Not much, it turns out. To say that the convenience store is the cornerstone, nay the heartbeat of any given 100 square-meter area in Tokyo is an understatement. The other day I walked down to the nearby konbini, Lawson in this case, and picked up a package from Amazon.jp. That’s right, you can get your Amazon packages delivered to your nearest convenience store and pay for them at the register. You can also pay for your monthly national health insurance, which every long or short term resident of Japan must be enrolled in. Nearly every konbini is equipped with an ATM, some variant of a color printer/copier/fax machine, and what I like to refer to as “the dreaded concert ticket kiosk,” or DCTK for short. I’m not really sure what the official name of this apparatus is as I’ve only used it once and never plan on using it ever again. When you need to read instructions on how to use the machine off your smartphone and have Google Translate up at the same time so you can draw any unfamiliar Kanji characters that pop up, you know you probably shouldn’t be having anything to do with this machine. Nevertheless, you can purchase a variety of event tickets from this bad boy. It’s just a shame there is absolutely no English option, but I can understand how that would be hard to implement.
The big three convenience store chains in Tokyo are 7-Eleven (sebun irebun), Lawson (rousan), and Family Mart (famima). I spend a significant amount of time every week debating with myself which one is the best, and this week 7-Eleven seems to be the object of my convenience affection. It probably has to do with the fact that there are three 7-Elevens within 5 minutes from the dorm, but all monopolies on area aside, to me 7-Eleven makes the most effort out of the three to try and transcend convenience store-dom. Their Christmas catalogue this year reads like an issue of Vogue Magazine. “I can’t believe a convenience store focuses this much on art direction,” I thought to myself one chilly night after heading down to make a bank transfer and pick up some groceries. You get the feeling of stepping into something sacred and majestic when entering a 7-Eleven, something akin to entering a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Actually it’s probably just me. If you couldn’t tell I’m somewhat of a convenience store aficionado.
Next I’d like to highlight major differences between your good ol’ American convenience stores and the ones in Tokyo. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the subject since I am still employed by It-That-Must-Not-Be-Named in Phoenix. I’ll be going on 8 years in September! Anyway:
No gas, no lottery
Gas stations (gasorin sutando) and convenience stores are always separated here. The reason? You don’t drive in Tokyo unless you’re a cab driver or a millionaire (though it would probably be billionaire if we’re talking about Yen). Also, they don’t sell any of your normal vehicular-product staples either, like oil or brake fluid, and you don’t really buy lottery tickets at convenience stores. They’re mostly sold at clandestine booths near train and subway stations.
Convenience store food.. will be convenience store food
Now I know: if Japan can’t do it no one can. No matter where you go in the world, convenience store food will always have that same rubbery bland taste, like a machine rather than a human being made it, and that’s undoubtedly the reality. After a while the novelty of seeing ridiculously-flavored Kit Kats, steaming vats of Oden, and Hello Kitty-shaped steamed meat buns will wear off and you start to realize.. it’s not that great. After two weeks of being here I realized that the convenience store food will serve me the same purpose as the convenience store food back home: only in cases of emergency. Or lapses in will-power.
All in one: bank, post office, grocery store, self-esteem boost
Like I mentioned earlier there are a ton of services you can take advantage of at konbini that don’t exist back home. The ATM is international and has English options. I haven’t tried yet because the post office is right across the street but apparently you can also send and receive letters and packages at konbini as well. And if all else fails, if it’s taking your parents a little too long to send your monthly study abroad allowance (I wish), you can easily scrape by on the endless grocery options at any konbini. Also, when you walk into a konbini, the store staff makes you feel like royalty. Everyone will greet you at least once, and if they sense you are waiting in line or are inconvenienced in any way, they will rush to your aid. If it’s not very busy, you can even ask the cashier how to read something in Japanese. I asked what a certain Kanji that I’ve never seen before was the other day, and now I can recognize “strawberry.” Man, I’m awesome! Thanks convenience store clerks!
To put it simply, I truly believe that you are not experiencing Japan to its fullest if you do not take a brief, Zen-like moment to appreciate the konbini. The sound of the universe itself is audible every time I step in and hear Irasshaimase! (Welcome!)