It might seem odd to be discussing convenience shops in a travel review, however there are good reasons why you should think about using them in Japan.
Most tours such as our one in Honshu and Hokkaido go from place to place by coach. In all good tours a lot of dinners and breakfasts are included in your tour cost, so that leaves morning and afternoon ‘tea’, plus lunch to take care of yourself.
You don’t want to be paying for those items in restaurants, and probably don’t want three sizeable meals every day, so for our tour we bought our lunch most days at a convenience store and ate on the coach heading to the next destination. That saved time and money and, equally importantly, we mixed with the locals and enjoyed the exchange of cultures.
There are over 50,000 convenience stores across Japan with most open 24/7. Aside from food and drinks they offer a host of services that tourists can take advantage of including ATM, wi-fi, and copier services. The major chains are Family Mart, Seico Mart, 7/11 (Japan version), and Lawsons.
Stores obviously sell food, including a large range of meals, snacks and beautifully packaged sweets, but you can also buy Bento box meals, microwave meals and hot foods such as fried chicken. We enjoyed pizza slices and meat pies that the staff heated up in the store microwave for us, but you have to be a little flexible as the Japanese version of meat pie is different to the Aussie version!
You can usually find a good selection of Japanese and western foods, including sandwiches, and everything we tried was fresh and tasty. Some stores even have a specialist hot section such as Seico Mart’s Hot Chef. Seico Mart started in Sapporo so probably has more shops in Hokkaido than the other islands. We generally spent around AUD$10 to $15 for two light lunches.
All of the highway service centres we stopped at had a seated restaurant area and lots of vending machines, as well as the service counters. We had excellent brewed espresso coffee ( and we do like our coffee!) from vending machines and it was good fun selecting the coffee, inserting the money, and waiting for our hot cup to pop out from the delivery slot. Many of the service centres also had a bakery where our group bought freshly made cakes and savoury snacks.
Convenience stores sell all kinds of hot and cold beverages including soft drinks, coffee, tea, water, sport drinks, juice and milk. Many also sell wine, beer and spirits at very reasonable prices. At one shop we bought a nice half bottle of French red wine to take back to our hotel at around AUD$8, which was a lot better than the price our hotel would have charged us.
Do yourself a favour and try the Japanese whisky, which most convenience stores stock. That’s another story, as we found out that Suntory realised its stocks of malt whisky were running out fast because the world had “found” Japanese whisky, so they reduced supply and doubled the price of their popular brands! If you want to take some home you would be best to buy it in town as supplies at the airport will be limited or non-existent, as we found at Haneda airport on our way home.
Many convenience stores and all highway service centres have toilets that are spotlessly clean. You can also replenish your cosmetics, batteries, newspapers, magazines, razor blades and toothpaste, etc. We bought hand warmers for our gloves and you can even buy shoe ice spikes in the winter.
Whilst most stores and service centres had an ATM on site, we didn’t need to use any of them. If we needed an ATM our tour manager advised us to use the ones at 7/11 because they would all accept foreign credit and debit cards. Apparently the Japanese 7/11 has a bank in its corporate conglomerate and their ATMs have instructions in many languages including English.
On the subject of language we didn’t have any issues in the shops. Lots of the goods have English details and on the odd occasion when we needed to clarify what we were buying there was always a friendly local to help.
The one consistent theme in all convenience stores and highway service centres was a section with absolutely beautifully packaged chocolates and sweets. These made perfect presents for locals visiting friends and relatives and to take home. On our tour many boxes were taken back to Australia or consumed en route! A local favourite in Hokkaido is the Royce box of chocolate coated salted chips (crisps). I know it sounds weird but they taste good and made a different gift for our “addicts” of both persuasions at home, (they cost AUD$19 in Oz so buy in Hokkaido!).
CREDIT: Royce Australia
Japan is a doggie friendly country and this highway service centre had a doggie post with poo bags and water available.
However since the snow was about 50 centimetres deep when we visited, the doggies were, naturally, not out in force that day!
IMAGES: John Dunphy