Travel Guide – Japan: The One about a Beginner’s Guide to Convenience Stores in Japan

You may be wondering why people talk about going to convenience stores in Japan.

If you are from the United States, the first thing to do is eliminate what you have seen at your American convenience store, eliminate the thoughts of lottery tickets, slurpees, soda, gatorade, candy bars, old burritos and soggy sandwiches.

Convenience stores (konbini, pronounced as kohn-bee-nee) are where people can get quality, fresh food; manga/magazines; face products/hair products, medical supplies, many types of drinks, food and snacks, medicine and more.

In Japan, the three major convenience stores are 7-Eleven, FamilyMart and Lawson.  You may see other smaller convenience stores throughout Japan.

But there are other reasons why convenience stores are quite “convenient”.

Possibly the biggest reason is that 7-Eleven is probably the most convenient way to withdraw yen from your ATM card and Lawson is the place to get your tickets to the Ghibli Museum.

But here are a few questions that I’m often asked from friends about convenience stores in Japan:

  • What are they saying to me when I enter the convenience store?

They are saying “Irrasshaimase!” (Welcome to the store).

  • I purchased food but they are asking me a question?  I don’t understand what they are asking me?

If you purchased a cold dish, they will often ask you if you want it put in the microwave to heat up.  Also, after paying for your items and while heating up the food, they will ask you to stand aside, so they can help the next person in line.

Also, if you buy hot and cold items, they will ask you if you want it put in separate bags.

  • When paying for food or items, what are they asking me?

First, they are probably telling you the total cost?  Second, most likely that they want you to put your money or card right on the change tray.  They’ll often motion for you to put your money or card in the tray.

Also, while you are paying, they are just repeating if you paid exact change or that you will be getting change back.

  • Can I get money from the ATM aside from 7-11?

As of my last trip to Japan in November 2016, only 7-11 accepted international ATM/Debit cards.  While other places have ATM’s, they are only for local Japanese.

  • Do the employees speak English?

Some may have little English or a lot of English knowledge.  You’ll also see in certain cities, especially like Ikebukuro, they hire a lot of non-Japanese who are fluent in English.

  • Are medications for cold and pain be found at convenience stores?

Personally, I would go to a pharmacy.   You may find a mask or cough drops but if you are looking for common medications in Japan, please read my blog post here.

  • They are asking me to pick out of a box?  What is that?

Convenience stores often have giveaways to win items.  Go ahead and pick one and when they open it, you may win a drink or food.

  • Is the food fresh?

Very!  In fact, Japan has strict rules on expiration dates.  And you can see the expiration date on the package.

  • I want to go to the Ghibli Museum!  How do I buy tickets?

Purchase them in advance from a Lawson convenience store.  Here is more information.

  • Is it true that there are convenience stores that sell foods or drinks with natural ingredients?  Sort of like Whole Foods?

Yes, there is Natural Lawson.

  • I heard you can win special prizes called “Ichiban Kuji” at 7-Eleven stores.  How do I buy them?

There are different types of Ichiban Kuji selections per month.  You purchase via a push button selection (sort of like what they have at ramen restaurants) and then give it to the employee and he will give you the item that you won.  The more you spend, the better the prizes are but not all prizes are great.  So, it’s a gamble.

Most importantly, not all 7-Eleven stores sell Ichiban Kuji.  You will not find it at smaller 7-Eleven Stores.

  • Are Circle K and Sunkus big convenience stores?

Back then, these two had a good number of stores in Japan, but were purchased by FamilyMart.  The stores are now changing to the Family Mart name.