Why Japanese Convenience Stores Are So Much Better
It’s been five days since I returned from a life-changing trip in Tokyo. From late-night izakaya runs to eating bluefin tuna belly sushi at 6 a.m. steps away from the largest live seafood auction in the world, I tried my best do it all. So it might seem comparatively pedestrian to gush about my adventures in a 7-Eleven, but I can’t help it—Japan’s convenience stores are a truly wondrous experience.
For years I had been told that in Japan, the food elicits feelings of pure awe, and not just sushi or yakitori either. No matter the cuisine, there is some expectation of mastery: If a French restaurant is opening, the chefs might be sent to France just to get everything perfect, down to the last french fry. Not to mention that Japanese kitchen knives are right up there with Germany’s, often even surpassing them. So it makes all the sense in the world that the nation’s 7-Elevens follow suit.
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Konbini chains, which in addition to 7-Eleven include FamilyMart, Lawson, and Ministop, are an essential part of big city life, just like bodegas in NYC. In a megacity like Tokyo, real estate is at a premium, so home kitchens have to be ultra-efficient. We visited our friends’ apartment in a posh district of the city, and while the two-bedroom apartment had both a living room and dining area, the kitchen was a true galley, equipped with a two-burner stove and a fish grill, which is essentially an oven roughly half the size of what we’re accustomed to. This all encourages dining out.
But can one eat at Jiro’s sushi restaurant for three square meals a day? Not on my budget. That’s why so many Tokyo residents turn to konbini stores: for their namesake convenience. But in the land that gave us umami, one cannot settle for a hot dog spinner and a defective Slurpee machine. Instead, the Japanese 7-Eleven rises to the occasion, providing meals that are not just quick and easy, but enviable. Here’s what sets konbini chains apart from American convenience stores.
An emphasis on cleanliness
Leading up to my trip to Japan I had been told that Tokyo was a strikingly clean city, and when I arrived I pretty much found that to be the case. Seemingly no one litters. People rarely consume food or beverage on the street or subway. Trash cans are hard to come by. Most of the time you have to carry your trash home or to an establishment that happens to have some sort of receptacle.
I never found a dirty anything in Japan. Maybe some of the subway stations looked older, and the stairs and floor seemed worn, but that’s it. When it came to konbini stores, just like a premium restaurant, each spot was spotless. Some of the reason for this might be cultural; many Japanese schools make cleanup a part of the daily routine, instilling the importance of tidiness in students from a young age. Whatever the reason, it makes the prospect of dining on konbini food all the more inviting.
A wide selection of grab-and-go foods
Since I was, after all, in Tokyo, it’s no surprise that the convenience stores mirrored the selection of the phenomenal Asian market 99 Ranch much more than, say, a Kroger. My kid is a ramen freak, and both 7-Eleven and Lawson had a few of our H Mart favorites. But the impressive selection doesn’t stop at Japanese cuisine: I found pâté, prosciutto, and even hard liquor, sold alongside the sake and beer. There was also a refrigerator dedicated to hot beverages, which I suppose makes it something more like an oven, but you get the idea.
The selection factor alone would have justified the hype, but I haven’t even mentioned the hot food case yet, which holds the famous konbini fried chicken. The pieces are boneless, though definitely better than any chicken nuggets I’ve ever had, and there’s a good chance you’ll grab some that are still steaming hot.
Even beyond the hot case, I found exceptional savory buns and, in one instance, a build-your-own noodle soup station. If I didn’t have a spreadsheet full of restaurants to visit, I could have—and would have—eaten all my meals at konbini stores.
I could keep waxing poetic about the soba, salads, sushi, and packages of octopus sashimi in the refrigerated section, but there are only so many synonyms for “delicious.” Oh, and the baked goods are damn respectable, too. Though travelers should never sleep on a bakery in Japan, the prepackaged baked goods at 7-Eleven will do the trick in a pinch.
For being what Americans would consider elaborate, konbini fare is comparatively affordable—like much of Japan’s cuisine. Our favorite sake, the Drunken Whale, costs $100 for a 750ml bottle at a reasonable sushi restaurant in Austin. In Tokyo we purchased a 300ml bottle for around $3.50. Granted, this illustrates the extent of restaurant markups as much as it demonstrates Japanese affordability. Still, paying under $4 for a bottle of good sake is pretty nice.
One of my favorite konbini bites was Lawson’s egg salad sandwich, and the bang for my buck was superb. Priced at 260 yen, the sandwich would retail for just under $2 at current exchange rates. The crustless sandwich with a magnificently creamy and smooth egg salad filling is one of the better sandwiches you can eat—Anthony Bourdain thought so, at least. As I struggle to deal with a life outside of Japan, I find myself Googling copycat recipes.
It’s the little things
I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m saying you should travel to Japan to eat exclusively at 7-Eleven. But if you did, you certainly wouldn’t be any worse for wear. My biggest takeaway is that to appreciate Tokyo is to marvel at how it handles the little things. The perfect crispy exterior on a piece of fried chicken, or a pastry that doesn’t go stale as quickly as you expect. I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I do know that so much of what has made Japanese cuisine a global phenomenon comes down to painstaking attention to detail, and that’s no less true inside the average konbini store, a modern marvel if there ever was one.
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