At 10:30 on Monday night, six young office workers sat at a table outside of FamilyMart, eating snacks and drinking chūhai. As a sticker someone slapped on a nearby wall said: “Be Alive in Kyoto.” They certainly were. My wife Rebekah and I had come to Japan on our honeymoon. She’s passed out early in the hotel this night, so I went out alone. I wanted to live, and FamilyMart was just a block away.
The thing about Japanese convenience stores is that they’re awesome. Called conbini, sometimes spelled konbini, Americans won’t believe this, but conbini are respectable social centers that serve high quality packaged and delicious fresh food that you actually want to eat, rather than avoid. Open 24 hours, three main chains dominate 90% of the Japanese marketplace: 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart, with Ministop, Daily Yamazaki, Seico, Poplar, and Circle K Sunkus making up the rest. Around 55,000 conbini operate in Japan. Mostly a get-it-and-go operation, you buy your crisp, cheese-stuffed croquettes, spongy green tea cream roll and egg salad sandwich to take to work or the park or home. Some stores provide a few stools by a counter so customers can eat inside, maybe a few small tables, but space is tight and expensive in urban Japan. Where many rural and suburban convenience stores have enough property to dedicate to outside seating or parking, fewer stores in the centers of large dense cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto do. Somehow this FamilyMart in central Kyoto had enough room to provide five round, white plastic tables out front for customers. It was the space that would be a parking lot in America.
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