What is the first thing you do when you check-in and settle into a hotel in Tokyo (or any cities in Japan)? Take a walk around the area? Go look for restaurants? I have a ritual that I do every time I stay at a new hotel in Japan. I always make sure I know where the closest convenience store is.
Japanese convenience stores are called “Konbini” which is a shortened Japanized word for “Convenience”, and they are one of the most beautiful things in the urban life in Japan, let alone very convenient. In the past, I inquired at the hotel front desk where the closest convenience stores were, and they always had maps to show me. It must be a popular question asked at a hotel. You never have to walk more than a few blocks to find are least one store in your immediate area. When I locate a convenience store near my hotel, I am satisfied and I know that I will have a good stay. There is no telling when I feel sudden hunger pang due to a killer jet lag, or I may have forgotten to pack one crucial thing. Since the streets in Japan are very safe, I can walk to these stores by myself any time of the day.
The main convenience store chains in Japan are; 7-Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart. There are lots of different regional chains, but these are the big threes. My personal favorite is 7-Eleven, but Lawson has everything comparable also.
Here are the top 8 reasons why the Japanese Konbini is the best in the world.
You can find one everywhere!
If you are staying in popular tourist destinations like Tokyo, you should find a Konbini at least every few blocks. Sometimes there are Konvinis directly across the street from each other. They are all conveniently open 24 hours a day.
My mom lives in the suburb of a smaller city in Hokkaido, and there are at least 3 Kombini stores within 500m from her house.
They really do have everything you can think of
They have snacks and soft drinks as you can imagine, but the best food in Konbini is the freshly packaged bento boxes and sandwiches. You can have a decent and affordable meal any time of the day from Konbini. You can even ask them to warm up the packaged bento in the microwave for you. They will give you all necessary utensils such as chop sticks without even asking. These packaged meals are guaranteed fresh. They have many varieties of cup noodles, and they have an electric hot water dispenser to prepare your noodle right then and there.
I love the freshly ground hot coffee from the coffee machine in 7-Eleven for only 100 yen. I take 7-Eleven coffee any day over Starbucks coffee which costs at least 3 times more. My adult son loves to pick up a different single can of Japanese beer every day to try from 20-30 varieties available in the store near the hotel.
I have seen locally grown produce, heated oden during colder weather (http://7spot-info.jp/guidebook/product/oden.php?lang=en), plastic umbrellas for rainy days, huge variety of specialty pens in various colors (I love Japanese pens), and socks.
Some larger Konbini stores have small sitting counter for you to consume your purchase in store. I always try to remember these places with counters so that I can enjoy snacks and drinks and rest my tired feet from walking.
At least in the U.S, if I pick up the same item from a convenience store, it always costs more than a grocery store. It’s usually around twice as much. In Japan, I have done serious price comparison between a 7-Eleven store and a department/grocery store owned by the same parent company (Ito-Yokado), and their prices were exactly the same to the penny. All other convenience store chains have competitive pricing also. It means you are getting good deals shopping at your neighborhood convenience stores.
Excellent Japanese customer service
Since the competition among different chains is on-going, you can expect great customer service in almost every Konbini store you walk in. If I look lost in the store, I always get unsolicited offers to help locate what I am looking for.
I once read a story of a person who wanted to buy a package of sandwich from a Konbini. It turned out that the date/time on the sandwich was expired by 20 minutes, and they will not sell the expired food to him. Instead, they located the fresh, newly delivered one in the process of being shelved. It caused 1-2 minutes delay to purchase, and he received deep bows and many apologies from the store clerk for the delay and inconvenience.
Another article I read was about an American man in Japan buying a 70 yen gum in Konbini. He realized that he only had 10,000 yen note with him to pay. The clerk didn’t even blink, counted back the change for him, and gave a deep bow and appreciation for patronizing his store. Needless to say, this man fell in love with Japanese Konbini.
Japanese cities have lots of options of free public restrooms in general. However, I prefer to use the restrooms in Konbini better than using the ones in the train or subway stations. It’s much cleaner, and they are never out of toilet papers. They provide soaps to wash hands, too, which is not always the case in train station restrooms.
I would buy some small things from the store if I use their restroom just to be a good citizen. The store website asks the customer to inquire at the sales counter if the restroom is available, since not all stores have the customer restroom. I don’t mind buying a 100 yen coffee for the use of their clean restrooms.
You can use free Wifi
You need to use wifi on the road? No problem. At 7-Eleven, you can register using your email, and use their wifi (7spot) whenever you visit their store. I have used it, and the reception was sometimes slow. But it’s FREE. Here is the guide to use 7Spot wifi in English.
You can fax/copy/print/scan
Most of 7-Elevens I visited have a coin operated fax/copier/printer/scanner machine. Although the instructions were in Japanese, it came in handy when I wanted to use printer or scanner during the trip. If you think you need to use printer, scanner or fax, I highly recommend bringing a thumb drive with you. The operation is simple if you need to print out of or scan into the thumb drive at 7-Eleven. If you have a smart phone or tablet without an USB outlet, you can buy an USB adapter to plug a thumb drive. Here is the web page for copy machines.
I once installed 7-Eleven multi copy app on my smart phone to scan a document through their wifi to my phone. It wasn’t straight forward operation, and it took me a while to get the scanned document stored in my phone. But, you may be better in figuring out how to work these systems…
You can use your foreign ATM card to withdraw yen (7-Eleven only)
Japanese banking system is a closed system, and even if you find an international bank branch, such as Citibank, you will not be able to make transactions with your overseas account. Your international ATM cards don’t work on the bank ATM machines. You can avoid this inconvenience by finding the closest 7-Eleven store and use their ATM which accepts majority of internationally available cards such as Visa or Mater Card. I highly recommend for you to do the research ahead of time to see if your ATM/debit card charges extra fee to use out-of-network ATM machines, or foreign transaction fee.
Next time, you are visiting Japan, make sure you know the closest Konbini location. You know what service you can take advantage of in Konbini, your travel in Japan can be much simpler and easier.