) fried chicken. You can also find tasty steamed pork buns known as nikuman, a tasty soup called oden cosisting of various skewered meats and seafood items in a Japanese style broth, spring rolls, and various croquettes. If you're looking for something closer to the western palate, you can also find corn dogs and sausages (hilariously referred to as 'American dogs'). These snacks are perfect for a quick bite after work, or for late night munchies after all-you-can-drink izakaya madness. Most items here will run somewhere between 100 and 200 yen, or just less than $1.50 to $2.50 CAD.
Ahh, the onigiri. A staple of the Japanese diet for both breakfast and a quick daytime snack. These consist of a rice ball containing a tasty meat or seasoned seafood, usually wrapped in nori seaweed paper. Keep in mind, however, that more often than not the contents of onigiri aren't listed in English. With flavours that range from fried chicken and mayo to spicy cod roe, you may find yourself rolling the dice when you pick one up. Again, these range from about 100 and 200 yen, or just less than $1.50 to $2.50 CAD.
Sandwiches and Baked Goods
If you're looking for a snack that's (a bit) closer to what you're used to, look no further than the sandwich section. The contents range from egg salad to crisp veggies to fried pork tonkatsu, and are inexpensive at between 200 to 300 yen ($2.50 to $3.50 CAD) for a package of generally three quarter sandwiches (???). I hope you like bleached white bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off, however, because that's what you're gonna get. There's also a non-refrigerated baked good section that hosts a variety of yodabashi, or western baked goods. Here you can find various western-style cakes and sweets, as well as some savoury baked items like croquette sandwiches, soba noodle and pickled ginger sandwiches, and hot dogs. I've even seen the occasional spaghetti sandwich here.
Being the land of all-you-can-drink restaurants and constant flowing sake and shochu, Japan is no stranger to alcohol. In the section pictured above, you can find several varieties of the aforementioned sake and shochu, as well as red and white wine, and whiskey. If you're a fan of whiskey, you can pick up a reasonably good 26oz bottle for about 700 yen or a little over $8.50 CAD. They often have non-Japanese brands as well for a few more yen, such as Jim Beam. Sake ranges from massive plastic bottles to individual 'One Cup' formats and juice-box style containers for as little as 100 yen. I've even occasionally seen red and white wine in the same juice-box containers. There is also a refrigerated section containing fantastic Japanese beers and my personal favourite, the chu-hai or shochu highball. The chu-hai is a mixed drink made from shochu and carbonated soda that comes in a variety of flavours and two strengths – regular and strong. The most common flavours are grapefruit, lemon, and shikuwasa, which is a Japanese citrus that is similar in appearance and taste to lime, though slightly sweeter. You can see a grapefruit chu-hai below alongside a 7/11 brand beer, a tuna and mayo onigiri, and some fried chicken. Heck yeah.
Beyond the items listed above, combini also offer great fresh ground coffee, obento style lunch boxes, a regular assortment of chips and other drinking snacks, pretty good sushi, magazines, comics, and newspapers, and a very good selection of household needs and stationery. Whatever you need or want, combini have you covered. Western convenience stores need to step up their game.
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