Unsung heroes of Japanese culture - Konbinis
Updated: May 21, 2021
Japan has amassed significant soft power, which I would argue is only increasing. Even those that have no real interest in the country can’t get around the increasing omnipresence of anime and will have heard of Samurai and Geisha. Those flocking to the country will likely know other famous cultural icons like ‘the great wave’ by Hokusai, the infamous Shibuya crossing, cosplay culture and zen gardens on tranquil temple grounds. All these icons serve as paragons of the Japanese image as projected abroad. Yet there’s also obscure wonders that are not as well known, unsung heroes of Japanese culture that only reveal themselves when one has spent time in the country. These are the heroes that cemented my gradual falling in love with Japan through small but meaningful experiences travel guides generally pass over, and it is time they have their moment in the spotlight.
Sometimes you stumble upon something you never missed in your life until you’ve experienced it, leaving one forever baffled that it does not exist universally. After Japan, for me this was the konbini, the most sacred of small pleasures. Konbini is, of course, a Japanization of the word convenient, for convenience store; a resounding understatement. After returning home from Osaka after half a year of research, no void made itself felt as clear and immediate as the loss of Lawson, Family Mart and 7-Eleven, desperate to be filled again. These unassuming, small shops are found in every hamlet with more than a handful of people, and are present on almost every other street corner in larger cities. Open 24/7, barely more expensive than a regular supermarket and stocked with all essentials (which can apparently include seasonal underwear and libido boosters), these are a phenomenon in Japan I could scarcely do without after getting a taste of the joy they brought me.
The Netherlands has late night shops as well of course, but these are a sad joke by comparison, grimy and peddling a very limited range of goods at twice the normal price. In particular, the food on offer blew me away: the meals sold by konbinis are found only in the most trendy of restaurants in Europe, often with a price-tag that has you gulping, and even then it’s still a gamble whether you’re getting a remotely similar quality. These worthy konbini meals are even heated at the counter if so desired, enabling one to enjoy the tastiest of ready-to-go dinners on a bench in the heart of the most fancy districts of Tokyo or a spectacular lunch on the top of a mountain overlooking Kobe. All of this for a mere 5 euros or less. Or not as dramatic, at 02:00 in the morning on the couch of your pintsized apartment in your pajamas, just because you can.
Of course there’s also simpler snacks, soothing cool tea or heartwarming yet disgusting coffee. They allowed me to print, pay bills and send letters. They graciously saved me if I had a toilet emergency or if I was starved for cash, with ATMs being surprisingly hard to come by outside of konbinis. Even when I’d find myself without trifles such as soap or a toothbrush right as I went to bed, the konbini would have me covered. Nothing puts the mind at ease like the knowledge that wherever you may find yourself in Japan, there will almost always be a konbini little more than stone’s throw away. And since alcohol is rather expensive in Japanese bars, restaurants or clubs, the konbini also had my back when I wanted to partake of Japan’s less refined culture. No night on the town was complete without first hitting the Lawson across our dorm and brewing an appalling concoction of Jim Bean and dirt cheap apple juice, courtesy of my housemate, on our way to Umeda or Namba.
This blog was contributed by Tom de Hoop on April 30, 2021.