There are about 50,000 convenience stores across Japan and these are dominated by three brands: 7Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart. There are, however, other smaller operators like Daily Yamazaki and Mini Stop, as well as regional leaders like Hokkaido’s Seicomart (anyone who’s ever been to Niseko knows that this brand is a gold mine).

With the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, Japan is a destination where one should book meals before flights. It’s home to a trove of award-winning establishments including much-loved Sézanne, considered by some the best restaurant in Asia, as well as small, notoriously hard-to-book ones reserved only for existing customers.

While there are high-end sushi restaurants and hole-in-the-wall ramen joints on my Japan eat list, the konbini is my first food stop when I arrive in Japan. Literally as soon as I land in the airport, I make a beeline to a humble, reservation-free, culinary heaven.

The konbini is a great equalizer—rich, poor, local, visitor, chef or layman can go in there and find something they like. We all have our favorites, and some dishes have garnered a cult following. Case in point: the tamago sando (egg sandwich), which features a well-balanced combination of boiled egg and Kewpie mayonnaise in between fluffy crust-free white bread. So perfect it is that the late Anthony Bourdain described Lawson’s Egg Sandwich as “insanely delicious and incongruously addictive” in Parts Unknown.

Truth be told, konbini food sustained me through my time studying and working in Japan, and it’s one of the things I miss most now that I don’t live there anymore. Depending on the time of day, my mood, and which convenience store is closest, I have my usual picks.

For a quick breakfast, I get the “Fruits Salad” yogurt, which is made from Hokkaido milk and has four types of fruit. I also pick up some sort of pastry (the natural donut or melon pan are crowd pleasers) and instant coffee. Yes, I know Mt. Rainier Caffe Latte is far from Arabica’s flat white but somehow it hits the spot. I chalk it up to the taste of nostalgia.

At lunch, nothing beats an onigiri or a larger maki roll with salmon mayonnaise or mentaiko, best paired with Kirin’s Afternoon Straight Tea. To this day, I marvel at that clever bit of engineering that keeps the nori as crisp as can be. If there’s a Family Mart nearby, I sometimes cave and grab a famichiki, a boneless fried chicken that is sinful as it is delicious. Some prefer karaage-kun at Lawson, but I like biting into an actual chicken filet.

Come dinnertime, I opt for something warm like a nikuman (steamed pork bun) or a ready-made bento box, which they gladly heat up for you. In the summer, I’m partial to zaru soba, cold soba noodles with a dipping sauce that’s refreshing and satisfying.

If a nightcap is in order, a can of lemon chu-hai (shochu highball) or a small Kirin beer does it for me. But if I’m calling it a night, nothing eases me into slumber than the sweet Royal Milk Tea, which I buy in advance and put in my hotel fridge.

Hands down, the highlight of food shopping in a konbini is the dizzying array of snacks. From the spicy Karamucho chips to the packets of luscious Galbo chocolate, I can fill a whole luggage with Japanese snacks.

Convenience stores are also a microcosm of Japanese culture. For instance, it follows the principles of seasonality, which is revered in Japan. Right now, there are plenty of sakura-themed creations as the cherry blossom trees come into full bloom. In autumn, the scent of oden wafts through the store, which signals that the cold days are coming.

The konbini is not solely about food, and there are lots to buy aside from the ubiquitous (and stylish) clear plastic umbrellas. Since 2020, Lawson has had a partnership with Muji, offering around 170 items including cotton pads, notebooks, and their popular instant curry sauce in store. Family Mart has also upped their game, especially in the fashion department. In 2021, they launched Convenience Wear, a line-up of colorful clothing ranging from jackets to socks. Last year, they even staged a fashion show to highlight its new collection in a set that looked like a… konbini (what else?).

Convenience stores are also responding to global trends, with more specialized or upscale offshoots. No doubt you’ve passed by Natural Lawson, a chain that offers healthier food and drink, as well as Famima!!, which I spotted at the newly opened Azabudai Hills on my last visit. This particular brand hopes to address Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with a new type of convenience store aiming to realize “a society where people and the environment are mutually enriched”.

Whatever shape or size a konbini comes in, what I love best is its reliability. Be it at 4am after a party during my student days or fresh off a red-eye flight with my toddler in tow today, it’s always been there for me. And I know it will always have my favorites and surprises for me to discover the next time I’m back in Japan.

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