I didn’t grow up going to convenience stores in the United States, in part because they weren’t really a thing. Then, once I started visiting other parts of the country, I found them to be torturous for the five senses. Aromas didn’t seem human — or edible — and whatever “food” that was sold was clearly junk. (Bizarrely, the cravings for unhealthy things came later in life, as you’ll shortly notice.)
Fast forward to visiting Japan, where I had the complete opposite reaction to entering convenience stores, called コンビニ (konbini). For example, at a konbini chain called Lawson, using their “Loppi machine,” I was able to buy train tickets, or tickets to the Ghibli Museum, pay utility bills, or preorder new video games. Mobile phones can do this stuff now, but back when I discovered that Loppi machine, it was great.
Then there are the drinks and snacks. Besides the bottled teas, potato chips, and chocolate bars, there’s a host of seasonal and local items to try — or avoid, depending on your taste buds and tolerance levels.
In brief, if you’re only in town for a short time, and want to grab something on-the-go, here’s a very small rundown of some of the options you might encounter at a Japanese convenience store. (Ironically, on-the-go in Japan really means to buy something, but then sit down somewhere and eat it. Eating while walking is generally considered rude.)
Onigiri (おにぎり) is a staple of a konbini. They’re triangular-shaped or circular-shaped, and consist of rice and any number/type of ingredients packed into the rice.
In this case, we’ve got nozawana (a vegetable called rape, related to mustard/turn leaves), and whitebait (called shirasu しらす), a small fish. According to the Cleveland Clinic, MCT (or 中鎖脂肪酸 in Japanese), a medium-chain triglyceride (dietary fat that flows in the bloodstream), is believed to help with weight loss, provide a small amount of extra energy for athletes, and perhaps even prevent a handful of chronic diseases. My suggestion– if you want to lose weight, don’t start by adding white rice to your diet.
Due to the surprisingly vast variety of flavors available, there was I time I was addicted to Yamazaki Pan (ヤマザキパン), the crust-less sandwich brand on the leftside in the photo. Without a doubt, some of the flavors go overboard — unrefrigerated egg salad, anyone? — but what tempted me was how the packages often showcased a specific Japanese prefecture. (link in Japanese)
On that note, the sandwich in question has a blueberry jam (from Hokkaido) and margarine filling. For the drink, it’s supposedly a weight loss drink (I didn’t buy it for that; it was more to try something new); the Japanese reads as “to help reduce organ fat.”
Konbini (and supermarkets) in Japan also have a number of “energy,” “weight loss,” and “stay awake” drinks. Turmeric, called ukon (ウコン), is a popular ingredient in them.
What the heck? A corn dog? I never eat the things in the U.S., but for whatever reason, their presence right by the konbini cashier is too difficult for me to ignore. Their common Japanese name is アメリカンドッグ (American dog). Plus, those simultaneous squeeze mustard-ketchup packets are a treat. The sliced ham was just to have some extra protein, since a lot of times ready-to-eat Japanese protein comes fried, or as a giant brick of tofu.
The banana lassi was a limited-time summer drink (and sucked), but time it right and you might find…
… a fig shake (fig = ichijiku/いちじく). Not that it was necessarily good, but more that it showed the transitioning of some seasonal flavorings from the summer to the fall.
What I did find quite fun was the triangular packet of yuzu pepper-grilled chicken, which the konbini cashier would gladly microwave. Buy any pasta, soup, or bento, and staff will warm it up for you; utter/show the phrase これを温めてください (kore wo atatamete kudasai), which means “please heat this up.”
To round out the meal was an onigiri of barley and rice with seaweed and salmon. That English is present on more and more packaging is a benefit that has only come forth within the past few years.
Finally, we’re at dessert.
Blech, soymilk. Then again, Kikkoman — most famous for soy sauce — has tried to add “excitement” to drinking soymilk by combining the bean with everything from sweet potato and pistachio to espresso, and in this case, dorayaki (どら焼き). Dorayaki are two small, sweetened pancakes filled with red bean paste. Meh, I say.
The item on the right is a black tea and mixed nut tartlet, adding an earthy and slightly bitter flavor to the mix.
This introduction is a tiny sampling of the possible foods and drinks that you could try at a Japanese konbini. It’s not that convenience stores in other countries lack things to try, but they hardly compare with the breadth and diversity of products available in Japan.
Have you visited a Japanese convenience store? If not, what is your opinion of convenience stores from other parts of the world?