Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
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A FamilyMart convenience store, the second largest chain in Japan, under Mount Fuji Photo: Shutterstock

Tokyo Olympics: for foreigners covering the Games, Japan’s ‘konbini’ are love at first bite

  • The 24-hour convenience stores, which boast a wide array of food and services, have won the hearts and stomachs of hungry overseas correspondents
  • Their enthusiastic coverage of meals and snacks has received a rapt response on social media, and sparked pride in knowing Japanese nationals
Like the thousands of other journalists arriving in Japan to cover the Olympics, Canadian Devin Heroux anticipated that sports was going to be the only story in town.

Heroux has indeed covered the fortunes of the Canadian teams in events such as swimming, soccer and weightlifting – but he has also devoted a large portion of his Twitter feed to waxing lyrical about his frequent visits to the 7-Eleven in his hotel.

Over the course of the Games, he has provided an item-by-item breakdown of his breakfast, lunch and dinner – and attracted a completely different set of followers. His close to 49,000 Twitter followers – having added more than 8,000 over the past week – are hungry to hear more about what he has been eating.

With strict Covid-19 restrictions mostly confining the media to hotels and event venues during their time in Tokyo, Japan’s legendary konbini – or convenience stores – have become a vital and cherished dining option for the press pack.

Heroux, who is from Saskatoon but is presently based in Toronto as a sports correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the national broadcaster, arrived in the Japanese capital on July 19 and quickly identified the 7-Eleven at his hotel as a potential source of good coffee.

The same day, he tweeted a photo of the front of the store with the message: “Have a feeling I’ll be spending a lot of time and money here.”

He was right – since that first foray, Heroux has not looked back. He proclaimed the coffee to be “really good”, the iced coffee “easier to chug” and the crushed almond Pocky sticks “absolutely perfect”. He also bought a pack of mayonnaise-flavoured potato snacks “because why the hell not?”.

Updating his Twitter feed on the bus back to his hotel just after 2am on July 24, after a long day reporting on the Games, he said: “Those golden gates better be open.” And when he alighted 20 minutes later to discover that the store was open 24 hours a day, he declared: “What would I do without you? After 18 hours of Olympic coverage, 2:10am in Tokyo, the door still opens. The shelves restocked. What a place.”

Heroux’s followers have delighted in his culinary escapades, with his dinner on Tuesday evening – pineapple chunks, edamame, soy sauce crackers and an ice cream – quickly attracting more than 4,000 likes and more than 1,000 retweets.

An array of cold cooked food for sale at a 7-Eleven shop in Japan. Photo: Shutterstock

Meanwhile, the recommendations have poured in from around the world. One suggestion was that he “take advantage of the great alcohol selection”, while there was also an entreaty for him to try the Premium Gold matcha ice cream, as “you can feel the Japanese taste”.

There was also a good-natured squabble over the quality of the fried chicken at other Japanese convenience stores, with one user recommending the offerings at Family Mart while another maintained the best was at Lawson.

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In another post, a Hongkonger said visiting a Japanese convenience store was “like a ritual” and “the last stop before going back to the hotel every night when travelling in Japan”.

Other visitors covering the Games were just as grateful for the nationwide network of around 50,000 stores that cater to virtually every need and taste at all times of the day – or night.

A vending machine at a convenience store serving hot food. Photo: Shutterstock

“I was in Chiba, where the taekwondo, wrestling and fencing events have been taking place, but the competitions were finishing well past hotel restaurant closing times – so the convenience stores in the hotel were a godsend,” said British reporter Andrew Salmon.

“They had an excellent selection of snacks, microwaveable meals and booze,” he added. “I fell hard for the chocolate gateau and the Japanese plum wine – which I am going to have a devil of a job finding back home. I fear an addiction has formed.”

Others have been fascinated by what Japanese culinary creativity has done to the humble sandwich. Bread with a filling of sliced strawberries, kiwi fruit or apple is not an eye-opener for Japanese, but they’re causing a commotion in the press pack.

On Twitter, British sports commentator Rob Vickerman accompanied an image of a peanut butter cream sandwich with the revelation that “these are quickly becoming a cult classic in the media lounges”. That opinion was endorsed by Chicago Tribune photojournalist Brian Cassella and Frank Gunn, a photographer with The Canadian Press agency, who described the snack as the “breakfast of champions”.

Japan has been deeply impressed by the foreigners’ acclaim for konbini fare. “I went to a nearby 7-Eleven yesterday. And I introduced your Twitter to the clerks there. They were very pleased,” reads one post on Heroux’s Twitter feed. “In Japan, convenience store clerks are not praised by customers. Thanks to you, many Japanese have realised that Japanese convenience stores are a wonderful place.”

Another user wrote: “It’s nice when people say they like our country so much. I just wanted to thank you.”

Japan’s konbini may be basking in the spotlight, thanks to reporters from around the world extolling their virtues to a global audience hankering after a taste of the first Olympic Games to be held effectively behind closed doors, but the convenience stores have long had a cult following.

There are some 50,000 convenience stories across Japan. Photo: Shutterstock

There are numerous konbini-themed pages on social media, including some showing how anyone can make their own perfect egg sandwich or those dedicated to ranking stores by their selection and staff. One of the most popular is run by two Americans, Michael Markey and Matthew Savas, who have been doing the weekly Conbini Boys podcast since March 2020.

The podcasts have covered hot topics ranging from the best chain of stores for fried chicken to the introduction of vegan items on shelves, drinkable cheese tarts and the alcohol selection.

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But despite their new-found fame, the reliable presence of konbini on street corners across the nation is still taken for granted by most Japanese.

“I guess I have not thought much about what people did before konbini,” said Emi Izawa, a university student from Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

“It must have been harder for people to manage as they needed to plan when they needed to go shopping. I think it would be impossible not to have konbini in Japan now because we are so used to them, but I wonder how people in other countries that do not have 24-hour shops can manage.”