From fine dining to mom-and-pop diners, Japan’s unique food culture represents an eater’s paradise renowned for its transcendental experiences. Its delicious terrain has been explored by culinary icons like Anthony Bourdain and mined by gourmet publications like the Michelin Guide.
Occasionally though, I’m frustrated by its big cities with eateries secreted away in 10-story towers. I tire of wrestling with Google Maps. I’ve circled madly and emerged from mazes of subway lines, only to be greeted with a cryptic, curt: “Head north.” Thanks Google, I don’t have a natural sense of direction.
Luckily, Japan has welcoming, accessible food hubs aplenty, all conveniently embedded in its landscape. Glorious gateways into its complex cuisine, elevated into tourist attractions in their own right. When I wasn’t hunting down dives in winding alleys, these were invaluable for initiating me into the sometimes-scary but wondrous world of Japanese food.
Konbini: frontline for Japanese snacks
Centuries ago, ruling warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, colloquially known today as the Three Unifiers of Japan, extended their empires across the country. How would these ancient leaders view modern Japan, seemingly conquered by the “Three Kings of Convenience”: 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson — the chains that comprise approximately 80% of Japan’s over 56,400 convenience stores (according to a 2017 Statistica report).
This country’s amazing number of konbini (convenience stores) — almost literally on every street corner — offer a cheap, low-risk entry to a sparkling universe of Japanese meals and snacks. Which konbini reigns supreme? Is it Lawson’s egg sandwich? Family Mart’s fried chicken? Is it 7-Eleven’s baked cheesecake that clinches your allegiance? Or are you a wandering ronin (masterless samurai), loyal to none? Perhaps you’re mourning a former homeland, like the now-defunct Sunkus (absorbed by Family Mart.) Or you’re a rebel, following splinter factions like Natural Lawson, Mini-Stop or Daily Yamazaki.
In the konbini wars, ferocious competition spurs endless food innovations. When new products are launched, sales data is fed back to headquarters in real time; by the next day, these corporations already know if they have a hit. Processed tuna mayo onigiri (rice balls) are the classic konbini-driven invention. They’re a solid top seller — never before has “sea chicken” reached such lofty heights.
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