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FoodJapan: For Better or WorseLife in Japan

Tokyo Convenience Stores

7-11 Japan is nothing like its American counter part7-11 Japan is nothing like its American counterpart

If you were to pick adjectives that are essential to understanding Tokyo, “convenient” would be a pretty choice to put high on the list. I recall climbing to the top of a mountain shrine and finding an ice-cream stand waiting for me. Whatever you might need or want is often close at hand here.

They are omnipresent

I’d say that it’s very difficult to walk three blocks in Tokyo without encountering at least one convenience store. There are three within one block of my apartment, and about 6 if you go out to three blocks. You will find them in malls, office buildings, museums, subway stations, and in your dreams.

Not only that, but most of these stores are open 24 hours. This may change, labor shortages are putting pressure on these stores in the form of higher wages and that’s leading owners to want to close them up in the wee hours, but so far, most remain open 24/7.

The big three

Three companies make up the vast majority of convenience stores in Japan. There are certainly other chains and a few independent small markets, but these guys are the giants of the business: 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson.

You may be a little surprised to see two American brands on this list. 7-11 is generally credited as the first convenience store to open in Japan and to spark their love of this institution. The then Texas-based company franchised to a Japanese company. When the parent fell on hard times, they were bought out by the Japanese firm.

Likewise, Lawson’s started as an American firm but was purchased by its Japanese counterparts as the business boomed in Japan and stagnated in America. Family Mart has always been a Japanese firm despite bearing an English name.

Each has its own supposed specialty. Lawson’s is known for its fried chicken, Family Mart for its deserts, and 7-11 for its overall selection of quality offerings. Personally, I don’t find that much of a difference in their offerings beyond the particular house brand items they sell.

What you can buy

Like in the US, a convenience store in Japan dedicates most of the store to food and drink. The big difference is the character of what is offered. You can buy a lot of pre-made meals at these stores. They are not frozen but they are kept in a refrigerated display. You can find dishes appropriate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Unlike at an American fast food place where the “fresh” food offerings are largely all unhealthy county-fair style food, the Japanese convenience store offers a wide range of both healthy and indulgent offerings. You can find soups, salads, pasta, rice bowls, sandwiches, vegetable dishes, curry, and complete lunch box meals (bento). The quality of these meal offerings is surprisingly high.

Snack foods are about as plentiful as fresh foods. You can find a range of candy, chips, crackers, pastries, dairy, and fruit snacks. Overall, you find a wider range in the type of snacks offered, but fewer options for each type. Instead of 6 brands of regular chips, they will have one brand with six different style chips.

If you want to try some Japanese snacks, you can order many different variety snack packs on Amazon.

There are a range of drinks including alcoholic beverages. The style of drink varies more than in an American store but the number of offerings is a bit smaller. Coffee drinks are the mainstay in Japan, followed by tea. Various juices and sodas round out the mix. They also offer cigarettes.

Convenience stores are light on sundries but you will find some basic stationery supplies and hygiene products. There is usually a comics and magazine rack, a third of which is commonly dedicated to light pornography. It has been announced that the “adult magazines” will be phased out as of the 2020 Olympics.

But wait, there’s more

One thing that isn’t obvious to the casual visitor is that the convenience stores also serve as a kind of banking service. You can pay most of your utility bills and other government obligations at the convenience store. You can even mail packages at many locations. The ATMs are kind of super-sized and offer robust banking features.

Onigiri "Rice Balls"
Onigiri “Rice Balls” are commonly found in all Conbini stores.

Sorry, no Car Stuff

What you won’t find at most convenience stores are automotive-related products. This is especially true in Tokyo where you won’t even find parking spaces most of the time. Gas stations in the city are a very different animal than in the US and driving overall is just a lot less common. Outside the city, things may well be different but in Tokyo, I’ve never seen a gas station combined with a convenience store.

And no Slurpies

The branding of 7-11 in Japan is utterly different than in the US. I knew that going in but I was surprised that the Slurpee, an icon of the 7-11 brand in the US was nowhere to be found. Pretty much the only thing the stores share is the name and the fact they are small stores selling food, drinks and snacks.

Better or Worse?

I have to go with better here. The fact I can get a latte and an Alfredo pasta plate at 7-11, both of which will be pretty darn tasty gives the Japanese side of the aisle a big boost. If you say “I ate dinner at the convenience store.” it doesn’t sound like an act of desperation. The range of financial services you can find also sets it apart. Finally, Japanese snacks simply have a much wider range of tastes and textures than American snacks offer.

That said, I think 7-11 shows that the company has taken a hard look at the Japanese and American markets and delivered what their customers in each place expect from the brand. Americans expect and need motor oil and gasoline at their convinced stores, people in Tokyo don’t. The food options at 7-11 probably say more about the tastes of Americans than the management of the 7-11 corporation.

23 WardsBunkyoTourist Spots

Nezu Shrine

Nezu Shrine North ToriNezu Shrine North Tori

Nezu Shrine (根津神社 – Nezu-jinja) hides well like a precious jewel inside a small pocket of Tokyo’s thick cloak of concrete. Nestled away within the eastern portions of Bunkyo Ward, stands a beautiful set of red painted buildings walled in by verdant greenery.

Since Nezu Shrine is a mere 15-minute walk from where Sig and I were staying, we made it one of our first stops after setting foot in Tokyo.

Tunnel of Torii

From the busy street, the area looks like a simple park, until we wandered deeper into one of the three entrance paths. According to Shinto belief, a tori entrance indicates a transition between the mundane to the sacred.

Although the looming Torii main gate did impress me, I found the path of a hundred or so vermilion torii beautiful — something about repeating patterns feels comforting. This torii tunnel leads me through the hillside just west of the main hall.

Stooping slightly as not to hit my head, the steps took me to a viewing platform with a small shrine and pavilion. From here I could see the main shrine and a koi-filled pond below. Nearby, a cozy Otome Inari Shrine sits guarded by two fox statues.

Otome means “maiden,” and the Inari is the god or spirit of foxes, fertility, rice, tea, sake, and anything agriculture related. I was told that newly wedded ladies often pray here for a good marriage. I’m hardly a maiden, but I did drop a customary five yen coin into the box and make a quick wish.

Tunnel of Torii
Tunnel of Torii

Tower Gate

We make our way down the hill through a shorter path of torii, and then through a rōmon (楼門). Beneath this two-story tower gate, two zuishin or guardian statues sit in alcoves, ready with their bows and arrows. I guess if the shrine came under attack, the warrior-gods would spring to life and ascend the tower to rain arrows upon the enemy.

Court Yard & Lattice Wall

Before we reach the Main Hall, we crossed beneath an embellished karamon (唐門 – Chinese gate) and into a courtyard surrounded by a sukibei (透塀 – latticed wall). Against a sacred camphor tree, lines upon lines of paper fortunes tied to strings swing lightly in the wind. Dozens of small wooden plaques hang in hopeful anticipation of the new year. As we approached the offering box, I noticed two large Komainu or “lion dogs” guarding the shrine, each with a fierce stony gaze.

Main Hall

Also called a honden in Japanese, Nezu’s main hall is ornately designed with golden embossing along its lintels and pillars. Even the steps leading up and into the chamber seem to shimmer. I peek inside the worship hall and see a wall-to-wall tatami floor and a shrine in the back. I am awe-struck that this beautiful structure survived the firebomb attacks during World War II.

According to nearby kiosks, Nezu shrine itself is built in the Ishi-no-ma-zukuri (石の間造) style, where the worship chamber (拝殿 – haiden) and the inner sanctum (本殿 – honden) are connected under a single roof. If you’re wondering, the haiden is where people gather, and service is held. The honden is off limits to the public since this is where the enshrined kami lives, customarily signified by a mirror or statue.

Main Shrine
Main Shrine

The Legend

Although not officially captured in historical texts, legends say that Nezu shrine was founded in Sendagi during the 1st century by Prince Ōsu (also known as Yamato Takeru), son of Emperor Keikō. At that time, the shrine was dedicated to Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the god of the sea and storms. If this legend were proven to be true, it would date Nezu Shrine as the oldest Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

But in full disclosure, nothing of that 1st-century shrine remains. The Nezu Shrine we see today comes from Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. The shogun moved and entirely rebuilt Nezu Shrine in its current location, and what he kept or didn’t keep from the original shrine is hard to say. However, historical records do state that Tsunayoshi undertook the move of Nezu Shrine in 1705 in a successor-naming celebration.

Nezu Shrine Bunkyo Azalea Festival

Every April, the hills to the west of the Torri tunnel comes alive with thousands of Azalia blossoms from over a hundred different varieties. Amid the colorful blooms, performers and food stalls delight any and all. With the various azalea breeds, the blooming can last a well into May or later, resulting in one of Tokyo’s longest running festivals during the spring season.

I should note that Nezu Shrine for much of the year is free to the public, but during the Azalea Festival you have to pay a small fee of ¥200

Otome Inari Shrine
Otome Inari Shrine