It has often been said that Japan has vending machines for almost everything. Whether it’s a hot coffee, an iced tea, or even an umbrella, chances are there’s a machine near you that sells it.
However, almost as abundant as the vending machines here in Japan are the much-loved cornerstones of every community that are convenience stores. I’m often amazed at just how widespread and plentiful these places are and how many of them can be packed into a relatively small area.
For example, where I live now, the island of Chikko, in Osaka’s Minato Ward, is a very small area. You can walk from one end of it to the other in less than 10 minutes. Despite housing the Osaka Aquarium and a large international cruise liner port, Chikko is neither big, nor particularly densely populated. And yet, within a 3 minute walk of my apartment there are 7 convenience stores. Surely, I hear you ask, there can’t be that many people who need a pint of milk at three o’clock in the morning!
But gone are the days when the local “Kombini” (to give it its abbreviated Japanese name) served only to provide basic emergency essentials and household products. Thanks to a number of modern innovations and Japan’s place at the forefront of the ongoing global technological revolution, Kombinis are now able to provide us with more goods and services than ever before.
So, today, I present to you, dear readers, the top 5 things you didn’t expect to find at your local convenience store.
1) A credit card
Any foreigner who has lived in Japan for any length of time has probably experienced firsthand the frustrations and irritations of trying to get a credit card. The length of your visa, the fact that you aren’t married or a homeowner, as well as the non-permanent nature of your employment contract are all used as excuses to decline your application to varing degrees. Personally, I think there are a lot of companies out there who upon seeing an applicant’s name written in either Katakana phonetics or Romanized script simply toss it into the “computer says no” pile!
Anyway, your local convenience store now offers a way around this predicament, thanks to something called the “Vanilla Visa”. Basically, the Vanilla Visa is a computer generated credit card that you can use for online shopping in much the same way as you would a conventional credit or debit card.
You’ll have to make an account at their website (which unfortunately is all in Japanese, but not that hard to navigate if you use a bit of common sense), and then buy one of the pre-paid cards from the Kombini. These come in 5, 10 or 20,000 yen denominations. Much in the same way as one can buy a card for their playstation network account or Google play, there is a panel on the card which can be scratched off to reveal a code.
Enter this code into your account on the website and the money is credited to your account, allowing you to spend it in much the same way as a regular credit card. Best of all, there is no credit check and no need to even disclose your bank details on sign up.
2) A parcel collection point.
In recent years, online shopping portals like Rakuten and Amazon Japan have seen sales soar. However, in a country that still remains a cash-based society in many ways, many people, especially older people aren’t so comfortable with shopping online.
So, an increasing number of online vendors are now offering customers the option of collecting and paying for items at their local convenience store instead of using a credit card. Perhaps not so practical if you’re buying a new fridge, but useful if you’re ordering something small and compact. I got a couple of games for my new PS4 last month using this method.
3) A Japanese proficiency test
Many people who sign up to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in Japan lament the fact that it requires an online registration and that there is no way to register for the test either in person or by simple offline application. However, one part that has become simpler in recent times is how one pays for their test.
In much the same way as we pay our monthly gas and electric bills, we now also have the option of paying for our JLPT exam by way of the convenience store. It involves writing down a code emailed to you from the test authority, then going to the local convenience store of your choice, inputting the code to their terminal, printing off a receipt and paying for it there and then. Simple and straightforward, even for someone as technologically backward as me!
4) Concert and Event Tickets
Those terminal consoles in the convenience store are good for more than just paying your utility bill and signing up for a test. With a bit of help from one of your Japanese friends, they can also be used to order concert tickets. Osaka is of course famous for its Universal Studios Japan theme park.
With a bit of help navigating the console system, I was able to buy an annual pass to the park at my local convenience store, and with a nice little discount too. In this case, it helps to do a bit of research and find out which of the main convenience store chains is offering the best deal in this regard.
5) Holidays and Flight Tickets
Ever heard the one about the guy who went out to buy a loaf of bread and came back with a weekend in Hong Kong? It may sound like the punch line of an elaborate joke, but that’s exactly what happened to me last week.
I was in the convenience store to buy some bread, when a friend of mine sent me a text about a special deal on flights to Hong Kong. So, within a few minutes of completing the booking process via my smartphone, I was at the terminal inputting the code that the airline had emailed to me and confirming my flights. Also, I have to say, in the current climate, budget carrier or not, 22,000 yen for return flights to HK from Osaka Kansai Airport is an absolute bargain!
Now that I know all the unique services convenience stores in Japan can offer, I wonder where my weakness for impulse buying will take me next!