The superiority of Japanese convenience stores—conbini—is no longer a secret to the world. Although most residents of Japan consider these corner stores an unremarkable albeit essential element of daily life, the rapid spread of Japanese soft power in the last decade has elevated conbini from a matter of insider knowledge to a must-see attraction featured in travel guides. Prior to Japan’s strict COVID-19 travel restrictions, tourists would flock to Tokyo’s conbini to bask in the novelty of a 7-Eleven that boasts fresh salmon onigiri and matchapurin instead of slurpees and $1 coffee.
I was settling down for a quiet afternoon at my usual café when the waitress asked me if I’d like to try their new marmalade. “It’s made from special wild oranges from Ehime,ˮ she explained. They were planning on officially introducing it onto the menu next month, but wanted to have some regulars test it out first.
“I’d love to try some,ˮ I said. In a few minutes she brought over a pot with my tea, as well as the plate, loaded with carefully sliced squares of milk bread and two small ceramic tubs, one with a creamy whipped butter, the other holding a delicate orange jam.
Shuji Kawashima stood at the door of his Tokyo flower shop, bowing at a three-quarter angle with sharp, reflexive motions to a female customer who returned the gesture. She backed out into the street, clutching a sheaf of flowers wrapped in heavy cellophane. Kawashima reentered the shop, edged his way past a workbench, and ducked behind an impromptu counter. Peering out from behind a row of tall vases topped with multi-colored roses, he reached for a wine bottle and began pouring drinks.