So many of our foundational myths simply aren't true: Santa Claus isn't real; Disneyland is the "Happiest Place On Earth" only if you pay to cut the lines; and rainbows don't have a pot of gold at the end. But every miraculous thing you've ever heard about Japanese convenience stores (conbini) is true: The inexpensive, prepackaged food is amazing and even seasonal, the candy is extraordinary, and there's enough canned coffee in each one to energize every citizen of a small nation. With a conbini on virtually every block of Tokyo, most open 24/7, nearly anything you need is within reach at any hour, no matter where you are in the city. Not every aspect of the conbini is self-explanatory though; here's everything you might need to know for the optimum experience.
There are three major conbini chains: 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, and Lawson. Several smaller ones are sprinkled about the city — you can often find NewDays in train stations, while Ministop, Circle K Sunkus, and Daily Yamazaki usually operate in residential districts. True conbini obsessives quibble in minute detail about what each chain does better than the others, but there are some clear pros and cons at each.
7-Eleven is the largest conbini chain — there are nearly 20,000 locations in Japan — and generally has the best food overall. Its products regularly top conbini food rankings. While virtually everything from 7-Eleven is a winner, its fresh-ground coffee and pre-packaged breads are particularly popular. One other thing to note is that while all conbini provide basic banking functions, 7-Eleven is the only one that consistently supports foreign transactions, and is the best place to use an ATM if you need cash (and you will, because so much of Japan is still cash-only).
Lawson's most popular food item is fried chicken, which is cooked on-site and sold at the hot foods section near the registers. It offers honetsuki (fried bone-in chicken), honenashi (fried boneless chicken), and different flavors of kara-age (deep-fried chicken nuggets), which are crispy on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside, and can hold their own against the kara-age served at izakayas. Many of Lawson's prepared foods and bento box lunches are hit-or-miss, so stick with the sandwiches and onigiri (rice balls) — and, it bears repeating, the fried chicken.
A few years ago, Lawson opened a sister brand targeted at women called Natural Lawson, which despite the misleading name, is focused on healthy items, not organic. Its packaged foods tend to feature higher-quality ingredients with less sodium and less fat, while its overall selection reflects a greater awareness of vegetarian diets, as well as wheat and soy allergies, unlike most conbini.
FamilyMart is the conbini king of bread and pastries. Look for the "premium" line (it features a black label) made with high-quality ingredients, especially the katsu sando (deep-fried pork sandwich), which tends to sell out quickly. And definitely swing by the refrigerated pastry case, which contains all of FamilyMart's most delicious desserts. Oh, and FamilyMart also offers a small selection of Muji goods.
While the variety of foodstuffs you'll find at a conbini can be overwhelming, there are some basic categories that you'll find at any location of any chain: the sando (sandwiches), the onigiri, the bento, and, of course, the candy. And it's all at a level of quality that generally exceeds anything in a U.S. convenience store, even beloved chains like Wawa and Sheetz. As David Chang points out, you can compose a fantastic meal entirely from cheap conbini foods.
Perfect cellophane-wrapped triangles, Japanese sandwiches are made from exceptionally pillowy bread. The most revered is the tamago (egg salad) sando. Every bite of the rich, creamy egg, cushioned between soft bread, melts in your mouth. From late January to mid-April, seasonal strawberry sandwiches make their annual appearance; it may seem odd to put fresh, halved strawberries with airy whipped cream between bread, but it works.
Onigiri are utter simplicity: a seaweed wrapper encasing a packed handful of rice stuffed with a savory filling. An optimal bite of an onigiri is a balanced mouthful of soft rice, intense filling, and crisp nori. The cellophane packaging, which might confuse a novice, was designed specifically to maintain the integrity of the ingredients by separating the nori and the rice — they only touch right before you eat the onigiri.
Most onigiri cost between ¥100 and ¥250, and a couple would make for a fairly hearty snack — think of them like Kind bars, needed to power through an intense Tokyo travel agenda. Some of the basic onigiri to look for are tuna with Kewpie mayonnaise; the aggressively flavored umeboshi (pickled, salted plum), which you should consume in tiny bites to avoid your senses being overpowered; okaka, a mix of bonito flakes and soy sauce; cured kombu with soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar; mentaiko (spicy, cured cod roe); and nattō (fermented soy beans), which is kind of like the Japanese Vegemite in terms of taste.
Though bento, like most conbini foods, change seasonally, they come in a few basic forms. The donburi (rice bowls) include gyūdon (thin strips of marinated beef over rice), katsudon (deep-fried pork cutlet scrambled with eggs over rice), and oyakodon (chicken and scrambled eggs over rice). There's also curry rice — Japanese curry is sweet and thick, bearing little resemblance to other curries around the world — and pastas, which are often legitimately al dente. It's worth noting that you can have any bento heated up to eat right there in the conbini, if you want, and at just a few hundred yen, it's an extremely cheap meal.
From September to mid-April, there are often large, heated metal trays or pots near the registers of most conbini. Inside the trays are different ingredients — tofu, daikon radish, boiled eggs, and fish cakes — floating in a hot, fragrant (almost pungent) dashi broth. This is oden, Japan's winter comfort food. While the absolute best typically comes from chefs who have spent a lifetime perfecting their broth and curating the ingredients to pair with it, the conbini version is fun to try.
There are generally two types of instant noodles: ramen and yakisoba (pan-fried noodles), and dozens of variations of both styles. Aside from the different flavors each conbini offers — most packages include English text so deciphering them isn't too challenging — 7-Eleven collaborates with major ramen chains like Ippudo to re-create Japan's most popular noodle bowls. New flavors are frequently introduced to keep fans interested, but there is one constant: The bigger packages are generally of higher quality, and come closer to matching the taste of the real thing.
Some of the fillings in the Japanese take on Chinese bao are unconventional: Japanese curry with cheese, marinara sauce and cheese, red bean paste. If you're just after a standard pork bun, look for the character for meat (肉).
The focus on seasonal ingredients in Japan's haute cuisine even trickles down to its junk food: New flavors of chips, candies, chocolates, and ice cream — often reflecting seasonal changes — rotate onto the shelves every few weeks, so the most important thing to know is that you should try whatever catches your eye. And you should try a lot, since each item might not be around for long. If you're looking for some up-to-date guidance on the best snacks at any given time, mognavi's rankings are updated frequently, though you'll need to translate from the Japanese.
Some basic translations
- 「新発売」= a big red sticker with these characters means the item is new
- 「季節限定」「期間限定」= seasonal / available for a limited time
- 「生」= raw
- 「新発売」= a big red sticker with these characters means the item is new
- 「焼く」= grilled「炙り」= seared「フライ」= deep fried
- 「生」= raw
- 「甘い」= sweet (i.e. a dessert)
Since there are usually seats inside conbini, you can often eat on the spot, and hot water is available upon request for instant noodles. If there isn't any seating, just take your food outside and eat right in front of, or close to, the store — eating while walking isn't considered polite, but if you're doing it in front of a conbini, no one will be offended.
The most important thing to keep in mind is how conbini foods appear and disappear without notice. Keeping an open mind and trying anything that catches your interest is the way to avoid any regrets.
Raised in the Bay Area, then onto NY, LA and Tokyo, Mona Nomura has been surrounded by excellent food her entire life. When she is not thinking about, talking about or writing about food, she scours Japan for new ingredients and restaurants.
Irwin Wong is a professional photographer based in Tokyo but originally from Melbourne. He specializes in portrait and documentary photography.