Fables of the Japanese Combini

by | Sep 23, 2023

I don’t have to tell you about the wonders of Japanese toilets. So that will save quite a bit of time, which I will instead use to tell you about the mythical Japanese combini, an oddly abridged Japanese coining of convenience store. Why did the n turn into an m? It’s a mystery too profound for humankind, or at least Westerners, to understand.

If you’ve been to Japan or know anybody who knows anybody who has been to Japan, chances are I don’t need to tell you about combini either. So amazing! So well stocked! Clean Japanese toilets! Edible food next to the register! We all know this almost instinctively.

Instead, let’s play a little game. It’s like that game, “Three Truths and a Lie,” except instead of being about myself, it will be about combini, and instead of three truths and a lie, there is no lie. Ready? Let’s do this.

Get Clean Underwear Here

Those of us who grew up on Bill Cosby (am I still allowed to mention his name in public?) know that Mom always reminded us no matter where we go, make sure we have clean underwear. Well, Mom has not been to Japan recently because forgetting clean underwear is no longer an issue as long as you have combini. It wasn’t long ago when buying underwear at a combini meant disposable paper underwear, but nowadays, combini collaborations with stores like Muji and Uniqlo mean you can get real, decent quality undies 24/7.

While we’re on the subject, here are a few of the other unusual items you can find on sale at most combini:

  • Fresh local produce
  • Hats, gloves and scarves (in season, of course)
  • Prepaid postage
  • Concert and event tickets (including major attractions like the Ghibli Museum)
  • Brand name small electronics that are commonly lost during travel, like chargers, portable batteries and USB cables (not just the use once, throw away junk you’d expect)

Cheapest Option for Money Exchange

Okay, it may be a bit misleading to call it “money exchange” as, more accurately, you are simply using the ATM card from your bank to withdraw Japanese yen. But the fact is every real money exchange option for travelers is a total ripoff, a slightly less total ripoff in Japan, but even so. Forget trying to exchange money at a Japanese bank because if you even get that far, you’d have invested five hours and filled out a dozen forms in Japanese before you ever saw a yen.

Meanwhile, 7-Eleven, owned by Seven & I Holdings, which also owns Seven Bank, has for years had ATMs that accept most foreign ATM cards. Until a few years ago, the exchange rate was darn near close to the exact exchange rate at the moment of transaction. It isn’t that way anymore, and each transaction has a small percentage markup. But still, you can get cash nearly anywhere and at any time, so it’s hard to complain.

I single out 7-Eleven because they were the first to fully support overseas ATM transactions (and in English, no less). However, these days, nearly every convenience store chain ATM can deal you yen using your ATM card, cheaper than a money exchange service or machine.

Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner of Champions

Unless you have a death wish or a titanium-plated stomach, you wouldn’t dream of eating convenience store food in America. And yes, it is no secret that combini food in Japan is decent, even good. But sometimes, combini food is not just an option but the best option when looking for a meal in Japan.

Take breakfast, for example. Finding breakfast places in Japan can be challenging, and even cafes often do not open until well after 9:00 a.m. Meanwhile, the sneaky little trickster Jet Lag has had you awake since 4:30. What to do? Let’s go to the conbini! Hard-boiled eggs! Yogurt! Fresh fruit! Vast selection of bread and pastry! Actually good coffee! Get your fill, and you’ll likely still spend less than US $5. And maybe you’ll be so full and content you’ll fall asleep for another few hours.

While I don’t recommend taking all of your meals from the combini, there are some great options if you want to save a little cash or just escape the craziness of the city and eat peacefully in your hotel room. You might be thinking Cup-a-Noodle, a Snickers bar, and a tall can of Asahi, and yes, you could do that, Fred Flintstone. But why, when you could have a fresh bowl of tonkotsu ramen (with fresh noodles, not freeze-dried), sliced smoked pork, a soft-boiled egg, and a side of freshly fried karaage chicken? How about a salad; there are a dozen different kinds! And choose your own type of dressing; they don’t force one upon you by packaging it together.

But your budget hotel room doesn’t have a microwave oven to cook your bowl of ramen, you say? Hand it over to the fresh-faced clerk, along with all the fixin’s you bought to put in it, and they will transform it into a steaming hot bowl of deliciousness. Or at least throw everything together and make it edible. Best of all, there will be no visible eye-rolling or invisible spitting in your bowl by a clerk who needs an attitude adjustment. Because, Japan.

And The Joy of Traveling Weightless

I saved this one for last because it sounds like a lie. Nobody likes trying to board a rush hour train, trying to squeeze yourself and all of your current worldly belongings into a human sardine can, and that includes the other passengers smooshed into the car with you, and your Samsonite luggage handle probing their unmentionables. What if you could travel from city to city in Japan utterly unbounded from your 25 suitcases and duffels filled with souvenirs? Well, you can, and the magic word is takyubin, or as you might say it, “Ta-Q-bean.” It means delivery service in Japan, and one of the services of every combini in the nation is to help people send things via takyubin, including tourists who want to forward luggage to their next hotel or even to the airport. Heck, you can even send your luggage to Kochi. You are going to Kochi, aren’t you?

The miracle of takyubin deserves its own little write-up, which I will do soon. All you need to know is that if you take the address of your next destination and your bags to a combini 24 hours in advance, your bags will likely arrive around the same time you do. And the cost is generally under US $20 for a good-sized suitcase, less for smaller items. 

Of course, you should carry essential items in a small bag or backpack, like your toothbrush, passport, and a change of clothes, like clean underwear. But even if you forget that, well…

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