A trip to Japan without a visit to one of the thousands of convenience stores — often shortened to konbini in Japanese—is almost impossible. Located around almost every corner in the big cities, konbinis sells a wide variety of food, drinks, and daily necessities, but they also offer other convenient services such as ATMs and copying machines. Konbinis can not only make your visit to Japan more stress-free, but they can even be an exciting part of your trip.
BY Karolina Höglind
As of April 2021, there are almost 56,000 convenience stores across Japan — 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson being the three most common chains. New Days is another popular chain you can find at many of the JR East stations. With the high density of konbinis and the wide range of products and services, it is no wonder that they are an essential part of daily life for many living in the big cities. To find the closest store to you, search for ‘convenience store’ or ‘コンビニ’ (konbini) on your phone’s map, or simply walk around the streets in Tokyo and you will likely run into one nearby.
In Japan, convenience stores are prominently used for buying food and drinks. Even with the store’s limited space, the selection of products is varied, and you are likely to find something that will satisfy your needs.
Sweet and savory baked goods, sandwiches, and rice balls (onigiri) are all konbini classics perfect for a light meal on the go or to keep in your bag for later. If you are looking for a hot snack such as fried chicken or fried potatoes, see the fast-food deli section next to the register to see what is available at the moment. Konbinis also offer a diverse selection of lunch boxes that you can heat up inside the store. This is a popular option for many who are looking for something quick and easy to eat, and cheaper than restaurant take-out. For desserts and sweets, the selection is just as wide and will leave you wanting to try everything.
From refreshing cold drinks to hot beverages, or even alcohol, konbinis sell a wide variety of bottled and canned drinks. Recently it is also a popular place to get an affordable, freshly brewed cup of coffee. Depending on the store and season, you can often buy other drinks made to order such as tea, a matcha latte, or sweet frozen drinks.
Food and drinks are not the only things you can buy at a konbini. Although the selection is more limited than a supermarket, you can purchase an incredible variety of daily necessities, from toothbrushes, batteries, notebooks, disposable masks, detergent, makeup, to even socks and T-shirts. If you need something, you can likely pick it up at a nearby convenience store.
Depending on the location and store, the products and brands available can vary. Most chains have their own line-up of products such as coffee, fried chicken, and desserts. Which chain has the best products is a matter of debate amongst consumers and comparing the flavors of the same item between the different stores to find your favorite can be a fun activity throughout your trip.
When traveling around Japan you can often find local specialties sold inside the convenience stores. With convenient locations and often longer opening hours than local shops, picking up some local goodies at a konbini is a good option. If you forgot to buy souvenirs earlier in the day or if you are only passing through the area on your way to your destination, going to a konbini can reduce your travel stress.
Japan has many seasonal and limited-time-only products. The line-up of snacks and drinks are in constant rotation with new releases almost every week. Thanks to this, going to the konbini is always an exciting experience, even after the fifteenth time. With the rotation of seasonal flavors, it can seem like everything from baked goods, chocolates, snacks, to drinks is suddenly available in a new flavor, whether that be matcha, or mint chocolate, or more.
Not only do the flavors come in limited editions, but so does the packaging. Collaborations between famous snacks and popular anime or games are a common sight. Even candy featuring Miraitowa and Someity, the mascots of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics Games, can be found at konbinis leading up to and during the Games.
When you have finally made up your mind about what to buy, it is time to go to the register. You will have to ask for some items, such as fresh coffee, fast food, and cigarettes at the cashier. If you are buying a meal, the staff might ask if you want them to heat it up for you. Often there are microwaves and water kettles available, which you can use for heating up food or preparing instant noodles. Certain konbini also have eat-in areas to eat any food you have purchased. Staff will always ask you if you want a plastic bag, since they cost extra. Depending on what you bought they might ask if you want utensils, or they will simply put them into the bag before handing it to you.
Cash is still widely used in Japan, but recently cashless payment methods are increasingly more common, at least in Tokyo. Konbinis usually accept various cashless payment methods such as credit/debit card, IC card, and mobile payment options. A recent surge in self-checkout machines also allows for quicker purchases without having to interact with staff.
Being more than just a place to buy food, drinks, and daily necessities, what makes the konbini truly convenient is the myriad of other services they offer. One of the most useful ones for tourists is the ATM. Japanese society does not rely as heavily on cash as it used to but always having some cash on hand, even in Tokyo, is still for the best. In the big cities, many konbinis, including the ATMs, are open 24 hours.
Other common services are photocopiers, postal services, Wi-Fi and restrooms (available for customers only). Some stores also have ticket machines where you can purchase tickets for concerts, theaters, or attractions such as Tokyo Disneyland and Ghibli Museum. Be sure to look up exactly how to purchase and which stores the tickets are available at beforehand.
The existence of konbinis is a lot more than just a touch of convenience in people’s daily lives. They also play an important role at times of disasters and participate in initiatives supporting the Japanese society.
For example, Family Mart has officially been appointed the role as a “Designated Public Institution”. This responsibility includes disaster prevention and participation in the disaster response and post-disaster recovery. With its many stores nationwide, Family Mart offers a logistics network helpful in a disaster and stores that are prepared to be operational even in a disaster to provide support to the disaster-struck areas.
Following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, the U.S.-Japan Council and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo created the TOMODACHI Initiative, to support Japan’s recovery after the disaster. As part of the project’s purpose to invest in next generation leaders through various educational and cultural programs, convenience store chains Family Mart and Lawson founded the “TOMODACHI Combini Fund”. Donation boxes inside their stores are one way to support the fund, which has in turn helped finance projects such as a career mentoring program for female high school juniors in Fukushima.
While travelling in a foreign country, just knowing that there is a place nearby where you can find something quick to eat, buy a pair of spare socks, or withdraw money can take away a lot of anxiety. If you are looking for an authentic Japanese experience, do not overlook the Japanese convenience store. As much as they are reliable, they are equally exciting, even if you have been to one many times before.
Sweden born and bred Tokyoite. She started her journey to Japan as many others, through watching Sailor Moon on TV from a young age. Now her interest stretches out to culture, food and social issues. While studying at a Japanese university, she worked as an editor for a Tokyo-based culture magazine and as a radio host. She now spends her time as an office worker by day and Tokyo explorer by night.