A different kind of post today, inspired by the “why don’t they sell xxx in Japan” posts that I see on expat forums. So, to prevent future confusion, here’s how to find what you need at the kombini other than those ah-ma-zing egg salad sandwiches that everyone raves about (RIP Mr. Bourdain).
It’s no secret that kombini are an incredibly sight in Japan, with chains often operating right next to each other.
Kombini are a one-stop shopping experience, stocking everything from onigiri to last-minute gifts and even undergarments, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The Japanese convenience store is the answer to nearly all of life’s needs:
Ran out of soy sauce? Kombini.
Want to indulge yourself with vapes and booze? Kombini.
Forgot to pay your tax bill, utilities, or need to ship a package? Kombini.
Need toiletries and makeup for an impromptu overnight stay? Kombini.
How about copies, printing photos from your smartphone or gasp, sending a fax? Kombini.
But, what use is a kombini to you if you can’t even find anything?
What The Kombini DOESN’T Stock: Medicine & Baby Stuff
Before I get into the how to find what you need at a Japanese convienece store, do note that the “almighty” kombini has limitations.
You will NOT find any sort of medication at a konbini. There are packages of DHC supplements and cough drops, but that’s it. You won’t even find eye drops, let alone cough syrup, asprin, or medicine for constipation or menstrual cramps.
Now, there was a law passed years ago that gave kombini the OK to stock supplements (Class 3 drugs) and cough syrup/pain relievers (class 2 drugs), but it’s rare to find a kombini that stocks medicine.
According to finance journal Toyo Keizai, only 180 kombini, less than 1.2% of all kombini nationwide, stock medications.
In summary: Do not waste your time, just go to the nearest drugstore.
If you’re out with a baby or small kids, please don’t rely on a Japanese convenience store for baby wipes, diapers, and food.
If you’re lucky, you *might* find one or two packages of 3-4 L sized diapers. Be prepared and keep your diaper bag stocked. Otherwise, head to the nearest “baby room” in a mall, department store, or supermarket instead.
With all that said, let’s take a look inside a typical kombini:
Books and Magazines
The first thing you’re likely to see when you step inside a kombini are print materials like newspapers, books, and magazines.
You might find a few manga here as well. This section is usually near the entrance or along the front window, often facing the coffee makers.
Cleaning supplies, insect repellent, gas stove cartridges, and other household goods like light bulbs and batteries are on an aisle near the entrance.
Also near the entrance are toiletries, hygiene products and makeup, undergarments and stockings.
Notebooks, pens, and stationery and also in this area.
Unlike the supermarket, cooking ingredients like soy sauce, mirin, flour, vinegar, soup stock, curry roux, uncooked rice and so on are all located in the same aisle.
This is where you’ll find soups and pasta but not instant noodles (sometimes).
Instant noodles are usually shelved in a section dedicated to ramen, udon, soba, and other noodles-in-a-cup.
Powdered creamer and sugar are found near instant coffees and teas, along with prepackaged baked goods.
Chocolate bars, chocolate covered nuts, and snacks like Pocky and Pretz have their own aisle as do potato chips and classic Japanese snacks.
Rounding out the snack section is the konbini brand of 100 yen treats, while throat lozenges, breath mints, and chewing gum are often in displays facing the register.
Bento and Chilled Foods
This is where you’ll find onigiri, sandwiches, box lunches (bento), pasta dishes, and so on.
At checkout staff will ask you if you’d like your meal heated. (温めますか? | Atatamemasuka?)
Japanese kombini use high power microwaves so it will only take about 2 minutes to warm your meal.
NOTE: If you want your meal heated DO NOT say “daijoubu!” In this case “daijoubu” means, “I’m fine./No, thanks.” For a guaranteed hot meal, say “Hai.”
Salads, Side Dishes, and Dairy
Prepackaged salads, cooked chicken breasts, potato salad, and popular Japanese side dishes are in this section.
You might also find a very limited selection of eggs and fresh fruits and veggies in this area too.
There’s also a section for cut meats and dairy products like cheese and butter, but not milk and yogurt.
Yogurt is almost always near the chilled dessert corner, which you can find in the vicinity of the cash registers.
Milk is located near the section of fruit smoothies, and mini boxes of vegetable juice and soy milk.
Think of the frozen food section as a scaled down version of the selection at your local supermarket.
Along with frozen fruits and veggies, there’s okazu (side dishes for dinners and bento making).
There’s also single serving sized frozen meals like pasta and stir fried rice.
Ice for iced coffee and frappe mixes are also in this section along with ice cream.
Note that single serving ice cream cups are typically stored in a separate freezer.
Oden, steamed buns (nikuman) fried chicken, fries, yakitori and other delights on a stick are in the front near the cash registers.
There will be at least one aisle housing sake, wine, whiskey, sangria, and fruit wines.
All the chilled alcoholic beverages like canned beer, chuhai, and bottles of wine are stored in a fridge.
All coffee drinks are stored in one cooler, as are all tea products. Water, sparkling water, and sports drinks are all stored together in one fridge with 2L PET bottles on the bottom shelf.
Finally, there’s a “juice” section, which encompases drinks like Fanta, colas, ciders, and other bubbly beverages.
Hot drinks are on a separate shelf or in a special “box” and the number of rows will vary according to season.
Likewise, concentrated vitamin drinks in glass bottles and jelly-like supplements are also together in a small refrigerated
Brewed Coffee, Cigarettes, and Vapes
Tobacco products and vape related items are behind the cash register, so you’ll need to let the clerk know what you want. (jyuu san ban kudasai , I’ll have number 13, please).
There’s a menu for drip coffee and lattes posted on the counter or hanging above the register. Simply point and say, “Kore kudasai” (This one, please).
After your purchase, take the cup to the machine, press the corresponding buttons and wait for your drink. Stirrers, lids, cream and sugar are located near the machines along with a small trash can.
You will need to verify your age by touching a button on a screen when buying alcohol or tobacco related products.
It’s uncommon to hand cash, point cards, bills etc directly to the clerk. You won’t receive change/receipts in your hand, either.
It might be strange depending on where you’re from, but don’t take it personally. Just get used to placing it inside the blue tray.
Now that you’ve unlocked the mysteries of the Japanese kombini, it’s time for the next step — mastering the point card system!