On a recent trip back to Japan, I overheard two young Japanese women talking about what they’d missed most while living overseas for a year. Together, they said, “Conbini!” and started laughing.
And I nodded my head in agreement because, yeah, I miss them too.
And for good reason: conbini, short for convenience stores (spelled “konbini” in romanized Japanese), are magical places. With most of them open 24 hours, you can get just about anything you might need.
No, really, ANYTHING.
You’ll find toiletries, clothing, stationery, pet food, cell phone chargers, bus tickets, delicious lunches and even more delicious desserts. In the summer, you can even get fireworks. Not to mention, every conbini that I’ve ever been to has been clean, fully stocked, and well-lit.
Just check out this video tour of Family Mart, a big convenience store chain in Japan:
And the best part about conbini?
There are tons of great food options for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between.
So I’m here to share 10 of the best food you can get at a conbini.
1. おにぎり – Onigiri (Rice Balls)
The king of conbini food, onigiri is a rice ball, often with a filling of some sort, and sometimes wrapped in nori (seaweed). It’s a portable, delicious, and “healthy” snack or meal for any time of the day.
The usual line-up of fillings are 梅 -ume (plum), 鮭 -shake (salmon), おかか – okaka (fish flakes), and シーチキン – shi-chikin (tuna).
For something different, you could try a 焼豚炒飯おむすび – yaki buta cha-han omusubi(pork fried rice onigiri), or if you’re feeling brave, try 辛子明太子 – karashi mentaiko (spicy seasoned cod roe).
Depending on which conbini you go, you’ll find all kinds of different onigiri varieties.
The most common type of onigiri sold in conbini are the triangular shaped rice balls wrapped in seaweed.
Check out the different types of onigiri you can get at 7-Eleven in this video:
There’s a special way to open these so that the seaweed, kept separate by a thin plastic film, wraps around the rice, so that you don’t even have to touch it.
It’s a genius packaging design – it keeps your hands clean from sticky rice while keeping the seaweed crisp and fresh.
Costing around 100-200円, onigiri is cheap, too!
Check out this video to see how to open onigiri the right way:
2. 唐揚げ – Kara-Age (Japanese Fried Chicken)
Kara-age is the Japanese style of deep-frying, and although the term doesn’t specify, it’s almost always referring to fried chicken.
And conbini are a great place to go for some amazing kara-age that you can’t get anywhere else.
Each conbini has a different recipe for their kara-age, and offers different flavors and textures.
At Lawson (one of the big convenience stores in Japan), not only can you get their “からあげクン” (Kara-age kun) in the basic “standard” flavor, but also in “北海道チーズ” (Hokkaido cheese) and “ねぎ辛味噌味” (Spicy green onion and miso) flavors.
Family Mart’s (another huge chain in Japan) “ファミから” was created under the supervision of the chefs of kara-age specialty shop “もり山,” and comes in flavors like soy sauce, garlic, and salt. It’s well-loved for its mouth-wateringly juicy chicken.
3. アイス – Aisu (Ice Cream)
Conbini ice cream runs the gamut from popsicles, shaved ice and sorbet to rich ice cream bars and “sundae” cones.
Often changing with the seasons, you’ll always find something new and interesting in the ice cream section of a conbini.
A popular popsicle, “ガリガリ君,” is famous for offering some unique flavors. In the winter of 2012, a “メロンパン” (Sweet melon-flavored pastry) flavored popsicle came out. Even weirder flavors include “コーンポタージュ味” (corn soup flavor), “クレアおばさんのシチュー味” (cream stew flavor), and “ナポリタン味” (spaghetti flavor). They also come out with more conventional flavors if you’d rather not eat frozen spaghetti on a stick.
Check out this video for a look at the types of Gari Gari Kun you can find in Japan:
4. 肉まん – Nikuman (Steamed Bun with Filling)
For those times when you’re feeling peckish, and craving something warm and easy to eat, you’re going to want to grab a 肉まん – nikuman, or a steamed bun.
Like a lot of Japanese food, 肉まん comes in some interesting flavors. Your basic 肉まん has a pork and vegetable filling. But if that doesn’t do it for you, try a “ピザまん” (Pizza bun) or a “紫芋まん” (Purple sweet potato bun).
肉まん is great on its own or with a little ソース (Japanese style Worchester sauce) and からし (spicy Japanese mustard).
5. スイーツ Sui-tsu (Sweets)
Conbini have an impressive array of dessert options, including cake, sweet mochi, pudding, and pastries.
With every season comes a brand new line-up of desserts.
Conbini “sweets” are so popular that there are blogs dedicated to reviewing them.
The popular food blog “コンビニスイーツマスター” (Conveneience Store Sweets Master)- (http://it-toshi.com/) introduces each and every new dessert that pops up in major conbini chains like Seven Eleven, Family Mart, and Mini Stop, so you never miss a thing.
The latest スイーツ to make its debut is Family Mart’s “ぷにほっぺ（カスタード),” which is a soft choux pastry puff filled with custard cream.
Check out this video to see a review of some sweets you can get at a Japanese convenience store:
6. インスタント麺 – Insutanto Men (Instant Noodles)
If you want something really cheap yet tasty and filling, head to the インスタント麺 aisle and pick from dozens of instant noodle varieties.
There are hot water dispensers available in every conbini so you can fix yourself up a nice, piping hot bowl of instant ramen and enjoy it right then and there.
Lawson carries its very own original instant ramen, which comes in five different flavors. You can get it in soy sauce, miso, salt, tonkotsu flavors, and if you like a good kick, “担々麺 – tan tan men,” is a spicy Schezuan style flavor.
7. パン – Pan (Bread)
Conbini bread is a popular choice for breakfast.
Individually packaged bread and pastries, both sweet and savory, line the shelves in every conbini.
And if you need a more substantial meal you can head on over to the refrigerated section to find all kinds of delicious sandwiches.
There you’ll find your classic egg salad, ham, veggie, or chicken sandwiches.
You’ll also find some sandwiches that sound more like dessert.
Like, the blueberry chocolate sandwich that came out in Seven-Elevens across Japan this summer, which people raved about on Twitter.
There really is something for everyone at the conbini.
8. おつまみ – Otsumami (Nibbles/Finger Food)
The Japanese are serious about their おつまみ, which are snacks and appetizers that go with alcohol, namely beer and sake.
And the conbini is a great place to find some amazing おつまみ.
We’re not just talking about simple snacks, either.
Conbini おつまみ is high quality, real food appetizers.
Seven-Eleven seems to be the leader of the おつまみ world.
Check out their 焼き鳥, grilled chicken, that you can throw in the microwave and eat right out of the bag (it turns into a “bowl”).
Or their ポテト&ソーセージ (Potato & sausage), which heats up in minutes and goes perfectly with beer.
9. おでん (Oden)
Every winter you’ll catch a whiff of this warm, delicious dish displayed near the cash register of a conbini.
Oden is a variety of vegetables, fishcakes, egg and other goodies cooked in a soy-based broth until soft and savory.
You pick what you want, and the conbini employee will serve it to you in a bowl, topped with the hot and tasty soup.
Conbini oden is an amazing way to warm up when it’s freezing outside on a cold winter day.
The best part about it is, it’s pretty healthy.
Definitely try it with some からし, or spicy Japanese mustard.
10. 弁当 – Bento (Lunch Boxes)
From traditional Japanese food to curry, pasta, and stew, conbini 弁当 comes in many different forms.
For those days when you’re running late and need to bring a lunch to work, or coming home and feeling way too exhausted to cook, conbini 弁当 have got your back.
The store employee will even ask you if you’d like it warmed up in the microwave.
Are Japanese Convenience Stores That Good?
If you’re used to gas station convenience stores serving up bright blue drinks and giant donuts, it’s hard to imagine why a couple of young Japanese women would long for a conbini, when the rest of Japan has so much to offer.
But once you experience it, you’ll understand why it’s one of the top things Japanese people miss when they leave their home country.
Because once you start incorporating conbini into your life, there’s really no turning back.
From the incredible convenience of being open 24/7, to the amazing variety of food and other products, conbini will make your life so much easier.
And it’s not just about convenience.
Because there are several major conbini chains competing in Japan, each one must continue to churn out their very best to survive.
So every season, expect exciting new stuff to hit the shelves of your favorite conbini.
Which conbini food do you recommend?
Tell us in the comments!
And don’t forget to share this with your fellow travelers!
Leung Cho Pan/123rf.com