Japanese Convenience Stores: A Cycle Tourist’s Best Friend
Cycle touring in Japan is a joy for so many reasons: Good roads, considerate drivers, friendly people, diverse and beautiful scenery, hot springs, great food… But this post will celebrate the unsung hero that makes cycling in Japan feel like a supported ride, even when you feel far from civilization: The Japanese convenience store. They’re everywhere, they’re full of tasty things, and they put their American counterparts to shame. Read on for a list of what makes the “konbini”, as they are known in Japan, the greatest thing ever.
Japanese convenience stores are a great place to buy food that’s inexpensive and often surprisingly good! Our go-to convenience store snack was onigiri – triangular packets of rice with various fillings (tuna mayo, salmon, roe, umeboshi plum, etc) wrapped in seaweed. I could write a separate post about the virtues of convenience store onigiri. Every konbini has a cooler wall dedicated to these little packets of goodness. But if they’re just sitting in the cooler, won’t the seaweed get all soggy and sad? No! Some ingenious mind has designed a tripartite plastic wrapping mechanism for onigiri that ensures this doesn’t happen. The seaweed is individually wrapped and doesn’t touch the rice until you initiate the unwrapping procedure. First, you tear a central strip all the way around the triangle. Then you pull away the plastic from the other two corners and, if you’ve done it right, you’re now holding the rice ball by the fresh, crisp seaweed wrapper! I know it sounds like I’m going on a bit, but these things are seriously delicious, and only about $1 each. That’s value in Japan! Three onigiri each was a very common breakfast for us. OK, we ate them every other time of the day too.
There are also bigger meals available, from decent packaged sushi to various assembled microwaveable dishes. The cashiers have microwaves behind the counter and will heat up your food for instant enjoyment if you ask. Some of these dishes seem to be compiled by a mad food scientist, or a kid with ADHD. They’re often a strange mix of Japanese and western food – a piece of salmon, a couple of sushi rolls, and for some reason a corner of marinara pasta in the same dish. For the camping cyclist who doesn’t want to do cooking more complicated than boiling some water, there is a baffling array of cup noodle dishes, some of which can get quite elaborate – think four different packets inside to be deployed at different points – try and follow the picture instructions, it’s all part of the fun.
And of course konbini are great places to get other random Japanese snacks, from squid crisps to wasabi Doritos to delicious puddings and ice creams. Unlike in the US, everything doesn’t have to be cloyingly sweet. [Mila: Do not underestimate how good those pudding snacks are, or the joy of Papico! Papico is a sort of like a frapuccino ice cream served in a Squeez-It. It doesn’t exist in the US, which might be a violation of my human rights.]
Somewhere in the last few years, iced coffee became a “thing” in Japan, and convenience stores have picked up the trend admirably. Japanese 7-Eleven serve up freshly ground iced coffee that’s miles better than anything you get at Starbucks. It’s usually self-serve. You grab a cup of ice from the freezer, pay for it at the counter, then fill it up at the coffee machine. This is just the fresh stuff. Walk over to the cooler and you’ll see an incredible variety of packaged iced coffee drinks.
Of course there’s a huge assortment of other cold drinks – great unsweetened green teas, soda waters with interesting flavors, but let’s get to the booze! Need to get your drink on? 7-Eleven’s got you covered.
There’s cold beer of course, and some hard liquor, and very decent bottles of wine for around $5. But for the Japanese touring cyclist, I recommend something else: a nice carton of sake. Perfect for ending a riding day, and no heavy glass to tote around on your loaded bike. 900mL cartons of demon sake for around $5.
Need a super glue? A pair of headphones? Manga porn? They’ve got you covered. Despite their small size, konbini offer a carefully curated selection of items, and always seem to have the thing you need. Sure, you can get batteries and wet wipes at any western convenience store. But what about a fresh dress shirt and some mosquito coils? When I needed a pair of gloves for colder weather riding in Hokkaido, I could choose between work gloves and white cotton “driving gloves.” And you can always get an umbrella. The Japanese love umbrellas. [Mila: Try the sunscreen! Japanese sunscreen is way better than what I’ve found in the US or anywhere else: not greasy and highly effective.]
In Japan it can be hard to find free Wi-Fi… except it’s not. Just hit up the 7-Eleven. You usually have to go through a confusing sign-in procedure, but once you’re connected, the speeds are good – fast enough to BitTorrent up the next few episodes of Peaky Blinders, not that we’d know anything about that.
You can’t always get cash from a Japanese bank – most ATMs only accept cards issued in Japan. Once we found out that the 7-Eleven ATMs work with our bank, we never had trouble getting cash.
True story: When we were cycling in India, Mila would limit her water intake because it was impossible to find a clean and safe place to pee along the route. In Japan, she hydrated to her heart’s (and bladder’s) content! These are “convenience” stores after all – and they have really clean toilets. And, like everywhere else in Japan, they’re usually the “smart” kind. Buttons! Water jets!
Most konbini offer a designated zone for bicycle parking. This isn’t really a huge deal, but it’s still nice to see.
Expect to be welcomed loudly and enthusiastically – often more than once – whenever you enter a Japanese convenience store. Nowadays, when I walk into shops anywhere else and don’t hear a chorus of “isshiamase!”, it makes me a little sad. Think of your typical convenience store clerk in America. Do you picture a courteous and helpful person? I didn’t think so. They try hard in Japan. I’ve been second in a 2-person checkout queue, just to have the other clerk abandon whatever he/she was doing and rush to open a second register. They literally go out of their way.
Convenience stores wouldn’t be convenient if they wasn’t one nearby. Fortunately, there’s always one nearby. Japan has almost 18,000 7-Eleven stores alone. Then there are the other chains – Family Mart, Lawson, Sunkus, Circle K, Seico Mart… We spent long enough touring Japan to become discerning konbini consumers. Sure, I could get a decent iced coffee at Lawson, but I can get a damn good iced coffee at the 7-Eleven across the street. Hold off on the snacks, I like the tuna mayo onigiri from the Family Mart on the next block. [Mila: Seico Mart is a Hokkaido special, and I loved it! They specialize in local Hokkaido items – cantaloupe ice cream! Konbu chips! – and always gave us hot water to fill up our thermos for tea. The best.]
Japan has a somewhat deserved reputation of being expensive, but konbini go along way to mitigating the cost. Consider our typical breakfast 2 of 3 onigiri and 1 iced coffee each – $8-10 for 2 people. It’s not dirt cheap, but it’s quality, and a great value for Japan. And “save money by eating at convenience stores” isn’t as depressing a sentence as it sounds when you consider the very decent quality of the food you can get there.
For locals, everything else
This one doesn’t concern us, but it’s interesting. If you live in Japan, the convenience store offers you even more than all the goodness above. In addition to snacks and booze, you can transact all sorts of other business there. You can buy concert or airline tickets, or even pay your power bill and taxes (seriously!).
When cycle touring in Japan, the convenience store (along with the vending machine) is your best ally. God, how we miss them. We now get warm fuzzies when I see a 7-Eleven logo. We’re in for a rude awakening back in the States!