The magic of Japan’s convenience stores

In her popular novel, Convenience Store Woman, Japanese author Sayaka Murata tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a worker at an unnamed convenience store who is struggling to find a place in a traditional society due to her status as an unmarried 36-year-old with a blue-collar job.

However, the true star of the unorthodox character’s story is her workplace, described as a tiny ecosystem, aimed not only at providing consumers nourishment, but also infusing their lives with new sources of joy.

“A convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities,” said Furukura in the novel’s opening pages. “It has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like.”

Although I read the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel before my trip to Japan, the description above struck me as overly romantic. However, as someone who has made the mistake of equating fast food with low quality, I was surprised to find that Japanese convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson (the three companies that claim the lion’s share of the Japanese market), served as an introduction to local tastes, leading me to skip the basic crisps I’d usually grab at home in favour of sampling flavours like mayonnaise, ume (a fruit in the plum family) and soy sauce.

I also found myself considering freshly made onigiri rice balls, grab-and-go udon noodles and traditional buns with flavours like pizza, sweet bean and pumpkin cream. It might not have been as utopic as Murata led me to believe, but even as a foreigner who needed help counting her change, the variety of the goods and the ease of finding a cheap lunch left a lasting impression.