Facebook Twitter

The true champion of the Olympics: Tokyo’s convenience stores

What makes Tokyo’s convenience stores so unique and wonderful? Many things

SHARE The true champion of the Olympics: Tokyo’s convenience stores
Fridges at a 7-Eleven store in Yokohama, near Tokyo.

Plastic-bottled soft drinks are displayed in fridges at a 7-Eleven store in Yokohama, near Tokyo.

Koji Sasahara, Associated Press

The Tokyo Olympics have come with a dramatic flare at every turn — a yearlong delay, the controversy of cancellation, even an Oyster plague, per the Deseret News. Now, the Games have been taking place under tight COVID-19 restrictions.

For the thousands of international visitors including coaches, journalists and athletes, Tokyo’s local restaurants are off-limits, reported CNN.

Instead, Olympic visitors have found the true MVP of the Games: Tokyo’s 24-hour convenience stores, per The New York Times.

What are convenience stores like in Tokyo?

Convenience stores are known as “conbini” or “konbini” in Japan, an abbreviated name, reported CNN. These 24-hour shops are a cultural and functional staple. Many hotels — such as those hosting Olympic visitors — have a conbini attached to them or nearby.

  • As of 2019, Japan boasted 56,500 convenience stores for its population of 126.3 million — meaning Japan had one conbini for every 2,235 people, per Statistica.
  • Japan has the third-highest density of convenience stores worldwide; only Taiwan and South Korea have more convenience stores per capita, reported Taiwan News in 2018.

Through social media, Olympic visitors have brought international attention to these well-stocked and heavily-relied upon shops, per CNN.

What foods do Japanese convenience stores sell?

Some Japanese convenience store chains have familiar names to Americans — like 7-Eleven — but their food offerings look incredibly different, reported The New York Times. The stores are filled with unique, intriguing and delicious foods.

  • “White chocolate-covered strawberries, pickled plum, curry bread rolls, corn dogs, Ramen, spicy fried chicken,” posted KSL reporter Alex Cabrero on social media during a visit to a local Tokyo 7-Eleven.
  • “Lots of different sandwiches. This one is a shrimp cutlet with sauce,” Cabrero posted. “Egg salad on a hotdog bun. This appears to be some kind of potato chip … Spicy Pollock Roe and mayonnaise flavor.
  • “Corn and mayonnaise on toast. I’m learning a lot of meals here include mayonnaise,” Cabrero posted.

One favorite — online and offline — is Japanese rice balls called “onigiri,” per The New York Times. This triangle-shaped snack has been cleverly packaged to keep the seaweed dry and yet easy to assemble.

Why are Japan’s convenience stores so good?

Japan’s convenience stores have developed quite a reputation internationally as “arguably the best in the world,” reported CNN.

  • “It’s hard to convey how much better they are than American convenience stores,” said Matt Savas, the co-host of the podcast “Conbini Boys” to The New York Times.
  • “It’s the quality, the variety and the ubiquity,” Savas said.

When people think of Japanese food, they likely think of sushi and ramen, but conbini also has a long history of culinary development in Japan, per The New York Times.

  • Conbini “are equally Japanese in that they have a 50-year history in the country now,” said Gavin Whitelaw, a Harvard sociocultural anthropologist who has researched conbini, per The New York Times.
  • “They have been indigenized, you might say, so much so that they don’t look anything like their brethren in any other places,” Whitelaw said.

But the proof is in the pudding — or the observation is in the onigiri.