C is for Conbini

Japan is packed.  Sardine-can trains, tiny apartments, roads without pavements…BUT there are upsides.  Living in one of the mostly densely populated countries on Earth also means having a higher density of shops, attractions, handouts…and, most of all, the Conbinis.

What is a Conbini? They are convenience stores, and as you’ve probably guessed already, Conbini (コンビニ) is a shortening of of ‘convenience’, then remixed slightly to suit Japanese pronunciation (there’s no ‘v’ sound in Japanese lingo).

“Wow, big deal, PJ,” you might say, “we have convenience stores as well. Why should I care about the Japanese edition?”

Look, if you have any aspiration to visit or live in Japan, the Conbini will be part of the fabric of your time here. It is a shopping Swiss Army Knife. The insert metaphor of the superlative here.

Because it’s not just a place for a midnight snack raid or the bitter end of a raging night out. No. You can pay bills here. You can buy books, manga and magazines. And toiletries, gloves, and emergency neckties (no, seriously: I have needed emergency neckties in the past). You can pay for and pickup Internet orders, print out tickets for concerts, fax, print, scan and copy, drop off trash, grab breakfast/lunch/booze/dinner/snack/booze, find clean public toilet, post letters…and this are merely services I can name off the top of my head. I’m sure deeper digging will reveal an even greater plethora of services. Maybe even Midwifery.

And Conbinis are genuinely convenient. Unless you are truly nestled deep in the countryside, Conbinis are EVERYWHERE.   In suburbia, no matter where you are, you are only a few minutes walk from one, and if you are in the big city, good luck finding a street that doesn’t have one.  If the four big Conbini companies (that is 7/11, Lawson, Family Mart and Sunkus, in addition to the many other smaller chains out there) decided to wage war on Japan’s 130 million people, the victory would be swift and definite, culminating in the whole of Honshu sinking under the sheer weight of Onigiri (rice balls).

There’s no denying that Conbinis are great at what they do, and the prices you pay are very reasonable considering…well, the convenience of it.  And yet…after a while, they all seem so bland and inoffensive.  Is that a bad thing?  Well, no, I guess – a shop is a shop, after all – but you could stand in any Conbini in Japan and be anywhere.   Even from the outside they all look identical, too.  A Conbini says nothing about where it is save for a couple of prefecture-specific tourist magazines and leaflets.  When you walk into a Conbini you know exactly what to expect, whether you’re in a hot spring resort in Kyushu, in downtown Osaka or in a windswept valley in Tohoku.  There’s pros to that, but one has to wonder what local, family business would or could have been in its place.

And darn, all this talk about Conbinis has given me a craving for a tuna-mayo Onigiri!  Off I go! (ominous ‘I am one of them now’ music plays…)

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