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11/11/2014

Onigiri Life: Conbini in Japan

Convenience stores in Japan are very different from those in the U.S., and are a very crucial part of daily life for every study abroad student here in Tokyo. Japanese convenience stores – or “conbini” – offer a surprising variety of food. If you can master the fine art of conbini food, I believe you can aptly call yourself a Tokyo Pro. Let’s begin with the basics:

Q: What is a conbini, and where do you find one?

A: A conbini is a convenience store. When “convenience store” entered the Japanese language, they turned it in to コンビニ, which then re-Romanized looks like “Conbini.” The most common convenience stores are Family Mart, Lawson, SunsRUs, and (drumroll please) Seven Eleven! As an American, the idea of Seven Eleven as a place for human beings to buy decent food was quite foreign before coming to Japan. The Seven Elevens here, as well as all the other conbini, are actually very clean, respectable places to buy all the necessities, and the food is pretty good. As to where you can find one, the better question is where you cannot find one. Conbini are everywhere, often multiple competing chains in the same block. Or, you may find the same conbini within two blocks of each other. 

7 eleven yotsuya
This is down the street from Sophia University- there are 4 Seven Elevens, not counting the one on Sophia’s campus.

Q: Is Conbini food good?

A: YES. It’s not five star gourmet, but it tastes good, fills you up, and doesn’t give you heart disease in the process. The only food at gas stations and convenience stores in America is junk food like candy, chips, donuts, and those fake pizzas that look like plastic dipped in grease. In Japan, you can find Onigiri (rice balls stuffed with meat, vegetables, shrimp, etc.), sandwiches, noodles, breads, jello, salads, and even fruit and cheese, although they are more expensive since they’re imported. The variety is wonderful, and I often find myself spending a solid 10 minutes staring at all the options. If you’re in a hurry, the go-to conbini food is always Onigiri. Especially when you have to go to that lunch period club meeting or rush to finish homework before the anthropology class, Onigiri is a filling snack that is still nutritious for your body. Whenever you’re out and about and need some food but don’t want to find a restaurant, or if you need a late night snack, conbini are always there and always open.

Onigiri
Photo © Khoi Dao “Adventures in Tokyo – Episode 1 “Japan Ho!”

Q: What’s so exciting about Conbini food?

A: While Tokyo has SO MUCH GOOD FOOD, eating out all the time can be expensive. An average bowl of noodles in Shibuya or Shinjuku is anywhere from ¥800 to ¥1200 (about $8 to $12). While this is on the same level as cities like Los Angeles or D.C., the typical broke college student prefers not to spend their entire monthly budget on food, especially when there’s karaoke after dinner and a 3 dollar train fare to get home. I personally eat out with friends at least 3 nights a week, and on the weekend sometimes I’ll be out for both dinner and lunch. For all the lunches in between, I prefer to spend ¥300 to ¥500 on tasty onigiri, which I can eat quickly. This is better than trying to find a restaurant that won’t break the bank. On Sophia’s campus, the cafeterias are also a cheap alternative, but they can be crowded during lunch period. When I have homework to do, I much prefer a run to the conbini and a seat at the outside tables to the noisy cafeterias. 

Family mart
Family Mart in Shibuya

While you should try to cook as much as you can to be healthy, sometimes it’s hard to do so. Also, I think people underestimate how challenging finding food can be in a foreign country. Trying to navigate a grocery store and not being able to read the writing on the labels can be stressful and disorienting at first. Conbini food, on the other hand, is easy to navigate, and once you feel comfortable with conbini food, you start to feel a little less like a bumbling foreigner and a little more like a pro-level resident of Japan. I find comfort in knowing that no matter where I am in Tokyo (and probably in any city in Japan, for that matter), I can walk into a clean conbini with friendly workers and find something to eat. It takes away the stress of finding food on a budget, and I think all of the CIEE students truly appreciate the ease of using conbini in Japan. In addition to buying good food, you can do a lot of other useful things at the conbini, like ship packages and buy concert tickets. Conbinis here are truly “convenient.”

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