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Lawson family, this one's for you!

If you live in a massive urban centre, like say a capital, then one of the things you come to expect is convenience. While city life may have its drawbacks, it also has its advantages and the ability to do a lot of things more conveniently than you could normally, or the ability to just do them at all, is definitely one of these advantages.

In London this convenience came in various ways however since moving to Tokyo one thing has become quite clear to me. And that is that London has nothing on Tokyo when it comes to convenience. After 5 months I already struggle to think of anything that London offers convenience wise which Tokyo doesn’t. The only one that springs to mind is 24 hour transport, and even that isn’t so convenient when you consider the alternatives on offer in Tokyo at nightime.

Tokyo is a convenience city. I’m not quite sure how things are elsewhere in Japan, but from what I’ve been told a lot of the other big urban centres share many of what Tokyo has to offer, though as the capital Tokyo obviously takes the crown.

It’s one of the things that really shocked me the most after arriving. I couldn’t quite believe how convenient everything was in Tokyo. As I said, you always expect a certain degree of convenience when living in a massive urban centre, but this is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in Europe.

Let’s start with the convinience store aka konbini ( コンビニエンスストア). Now a convenience store in London generally means the following: it’s open 24h, it sells cigarettes, if you’re lucky it’ll sell you alcohol past license time and if you’re even more lucky it’ll stock products and ‘fresh food’ that doesn’t like it fell off a van or was imported from Turkey. Don’t get me wrong that’s great, and I was always more than grateful for the old 24h shop outside my flat in Leyton. Hell for a while I was even able to pay my bills there, but only for a while.

In Japan, a convenience store means exactly that. It’s open 24h, it stocks an amazing range of products (though some of them are definitely on the same level as those in London in terms of ‘I’ll have this either cos it’s dirt cheap or cos I’m drunk and don’t care’), it sells alcohol, cigarettes, hot food, cold food, microwave-able food, and you can also pay your bills (and I mean any bill) at any time of the day or night, as well as purchase tickets for shows, concerts and other such things which can be necessary to do in the dead of the night. To top it all off, if you’re in Tokyo chances are you only need to walk 10 mins or so in any direction (probably less) to come across a konbini. They’re about as common as vending machines 😆

The variety and quality of products varies depending on the konbini you go to. The main companies are Lawson, Family Mart, 7/11 (they used to be wicked in the UK too until they were taken out), AM/PM and Sunkust. So far I’d say Lawson are possibly the best for me, and they even have new types of shops such as Lawson Plus (they sell fresh fruit that actually do look fresh) and Lawson Organic (as seen in Ebisu), which sells nice looking products and freshly baked food, aka posh-looking konbini. But basically whether you want a munch or need some more alcohol, konbinis are life savers. And they’re pretty damn handy for paying your bills too.

Vending machines are another cornerstone of Japanese convenience life. They are literally everywhere. Even when you’ve reached a part of town which seems quiet and out of the way, you’ll see one standing in a corner or in an alcove, ready to serve you. And even when there is seemingly no way it could be powered, there stands a vending machine. Freaky 😆

The vending machine business in Japan is enormous. Japan has the highest number of vending machines per capita in the world – at around one vending machine for every 23 people. The industry made an estimated $53 billion in sales in 2000. It’s truly staggering. It’s an obvious reality though once you become accustomed to it – in a country where people work incredibly long hours and generally rush around for the best part of the day (or their lives depending on who they are), vending machines provide an essential convenience, quickly and cheaply for the most part.

Japanese vending machines take most coins, as well as 1000 and sometimes 5000 yen bills. Drinks and cigarette machines are the most common. Drinks machines are literally everywhere, selling a range of hot and cold drinks for incredibly cheap prices, in comparison to European drinks machines. A bottle of water will set you back maybe Y150 maximum, in the UK you can expect to pay around a pound in central London, if not more when it’s the summer and everyone is milking it for what it’s worth.

Forgot your coffee this morning? No problem. Feeling thirsty? Walk for another minute and you can quench your thirst. It’s amazing. I drink lots and always found it a pain in London to have to carry bottles around because I didn’t fancy paying over the moon for what is just bottled water. In Tokyo you only have to think to yourself, ‘umm I fancy a drink’ before finding a machine and making your choice. Pretty much all machines are branded, with some offering only drinks from a certain brand (Coca Cola, Pocari Sweat), and a lot of them also sell primarily coffee and tea, in cans or plastic bottles. Apparently a huge proportion of coffee consumed in Japan is done in can form, something which definitely takes a while to get used to. Be careful though it can soon become addictive!

Cigarette machines are also pretty common though apparently in recent years legislation has been changed to avoid them being placed in areas easily accessible to kids (whatever that is supposed to mean). I’ve seen quite a few kids walk up to one and get a pack of cigs since being here, so not quite sure how effective this has been, especially in a country with such a week anti tobacco lobby.

But where Japan really exceeds in the vending machines stakes is with the more unsual offerings. And there are many of them. In Japan there are machines that sell: rice in 10k bags (there’s one round the corner from my house, it’s the size of a bus), alcohol, varieties of food, fresh vegetable and eggs (generally located near small farms, these sometimes look just like lockers, with a vegetable inside), ice cream, mobile phone recharging service (you put your phone in to charge for a period of time, generally found inside shops), tickets for food (outside restaurants), toys (aka gatchapon), pokemon and other anime cards for games, flowers and fresh vegetables (not in a machine but instead put on an open air stall, you pass by, take what you want and leave the money for it in a box – most of these I’ve seen and used seem to be unmaned for most of the time, further proof of the Japanese sense of trust), condoms, pornography (haven’t had the pleasure to see any of these yet), CDs, DVDs, batteries, disposable cameras, toilet paper and more.

It really does beggar belief. I’ve seen a wide range of machines in my short time here already, and continue to see new kinds almost every week. There’s a pretty good selection of vending machine pictures here. The legend of machines that sell used schoolgirl panties is apparently not that much of a legend – they did, and do still exist, though in Tokyo they were removed by a past mayor and can now only be found in some parts of town in porn shops. Or so I’m told 😕

Whatever you need, chances are at one point or another you will come across a vending machine that will satisfy your need. At first it’s a pretty odd feeling, this constant surrounding of convenience, but soon enough you start to realise that it really does make life a hell of a lot more easier. I can’t think of many things I haven’t been able to do easily in Tokyo which were a right pain at times in London. I’m really starting to get used to it, and don’t think I can ever face going back to European standards of convenience.

This convenience also extends to more than just the shops and machines, though those are the definite cornerstones of convenience. In Tokyo for example there is one main draw back – no nightime transport system. That sucks, big time. Even if night buses in London aren’t all that, it means that at least you can get back home at any time of the day or night. In Tokyo, past around 12h30 or so, if you miss the train you’re out to dry. Which might sound annoying but is in fact more than compensated by the range of all night entertainment and facilities on offer.

You can rent your own booth in a karaoke bar (best done with a few people to cut costs), with all you can drink and/or eat options too, you can go to a manga cafe and rent your own booth again, this time complete with comfy reclining chair, computer, tv, DVD or video player, and access to a huge library of games, films, manga and more, or you can ‘stay’ in a love hotel if you’re in the right part of town and accompanied by someone of the opposite sex (in which case you may also get lucky which is always a bonus). All of which will probably set you back less than the cost of a cab ride home depending on which part of town you’re in and how far you live. Nightclubs and live venues, are however more expensive than Europe in general, and so not the best option if you want to stay out all night but not break the bank.

Oh and you can also eat at pretty much anytime of the day or night for cheap in central Tokyo (and in some parts of Greater Tokyo too), and with a range of choices on offer – whether it’s at a fast food joint like Mc Donald’s or Wendy’s, an eatery like Jonathan’s or Denny’s or a Japanese fast food spot like Yoshinoya. Something which in most European cities is definitely not the case.

Which all amounts to proving that London (and most of Europe for that matter) really does suck in comparison to Tokyo when it comes to convenience. It’s crazy, I can’t quite get over it. And I really like it.

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