Hungry Olympics Reporter Saved by Japanese C-Stores

Convenience foods became his “saving grace,” he writes.

August 03, 2021

Items in Konbini Shopping Basket

TOKYO—Andrew Keh, a sports reporter for the New York Times was assigned to cover the Olympic games in Tokyo. A plum assignment, right? Unfortunately, Japan is in a state of emergency as COVID-19 cases rise, and Keh hesitated to go into bars and restaurants to find food.

The result of Keh’s food quest was “Tokyo Convenience Store Chicken Gizzards Saved My Life” for the New York Times, a story that touted the great foodservice of Tokyo’s 24-hour convenience stores, “or [konbini], as they are known in Japan,” he said. “They have quickly become a primary source of sustenance—and, more surprisingly, culinary enjoyment—for many visitors navigating one of the strangest [Olympic Games] in history.”

According to Keh, everyone at the Tokyo Olympics, from athletes to journalists, is prohibited from venturing anywhere but their hotels and the Olympic venues. Trips outside this so-called bubble cannot exceed 15 minutes.

“We can’t traverse the galaxy of food outside the Olympic limits, but a [konbini] contains a culinary world unto itself, a bounty of bento boxes, fried meats, sushi, noodles galore and all manner of elaborate plastic-wrapped meals and rare snacks,” Keh said.

While strict health protocols, including a ban on spectators, have made this Olympics competition less exciting, the stores have become a substitute arena of polychromatic cultural discovery for some, he explained.

“They are not Jiro Sushi [upscale Japanese restaurant],” said Gavin H. Whitelaw, a sociocultural anthropologist at Harvard who has researched konbini for two decades. “But they are equally Japanese in that they have a 50-year history in the country now, and they have been indigenized, you might say, so much so that they don’t look anything like their brethren in any other places.”

A Lawson store sits in the lobby of the Olympics main press building. It’s crowded each day with multinational crowds scavenging for their next meal. The 7-Eleven outside Keh’s hotel hums with activity long after midnight, as people traverse unending rows of ready-to-eat foodstuffs.

Just a sample of unique, Japanese foods at Japanese konbini include runny boiled eggs; mapo tofu (the spicy Chinese staple); French fries; cups of cold corn soup; unnaturally shaped but juicy discs of fried chicken; lu rou fan (Taiwanese braised pork); Okinawa-style pig ears; hiyayakko (a cold tofu dish); soboro don (ground beef and egg over rice); spicy grilled chicken cartilage; tuna salad sandwiches; egg salad sandwiches; tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet, which in this case came with a side of spaghetti) and hunks of salmon. And aside from the food, customers can also buy other goods such as sunscreen and handkerchiefs, the latter handy for when using most public restrooms in Japan, which don’t offer paper towels. It’s also not unusual to find stockings, ties and dress shirts.

“My favorite [konbini] innovations were the simplest ones: a corn dog I bought at 7-Eleven came with a sauce packet designed so that a single pinch sent ketchup and whole-grain mustard shooting simultaneously from a spout, like two synchronized divers,” Keh said. “The biggest revelation for me has been the vinegar-flavored squid legs from the snack aisle at Lawson. They taste like salt-and-vinegar potato chips, but squishy. I have amassed a stockpile of them already. I’m wondering if I should check an extra bag for the flight home.”

Keh is not the only reporter to fall in love with Japanese c-stores while covering the Olympics. Last week, NACS Daily ran a story about a Canadian writer who raved about the 7-Eleven stores he discovered in Tokyo while reporting on the games.

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