Conveniently Eating In Japan

A fun, but often overlooked place to find tasty and affordable meals in Japan is at neighborhood convenience stores (7-Eleven, Lawsons and FamilyMart are the top three). Called konbini in Japan, these small markets are seemingly located just about everywhere and are easy to find. Besides the typical convenience store offerings of drinks, snacks, medicines and other items, convenience stores also have a large selection of freshly prepared foods at very reasonable prices. If you’re traveling in Japan on a budget, a meal from a convenience store can be had for $10 or less.

The biggest difference between the  foods found in Japanese convenience stores and those found in the U.S. is the quality and the variety. In Japan, prepared foods are for the most part stocked fresh every day because they have to be – go into a convenience store in the late afternoon or evening and your selection will be very limited as most everything in the that section will have already been purchased. The quality of the food is also much higher than what you’ll find in a U.S. convenience store.

Here are some of the best and tastiest items or meals (IMO) you can find at Japanese convenience stores:

Oden is a hearty and filling stew filled with various items such as potatoes, boiled eggs, fishcakes, and other items that are served in light dashi broth. It’s usually only available in cold weather. You’ll be charged by the number of items you select.

Karaage is fried chicken Japanese-style, with bite-sized pieces of tender thigh meat twice fried in a lightly-seasoned batter. You can buy it on its own or as part of a bento. Karaage and potato salad is my all-time favorite convenience store meal.

Potato salad all on its own can be a pretty tasty meal as well. Potato salad in Japan traditionally includes very thinly-sliced cucumber and carrot, and the potatoes are nearly fully mashed. It’s amazingly delicious.

Nikuman are Chinese-style steamed buns filled with savory pork and vegetables. They’re big enough on their own for a meal. Pizza- or curry-flavored buns are also popular. Nikuman are kept warm in a steamy case located next to the cash register.

Maybe the most popular food item in any store, onigiri are triangular Japanese rice balls wrapped with seaweed, but inside are different fillings, such as pickled plums, salmon, tuna salad, etc. They’re very popular and very convenient, and more filling than you might think. The plastic wrapper folds back to use as a holder.

Sandwiches range from ones Westerners can easily recognize to some many would find quite weird (like a hot dog roll filled with yakisoba noodles). Dessert sandwiches are now a thing, and are made with whipped cream and fresh fruit. YaYu had one on our last trip and proclaimed it extremely delicious.

Korokke (croquettes) are tasty and satisfying fried mashed potato cakes with other ingredients added which can include cheese, vegetables, seafood and so forth.

Gyoza are Chinese potstickers, typically sold in groups of five. They’re wildly popular in Japan, are found in any market, and can be eaten hot or cold (hot is better).

Convenience markets carry a huge array of bentos, too many to name here. They usually run around $7 or $8 dollars, but can cost more or less depending on the size of the bento and what’s included. Most come with rice, but some have noodles for the starch.

There are lots of higher end places to eat sushi in Japan, but the packages found in convenience stores are perfectly good if you are wanting it.

Yakisoba is fried noodles which are tossed with a Worchester-like sauce. They are usually fried with cabbage and onion, and sometimes have a small amount of protein like shrimp or chicken, but the noodles also available plain, like in the above photo. They’re always served with slivers of red pickled ginger called beni shoga. A small serving of yakisoba noodles is also sometimes included as a side dish in a bento.And of course, convenience stores are where you can pick up all sorts of snack items, Japanese candy (including KitKats!), and all sorts of amazing cold and hot drinks!

Convenience stores also always carry a big selection of ice cream treats, and what’s available will vary from store to store. They are affordable and always worth checking out!

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8 thoughts on “Conveniently Eating In Japan

  1. quesoit1 says:

    Aren’t Japanese conbini great? I discovered my new favorite Japanese convenience store food on our last trip to Japan. It was a delicious musubi sold at the Family Mart next to our hotel in Tokyo. They were labeled “Sando Omusubi” (sandwich rice ball) in “Poku Tamago” (pork and egg) flavor. The pork was like Spam and was paired with a layer of omelet. When I studied the ingredient list and then looked closely at the rice ball, I found out why it was so irresistible — it included a very thin layer of tuna salad! That really kicked up the umami. I would try to buy one every morning for breakfast, but a couple of times they were sold out. I never saw more than three in the refrigerated case at any given time. I suspect they only stocked a few but restocked fairly often so that the product was fresh. That’s another nice thing about Japanese conbini — the products tend to be fresher than at American convenience stores.

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    • Laura says:

      The musubi sound terrific – I know the girls would love it. The onigiri are their favorite though. I’m always all about the fried chicken and potato salad though. My favorite breakfast find we’re the Starbucks green tea lattes at 7-11. Affordable, and you could enjoy hot or cold. With a pastry from a local bakery it made a very satisfying meal. Of course I can’t eat either of them any more. This past trip I had yogurt with fresh berries every morning. Strawberries in Japan are amazing – so sweet!

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    • Laura says:

      You couldn’t pay me to eat anything from an American convenience store, but the food in Japanese stores is really fresh and good quality. You have to go early though – most of it is gone by 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon.

      Prepared food is a big thing in Japan, which is one reason the quality is so high (and they expect quality – I don’t think we often do). My D-I-L often adds one prepared item at dinner, and then prepares the rest herself. Japanese typically eat a variety of different foods at a meal, so having at least one thing already prepared is a big time-saver.

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  2. Bob says:

    My son and his Japanese family live in Kyoto a block from Tambabashi train station and there is a Family Mart right next door. Whenever we visit I slip up there for a cold beer and some food. My DIL is a good cook but I enjoy sitting out and watching the people go by.
    Something an American reader might find unusual is that the fried chicken uses thigh meat (since in the US we would expect white meat). In Japan the dark meat is preferred as it is more flavorful. It is really the premium cut of chicken in Japan.

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    • Laura says:

      My Japanese friends and family can’t understand the American obsession with breast meat. I totally agree that thigh meat has much better flavor than breast meat – it’s been my preferred part of the chicken since I was little. Karaage is awesome though – I’ve made it here and it just never tastes as good as it does in Japan (especially when it’s accompanied by some potato salad!).

      I’ve made some of my best KitKat scores at konbini – we always stop into a couple every day. The ice cream treats are also a big draw.

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