If you’re just dipping your toes into the vast ocean of Japanese contemporary culture then you might be wondering what a konbini even is. Perhaps you've taken the plunge into the hustle and bustle and have already entered your fair share of 7-Elevens - but do you know just how much they have to offer? Though translated as something on par with a ‘corner shop’ if you’re from the UK, the comprehensive konbini is so much more than snacks and newspapers. Take a deep dive into the world of the ubiquitous convenience store and discover why konbini is king in Japan.
What is a Konbini?
A konbini is likened to a corner shop or bodega. You’ll find them on every other street in central city neighbourhoods, if not several competing konbinis on just one street. If you don’t live in the heart of Osaka or the skyscraper jungle of Tokyo, there are still many konbinis nestled in semi-rural towns and smaller train stations. Most konbini stores are open 24/7, and provide a great deal more than a snack on-the-go...
Where did the Konbini come from?
Konbinis were introduced to the Japanese market during the early 1970s, a short period of time after the allied occupation of Japan. During the occupation and in the decades that followed Japan was quickly Westernised by the allied forces, in particular, by American ex-pats. American businesses saw opportunities to serve a market of Americans abroads and re-introduced their convenience stores to their overseas American customers while appealing to the Japanese. Konbinis have since become extremely popular and an omnipresent part of Japanese contemporary culture.
The word konbini is shortened for ease from konbiniensu sutoa. It sounds almost familiar doesn’t it? Our favourite Japanese store is named from a foreign loan word for (you guessed it) convenience store! These days, there are more than 50,000 konbinis across the eastern archipelago generating ¥11.6 billion as of the end of 2019. Their popularity in Japan has extended elsewhere in Eastern and Southeast Asia - you can't make it two minutes down a Bangkok street without passing 3 different 7-Elevens!
So, what's so good about Konbinis?
Part 1. A Mini Guide to Essential Konbini Food
Personally, the sound of grabbing my lunch from the corner shop here in the UK isn’t so appealing. Half stale bread coated in butter with a measly slither of reconstituted ham? I’ll pass. Grabbing food from a konbini in Japan? It’s a whole different ball game. The average quality of the grab-and-go goods matches (if not bests) our supermarket ‘Finest’ ranges, and the selection of food available is fantastic. If you're a little shy trying new cuisines, there are sandwiches available with both traditional Japanese and Western fillings (from tonkatsu or yakisoba sandwiches to egg mayo or ham salad sarnies).
Heading a little deeper into easy Japanese cuisine, the konbinis have a whole host of takeaway bento boxes as well as yakisoba or donburi bowls. The selection (and the availability of your favourites) naturally differs across brands and store locations, but on purchase of a takeaway meal, the shop assistant will even offer to heat your meal for you and provide cutlery.
You will also find shelves lined with onigiri! A favourite amongst locals and foreigners alike, onigiri are essentially white rice shaped into triangular or circular cakes and wrapped in seaweed, often with tuna or salmon at the centre, though vegetarian options are available. You can also find small sushi platters, or boxes of gyoza!
The Hot Stuff
But the fridges are not the limit for delectable Japanese snacks: Beside the tills live the heated goods. Whilst the offering varies between brands, there are a lot of different snacks to try. From memory, my local Family Mart offered potato korokke (croquettes), chips, hot dogs, corndogs, chicken nuggets, and a popular foreigner favourite, fami-ma chiki. The fami-ma chiki (a shortened name for 'Family Mart Chicken') is quite simply a large bread-crumbed chicken fillet of delicious greasy goodness, and it tastes all the better after hitting up a few izakayas.
Sitting just before the heated glass cover was a small oden section. I have to confess to having never tried this because I was afraid of going about it wrong and having a huge misunderstanding with the cashiers - please don't repeat my mistake! Oden is the name of a hearty Japanese stew and is available from konbinis in the winter months. This section allows you to build your own stew from skewered chicken, potato, tofu, noodles and much more. Time Out have a fantastic 'konbini connoisseur’s guide to oden' that I highly recommend reading if you're wondering what bits and pieces make uo a traditional oden stew.
The final, and in my opinion, most underrated part of the konbini was the nikuman heated cabinet. Nikuman are steamed Chinese-style buns with meat and vegetable filling. The beef (gyuman) variety is perhaps most common, but konbinis also offer other varieties including Japanese curry and even pizza-filling mans! I wholly recommend trying one if you ever find yourself in a Japanese convenience store, and anywhere else you can get your hands on them in Japan!
Aside from fantastic food, konbinis offer alcohol (including chuuhai, beer and wine), tobacco, milk, eggs and bread, newspapers, emergency brollies, and all the necessary toiletries.
Part 2. Konbini Services
What really sets Japanese konbinis apart from the convenience stores we have elsewhere in the world are the range of services offered.
- Collecting and sending parcels. This is becoming more commonplace here in the UK at least, but this is a more familiar service in Japan. Japan is very much a cash-based society and many (especially elder generations) find shopping online with a credit card a less-than-comfortable experience. In Japan, you can pay for your order at the till of a konbini.
- Obtaining a credit card alternative. Many foreigners working in Japan struggle to get credit cards. Foreigners are often declined on the grounds of the nature of their non-permanent employment status or visa. However, you can obtain a computer-generated credit card for online shopping, which is similar to a pre-paid card. For more information check out Vanilla Visa!
- Paying your bills. Upon receving your utility bills, you can simply take them to your local konbini and pay for them at the till! Once paid, you receive a receipt with a stamp as proof of payment. Very easy and convenient (duh!)
- Multi-Purpose Terminals. Often situated near the ATM is a terminal from which you can buy tickets. Bus tickets, concert tickets, plane tickets, theme park tickets (for example Disney Sea or the Studio Ghibli Museum!) Some tickets are only available from konbinis and in other cases, purchasing your ticket from the konbini terminal may reward you with a special discount! Make sure to check out whats available from your local konbini! They really have thought of everything...
- ATM - Okay there's nothing new about an ATM in a convenience shop. I just wanted to highlight konbini ATMs for foreign visitors to Japan. When I lived in Japan, I used a pre-paid currency card which was rejected from some ATM terminals. Generally though, the ATM available in my local Family Mart of 7-Eleven enabled me to retrieve cash. Remember what I said about the cash-based society? You will need cash!
- Wi-Fi - In my experience, there wasn't a great deal of free Wi-Fi spots in Japan, so any free Wi-Fi is truly a godsend. Simple.
- Seating Areas - Perhaps you've already read our blog post on 9 key Japanese Traditions which describes the Japanese societal attitude towards eating-on-the-go? Spoiler alert: you shouldn't! Luckily, some konbinis provide seating areas for you to enjoy your heated konbini meal in peace and without offending anyone. A real win-win!
- Toilet - Oftentime, konbinis have a public toilet completely free-of-charge. This is a life-saver when you're bar-hopping in Osaka or simply waiting for the first train home in the morning. I wish this was as commonplace (with matching levels of cleanliness) in the UK too. If you're going to take advantage of the loo, it's still considered more polite to make a purchase. Why not buy your post-izakaya Fami-Chiki whilst you're waiting? Two birds, one stone, hm?
As I'm sure you've gathered by now, konbinis are good for pretty much everything! I hope this article was of use or interest to you, whether you're a regular konbini-goer, are planning a visit to Japan, or are simply intrigued by the everyday life in the Far East. Have you visited a Japanese konbini and discovered a life-changing snack? (I'm really craving a nikuman...) Or are the convenience stores better in your home country? Drop us a comment and let us know!
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Doumo Arigatou Gozaimasu!