Located on every block in urban areas (and every other block in rural ones), the Japanese convenience store is much more than a ubiquitous repository of junk food and cheap buzzes. It sells sushi and soba, manga and medicine, single-malt whisky and next-day hangover cures. Many Japanese swear allegiance to one of the Big Three conbini—7-Eleven, Lawson, or Family Mart—but all share a common ethos of maximum utility, minimal hassle, and food that’s better than it needs to be. There are many things to love about conbini (and a few things not to), but these are the most heroic features of the Japanese convenience store.
One of Japan’s most popular snacks looms large on the shelves of conbini—endless triangles of packed rice wrapped in shiny sheaths of crackly seaweed. Try it stuffed with umeboshi (pickled plum) or tuna and mayo.
Fried food has a strong presence in conbini, but chicken—spicy nuggets, patties, thighs, and drumsticks—is the standout. Lawson has a deservedly strong reputation for its karaage: salty, unreasonably juicy, and as delicious cold as it is hot.
Come winter, oden dominates the conbini landscape: vegetables, meat, tofu, and eggs simmered gently in dashi. The Japanese go crazy for this stuff, and when you feel the chill in your bones, you will too.
Pillow soft and lightly sweetened, yogashi (Western-style desserts) make for a heroic breakfast or late-night binge (try anything made with green tea). Family Mart’s line of high-concept pastries is especially impressive.
5. Iced Coffee
Nearly as ubiquitous as vending machine coffee, and marginally better. It tends to be super sweet, so best to look for ones with “double” or “espresso” in the name, or custom blend your own hot or cold caffeine fix with the slick coffee machines found at all the big conbini these days.
The place to stock up for a street beverage or a hotel stash. Dedicated sake sections, sprawling beer cases, wine, and whisky give the informed drinker a formidable lot to select from. Chu-his and pocket Suntory bottles are two standouts.
The math doesn’t work out—squishy bread, industrial fillings—but what emerges out of those plastic wrappers is glorious. Egg sandwiches from 7-Eleven and Lawson are little miracles of creamy golden yolks and umami-rich kewpie mayonnaise.
8. Everything Else
The bathrooms are sparkling by U.S. convenience-store standards, the employees are comically cheery, and 7-Elevens remain one of the only places where foreign ATM cards work. You can also pay bills and buy plane and concert tickets while you snack on your egg sando.
From Rice, Noodle, Fish by Matt Goulding, Harper Wave 2015.