Convenience stores – also known as konbini in Japanese – can be found all over Japan. There’s more than 50,000 of them across the country! You can’t walk for longer than a minute in Tokyo without passing at least one.
Planning on travelling to Japan’s more rural areas? You’ll definitely find a convenience store somewhere in the inaka (countryside).
There are numerous chains of convenience stores to choose from but there 3 major operators that stand at the top of their game, Seven Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson. Between these three chains, competition is so high that new and innovative products are constantly being developed, they have high-quality customer service and most stores are open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week!
Convenience stores are aptly named for the huge number of services they offer. They can be a traveller’s best friend as they can offer so much more than a cheap lunch alternative and a midnight snack.
Check out this guide to make the most of the plethora of services they offer and make your next trip to Japan a smooth one.
Onigiri,Bento and Beer
One of the primary features of Japanese convenience stores is the huge selection of meals, snacks and sweets they offer for reasonable prices. They can range from onigiri (rice balls), sandwiches, bento (prepared meals containing rice, meat or fish, and vegetables), chips, chocolate such as odd flavored Kit Kats, desserts, cup noodles, microwave meals and hot foods like fried chicken, steamed pork buns and yakitori (grilled chicken skewers).
These stores also offer an overwhelming variety of hot and cold beverages including tea, coffee, fizzy drinks, water, juice, sports drinks, milk, smoothies and vitamin drinks. They also offer alcoholic beverages including beer, sake, whisky and wine.
On top of this, each store will offer seasonal and limited edition products. During the spring time you’ll find an array of cherry blossom themed drinks like the Sakura and Matcha Latte from Starbucks or small bottles of sake with cherry blossom petals floating inside the bottle. In October, adorable Halloween themed cakes and desserts line the shelves.
Most recently, in celebration of the film Toy Story 4, Seven Eleven has been offering limited edition Little Green Men manjuu (a steamed bun filled with red bean paste)!
Stock Up on Daily Essentials
Ofcourse, everyday items are also available, including detergent, health and beauty products, batteries, umbrellas, newspapers, magazines and manga. They even have ties, socks, shirts and underwear for tight spots or to cover the previous night’s out with friends.
There’s also bathrooms that are open to public use. You don’t need to purchase anything to be able to use their toilet.
One of the most surprising things about Japan is that for a tech obsessed country, it’s still a cash-based society. There are still a number of smaller establishments that won’t take credit cards (Japanese bank cards included). Even with banks there’s only a selected few that will accept foreign credit and debit cards for cash withdrawals.
Fortunately, there are now many convenience stores with ATMs that accept foreign cards. These ATMs often have an English language option so withdrawing cash is quick and painless. Seven Eleven is a common go-to for travellers to withdraw cash for the cheap transaction fees.
Extensive Booking Services
While walking into your nearest Lawson or Seven Eleven store, you may have noticed a poster for an upcoming sumo tournament or a Studio Ghibli art exhibition. One of the best services available at convenience stores is their extensive booking services. You can buy tickets for theme parks, concerts, museums, sports matches and art exhibitions. You can even book plane tickets (mainly domestic flights) and a seat on a highway bus for longer journeys.
You can book your tickets on these machines which are usually located near the ATM. They’ll often have an English language option. Scroll through the menu, select your booking and the machine will print out a receipt. Take it to the cashier to pay for it and you’ll then receive your tickets!
These machines are packed full of options and events so if you ever need help finding what you’re looking for, you can always the staff on hand. They may not be able to speak in English but they’re always happy to help you out!
Mainly locals and foreign residents benefit from this service but it’s still worth mentioning. Convenience stores accept bill payments for most Japanese utility companies. Generally speaking, electricity, water, gas, internet and mobile phone bills can be paid in these stores. When receiving a bill simply take it to your nearest convenience store, hand it to the clerk and pay the requested amount. The store then takes care of notifying the utility company that the bill has been paid.
Another handy feature of this is that Amazon bills can also be paid instores. Amazon Japan has an option to pre-pay by convenience store. This is a useful feature for travellers that are constantly on the move. You can pay for your desired item in Tokyo and arrange to have it delivered by the time you’re in Osaka!
Photocopy and Printing
This might be due to the more compact-sized houses, but it’s not common for households in Japan to have a computer with a printer and scanner as they take up so much space. Instead convenience stores have come up with a more economical solution by providing photocopying, scanning and printing services for reasonable prices.
You can print documents directly from a memory card, USB stick or even from your email account. As a traveller you can make the most of their printing services by printing out photos from your travelers around the country. You can choose to print photos either on glossy photo paper or as a postcard to send off to loved ones back home!
Luggage Delivery Services and More
At many stores, it’s possible to drop off or pick up deliveries, such as parcels or luggage. This is a fantastic service many travellers and even expats aren’t fully utilising.
If you’re staying at a hotel or a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), this service is already provided to you as the front desk staff at most establishments can arrange for your luggage to be sent ahead of time. However, for those that are staying at an Airbnb or perhaps at a friends apartment, this luggage forwarding service can make getting around the country a breeze All you need to do is drop off your suitcase at a convenience store with the Kuroneko Yamato symbol and continue on with your travels, secure with the knowledge that your luggage will be waiting for you at your next destination. The Japanese often use this service to send heavy luggage a few days ahead of travel, knowing it’ll be an easy pick up for them right at the departure terminal.
For those that don’t speak Japanese, you can check this guide from Kuroneko Yamato, a well-known and trusted luggage forwarding company in Japan, on how to fill out the forms.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s possible to live off a konbini. They cover every basic need one could need to live or travel in Japan. They play a huge part in the everyday lives of locals, expats and travellers. With an array of services available at one stop open 24 hours a day 7 days a week, what’s not to love about Japanese convenience stores?