Much praise has been sung about Japanese convenience stores, known locally as combini. More than just convenience stores though, combini really are the most underrated attraction in Japan. They offer us an insight into Japanese culture in so many ways. Truly, to get a glimpse of Japan, you need not scale the heights of Mt. Fuji nor hunt down an elusive shrine in some far-flung prefecture. You simply step through the doors of the combini.
"Irasshaimase!" - Welcome to the combini, welcome to Japan.
The combini may be your first experience with omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of hospitality. It is welcoming, never intrusive, and takes pride in anticipating your needs before you ever step through those glass doors. Foreigners are consistently amazed that in the combini, you can use the restroom at any time without charge. And for the record, they are never less than sparkling clean. A myriad of services can be performed at the combini, from parcel delivery to photocopying services. Many combini also offer a space to rest, eat and relax.
For Japanese people, combini is very much part and parcel of daily life. Salarymen throng the combini in the morning to pick up onigiri (rice balls) for breakfast or a ready-to-eat bento lunch box. Students come in after school to hang out with friends over a snack of delicious fried chicken, and our social butterflies look for a late-night supper after yet another wild night out. Combini always knew when I was craving an ice-cold matcha latte, a melon pan (bread), or when I just really needed some stamps. Combini always had my back.
Combini is so much rooted in the urban ecology of Japan that just as flora and fauna reflect the changing seasons, so does the combini. For the uninitiated, Japan lends great importance to ‘feeling the seasons’, and feel it you certainly will when you step into the Japanese combini.
You’ll know it’s spring when sakura (cherry blossom) flavoured kitkat chocolates line the shelves in a beautiful sea of pastel pink. You may be able to pick up fresh sakuramochi (flavoured rice cake), strawberry cookies and even sakura flavoured lattes.
Summer in Japan is announced with hanabi (fireworks literally translated as fire flowers), and of course, you can get some at the combini. Alongside these are summer specials like kakigori (shaved ice) and ready-to-eat hiyashi chuka (chilled Chinese noodles), which is a refreshing summer lunch option made of cold noodles and colourful toppings like cucumbers, ham, crabsticks and eggs.
In autumn, you can sometimes find delicious hot roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts, pumpkin croquettes or pumpkin spiced lattes, perfect treats for staying toasty as the autumn evenings start to turn just a tad chilly. You’ll definitely be tempted to buy treats as Halloween approaches. How could you not do it, when on every shelf you find adorable bat-shaped cookies, cute ghost marshmallows and wriggly worm candies.
It is in winter, however, when the comfort of the combini is most appreciated. Oden season is greatly anticipated, and the comforting smell of oden wafts through the store the minute you step in. Somewhat between a stew and a soup, it features various ingredients on sticks in a dashi broth. You simply select what you’d like to have, and it’s paired with a little mustard or miso, and lots of broth. My favourites include fishcakes, eggs, sausages, and radish. It’s the perfect supper on a cold wintry night when nothing matters except for defrosting with that steaming bowl of oden.
If by now, you’re wondering where to find combini in Japan, don’t worry about looking for it. Combini will look for you! They can be found everywhere in Japan, from big cities to small rural towns. Some of the best-known chains include Lawsons, Seven Eleven, Family Mart, Mini Stop and Daily Yamazaki. Each chain offers its own range of ready-to-eat meals, but you can find perennial favourites like tuna mayonnaise onigiri in every combini around Japan.
So, on your next (or first) visit to the combini, remember too that the combini is so much more than a convenience store. It is also an extension of Japanese culture, a taste of the Japanese brand of hospitality, and most importantly, a safety blanket, a source of comfort to the people. Its existence says “I will be there for you, whenever, wherever you need me.” There are, in fact, few scenes more nightmarish in the wake of a disaster than that of a combini with its shelves emptied. After all, if not on the combini, on whose shoulder can we lean on in times of trouble? At this, I perform a little bow in praise of the Japanese combini, the most underrated attraction in Japan.
“Mata o-koshi kudasaimase” - Thank you and please come again.
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