When I first moved to Japan, my Japanese skills were barely rudimentary. I was confused by the keigo (敬語 – respectful form of speech) the staff used at restaurants. It was all a huge, intimidating pain in the rear, so I did what any logical foreigner would do – I lived off konbini (コンビニ – convenience store) food.
And I discovered that it’s awesome.
Unlike the US, where you might find a paleolithic hot dog rolling in a display case praying for its own death or a machine that squirts chili goo onto your nachos (by the way, I’ve you’ve ever seen a convenience store clerk change the ‘bladders’ in the chili machine, that’s your last Nacho Deluxe), Japanese convenience store food is edible. Employees wash their hands regularly and there’s nothing that might kill you. In fact, it’s downright tasty.
Fresh triangular sandwiches
Somewhere in Japan there must be a factory with giant sheets of white bread that’s so processed it’ll still be edible after a nuclear holocaust. I imagine old Japanese ladies with hairnets squirting ingredients out of massive tubes—tuna, egg, tomato sauce—and then slicing these massive sheets into triangular sandwiches.
The triangle sandwich is a konbini classic. You’ll find common sandwiches like the BLT, tuna salad, and ham and cheese. You’ll also find wilder selections like fried slices of ham, fruit and cream, and fried noodles (just in case the bread carbs aren’t enough for you). All joking aside, the sandwiches really are fresh.
The all-time konbini classi: Onigiri
Onigiri (おにぎり – rice ball) is a rice ball with something delicious inside, often wrapped in nori (海苔 – purple laver seaweed). They’re popular because they’re cheap, easy to eat, and rice-based (as most Japanese food is). Onigiri is an old Japanese traditional food, but what you see in convenience stores has a modern twist.
Photo by Ari Helmenin
My personal favorite among konbini delicacies is the huge case at the counter full of fried things. They’ve got karaage (から揚げ – fried pieces of chicken, often on a skewer), ikafrai (イカフライ – fried hunk of squid), korokke (コロッケ – croquet), kakifrai (カキフライ – fried oysters) and more. Non-fried foods include the wonderfully named ‘American Dog’ (アメリカンドッグ – corn dog) and a juicy frank on a stick.
Photo by julesjulesjules m
Cup noodles and hot water
No section of the konbini compares to the instant noodle aisle. Most are well under 200 yen and they come in many varieties, from traditional noodle bowls like yakisoba (焼きそば – pan-fried noodles) and ramen (ラーメン, ramen) to less common types like curry-flavored noodles, tomato-based noodles and the massive super cups. Somewhere by the counter is a thermos full of hot water so that you can ‘cook’ your noodles and eat them right outside on the sidewalk.
Photo by Ari Helminen
The kashi-pan (菓子パン – bread-based snacks) section rocks the hardest in this konbini aficionado’s humble opinion. Selection varies according to konbini chain, but a quick rundown of what you’ll find includes hot dogs and hamburgers with ketchup and mustard, cheese, mayonnaise, chili sauce, or other toppings; baked bread with tuna, ham, cheese or other ingredients in it; deep-fried donuts with a sausage or curry inside (of course!); bread with cheese and tomato sauce on it packaged as ‘pizza’; and a whole variety of sweets. All of these are amazingly cheap, mostly costing just a little over 100 yen, and they make great breakfasts.
What’s the best konbini in Japan? According to bloggers, TV personalities, marketing surveys and random people on nichanneru (２チャンネル – a popular Japanese online textboard), 7-11 wins hands-down. But you’ll find delicious goodies to eat at any konbini in the nation, and that’s nice because there are approximately three on every city block.*
(*Note: This is an exaggeration. Maybe.)