Any place, any time, anything you need— Japanese convenience stores have got you covered.
There is something oddly comforting about the fluorescent lights of a small convenience store in the middle of a rice field, or at the base of a snowy mountain. It’s a sign that there is life in the wilderness: a warm place to stop and buy a hot drink, or an air-conditioned escape from the sweltering heat of a humid summer. And if you live in a highly populated area, rest assured that your craving for a rice ball can be fulfilled at any hour of the day or night.
Since the opening of its first convenience store in 1974—a 7-Eleven—Japan has truly put the “convenience” in convenience store. Today there are over 45,000 convenience stores in Japan. From the dense streets of Tokyo to the some of the most remote mountain villages, you’re almost guaranteed to find a store whenever you need one.
Inside a convenience store, the number of services offered within such a small space is surprising—and impressive. I have mailed a letter, had an express package delivered, sent a fax, made photocopies, printed photos, read magazines—you can read them without buying them, if you are so inclined!—and purchased movie, museum and concert tickets. One of the most considerate services offered is the public restroom, which is usually quite clean and comfortable. I have children, and when the little ones just couldn’t hold it anymore, I always knew that I could rush into the nearest store without feeling like an imposition.
I also appreciated the range of products for women lining the store shelves. You can purchase scented body wipes, hairspray, makeup, tooth-brushes, feminine hygiene products and even underwear—all in convenient travel sizes. And don’t forget the food! Along with a variety of fried chicken, steamed pork buns and salty, sugary snacks, a few healthier alternatives are also offered. Crunchy salads, rich soups and bento boxes filled with stewed vegetables can be found among the high calories.
But, in the end, sometimes a girl just wants a good dessert—and you don’t have to go to a fancy bakery to find one. Japan’s top convenience store chains enlisted renowned hotel chains and pastry chefs to develop delicious dessert menus to be sold in their stores. The competition was fierce, and the result is a range of classy, affordable, melt-in-your-mouth eclairs, puddings and cakes available for purchase in neighbourhood stores and roadside service stops across the country.
It’s utterly impossible to describe everything that Japanese convenience stores have to offer in this brief article. In addition to what I’ve already described, they are a place to find local souvenirs, the latest food trends and seasonal goods such as Valentine’s Day chocolates and Christmas cards—but they are also a place for you to pay your utility bills. I could go on, but it’s best if you experience the stores for yourself on your next trip to Japan. You’ll find them conveniently situated wherever you are, offering up whatever you need.
SHELLEY SUZUKI is a long-time teacher of English as a Second Language in Canada and Japan. She currently runs an English school via Skype and is pursuing a teaching career, or whatever other interesting opportunities may come her way. She appeared on the Japanese TV show Okusama wa Gaikokujin (My Wife is a Foreigner). She hopes to become a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.
Illustration by Chieko Watanabe