Before I went to Japan, I’d never been to a proper convenience store – they just don’t exist back home. So when I first experienced them, these stores seemed amazing – they were nearby, they were open all day, every day, and they sold all kinds of food and useful items. Of course, that’s true of convenience stores in other countries as well, but in Japan, everything seems to be just that bit extra special. There’s more crammed into that small space than the outside would suggest. In fact, there’s a lot hiding in that welcoming exterior, so let me show you around.
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ID:	1130 The outside of a konbini – looks small, doesn’t it?
(By Kuha455405 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

What are they?
If you’re like me, and you’ve never been to a convenience store, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s like a small supermarket crossed with a corner shop, and very convenient if you forgot to pick something up, or want a snack and a drink on the move. In Japanese they’re called konbini for short (and believe me, it’s much easier than saying – or writing – convenience store every time!)

The first konbini opened in Japan in the 1960s, and they’ve been expanding across Japan ever since. There are now dozens of different chains, but the big 3 are Seven-Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart (in that order). You’ll probably also see Sunkus, Ministop and Daily Yamazaki quite regularly if you’re travelling around. Each chain has more of a presence in certain areas than others, but big cities will usually have a mixture. Sometimes, your nearest konbini determines which chain is your favourite, but I’ve heard people give all kinds of reasons: perceived quality of goods, availability of particular goods e.g. special promotional tie-ins, or because they used to work there! (Really, that was a reason I was told once – how’s that for loyalty?) Just don’t ask me which one’s my favourite – it’s a tough choice, as you’ll find out below.

Seven-Eleven is a very iconic chain, with stores in multiple countries. It was originally named for its opening hours, but not anymore. Now, konbini never close. Ever. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, even on holidays, their doors will be open. It’s amazing that they can find staff to cover all of this time, and in fact, it can be hard. Many staff are part-timers, and it’s such a hard job that people often quit after 6 months.

It’s not just the hours, though. As a customer, the politeness and friendly attitude are great, but the staff have to have training in things like acceptable phrasing, and how to bow. Their clean-cut presentation takes some rule following, too - they have restrictions on appearance that are as strict as an office worker’s – no crazy hair colours, no facial hair, piercings, jewellery (or watches), manicures, fake nails, heels, sandals or masks.

Konbini are also kept spotlessly clean and neat. It might not be the job that it could be in countries that have customers who put unwanted items back in any old place, but it still requires a lot of effort from staff. They have to check the aisles, car park, floors, windows, counter, toilet, and even the air conditioning filter regularly. Appearances are important, so gaps in stock (which can be delivered multiple times a day) must be filled and items turned to face the front. The only exception is anything that has a short shelf-life, mainly lunch food, which sells out each day.
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Name:	Konbini interior.jpg
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ID:	1132 A konbini is always neat and tidy thanks to its staff
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What do they sell?
It would be easier to ask what they don’t sell! They have a little of everything, just not much variety within that; if you have a favourite brand, it had better be the most popular, or the one associated with the konbini you’ve gone to. Just like supermarkets, each chain sells slightly different things, and they can have different promotions e.g. Hello Kitty, that you can’t even get at a supermarket. This applies to food at times as well – Black Thunder ice-cream bars are a delicious rarity that I only found in Seven-Eleven. Konbini even tailor their stock to match local and seasonal demand, and can sell local food specialities e.g. zunda sweets in Sendai.
But to give you a quick rundown, here are many of the things you’re likely to find in an average konbini:
  • Food – fresh food (a little fruit and veg, fish, meat) lunch food like salads and onigiri, desserts, frozen food like ice-cream, sweets (candy), hot food like fried chicken and corndogs, seasoning and condiments, dry food, tinned food and pet food!
  • Drinks (hot and cold)
  • Toiletry items e.g. make-up, toothbrushes
  • Stationery, magazines and manga books
  • Age-restricted goods e.g. alcohol, cigarettes
  • Emergency items e.g. umbrellas, spare shirts (especially in konbini near office buildings), batteries, tissues, towels, phone chargers

Unsurprisingly, food takes up a large proportion of the shop. The second-largest section is probably manga, or perhaps the drinks fridge. Everything else shares about one row together.
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ID:	1131 A delicious array of ice-cream!
(By Ocr7041r38 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

What else can you do at a konbini?
Oh yes, there’s more! People visit a konbini for all kinds of reasons completely unrelated to the items above. You can:
  • Use the ATM
  • Use the photocopy machine, which faxes and scans, too
  • Pay bills
  • Pick up a parcel
  • Order tickets (bus, plane, Studio Ghibli Museum…)
  • Buy fresh doughnuts out front! (This is a very specific case that I experienced, when once a week a lady would park her van in front of my nearest konbini and sell fresh, soy milk doughnuts and drinks)

And if you buy something, you can:
  • Get points on your points card for your purchases (if you sign up!)
  • Use the toilet
  • Throw away rubbish
  • Have a sit down (if the store has a seating area) – you may be able to charge your phone or use the wifi, too
  • Have your food warmed up, or have hot water put in your instant noodles

Every konbini that I’ve ever been into has an ATM and a photocopier, and the former is very handy given the limited opening hours of bank ATMs, even with the fee it charges. They also take foreign cards. However, if you want to buy tickets you can’t just go anywhere - Lawson and Family Mart are the main places. You need to make sure you have the right one for the tickets you want as well. For example, Studio Ghibli Museum tickets can only be bought at Lawson. It’s the same with parcels – mainly Amazon orders, in my case, which I picked up from Family Mart. You can choose a konbini when you make your order online, then use a code to pay at the konbini (because credit cards aren’t widely used), and pick it up when you receive a message that it has arrived! The biggest life-saver for me when I was living Japan, though, was being able to pay bills at the konbini. The utility company would send a bill with a bar code in the post, and they just scan it at the till and you pay! It was certainly better than trying to sort out a transfer at the bank…

Is there anything bad about konbini??
As a customer, there isn’t much that I’ve found! However, the amount of packaging isn’t very environmentally friendly – there’s plastic on your food, then more on your cutlery and it’s almost impossible to get the staff to not give you a bag! Konbini are also more expensive than a supermarket, which isn’t much of a surprise, but they’re better than a vending machine if you find yourself in desperate need of a drink. Besides that, they’re very welcoming places where you can find all kinds of interesting and tasty treats!

Konbini have saved me many a time, and they've delighted visitors to Japan over and over again. They may not be perfect, but I think that Japanese konbini must be the most convenient convenience stores around! Comment if you agree (or disagree, I’m not fussy!)