After Last Train: A Late-Night Konbini Odyssey

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Photo by Becca Takano

Through a few bad decisions, one night I was left to obnoxiously wander the streets of Shinjuku well past last train and — more importantly — my bed time. In contrast, my usual late-night desires often revolve around sitting on the couch, watching Netflix with an offensive amount of ice cream and contemplating difficult calculus questions while comparing philosophical theories from 16th-century France.

But on this particular night a few weeks ago, I didn’t want to pay for a taxi, nor did I want to sleep outside the station. I had done that before, and I’m no longer allowed on the West coast of Japan. (But, that’s another story.) I was in no mood for logic or sense, so my options were limited.

I knew not what I would gain. Fame? Glory? A trip to the police station when I was asked to leave? The possibilities were endless.

At the same time, fresh on my mind was a discussion I had with a friend weeks ago about our suspicions as to what goes on in a konbini (convenience store) in the graveyard-shift hours. Once we dismissed the idea that they were all a front for the Illuminati, we both agreed to discover the truth.

However, it was a journey I took on alone — and it was to be an epic tale. 

Photo by Israel.

Ah, that familiar glow.

Midnight — Finding shelter

The buzzing glow piercing the still night drew me in.

I finally managed to find one close enough to the station that, if my suspicions were true, and all the zombies did come out at night, I could make a quick get away and live to tell the tale.

Knowing that my adventure would be paved with perils, I grabbed a few of the essentials: rope, sword, an assortment of different colored drinks and 27 different cleaning products. If I was going to undertake this gauntlet, I wanted to stay fresh. Plus, I was running out at home.

Stepping over the skeletons of those who had tried and failed the challenge before me, I settled into a corner. I knew not what I would gain. Fame? Glory? A trip to the police station when I was asked to leave? The possibilities were endless.

 

1 a.m. — Long night begins

I made a friend.

It seemed that in my delirious state I had found a small paper cup and drawn a face on it. Her name was Ms. Walker. It’s probably best not to dive too deeply into why I named it after my Year 6 geography teacher.

A few minutes later though, I made a real friend. I threw Ms. Walker away in what could only be described as childhood trauma over a B-minus. My real friend’s name was Yusuke. He was proudly perched atop a chair consuming an oddly shaped — and colored — yogurt with a chopstick (notice the singular).

I decided to strike up a conversation, knowing full well I could delve into the deep and expansive realms of his favorite eating utensils and what his thoughts were on throwing off the shackles that society had placed on using two chopsticks instead of one. Frankly, it was about time someone started the revolution.

Yusuke and I exchanged numbers (at least I think it was his phone) and he told me that he had to go and speak to someone from the government. Either I had just had one of the strangest interactions with a spy in Japan or have started to gain a rather beneficial connection in some underground yogurt-eating ring. The flashing red lights at the window were my answer.

Stocking-holm syndrome?

2 a.m. — Konbini wolves

It was quiet. Too quiet.

Even the workers had disappeared. The logical side of my brain told me that they were simply stacking shelves, but the sleep-deprived side told me that the rumors were true. At night, the konbini wolves came out to hunt lost drunks. A piercing howl cut through the air. Time was running out.

I grabbed as many bento (Japanese box lunches) as I could, ate them as fast as humanly possible (which isn’t very fast) and built a small fort out of their plastic containers. After all, everyone knows that wolves can’t enter plastic castles without being given permission.

 

The fellowship begins.

3 a.m. — Fellowship of the Bento

After an hour the coast was clear.

I emerged from my bento fort to assess the wilderness. Milk Mountain to the north, Manga Cove to the east. It was at least five days to Mt. Doom.

Alas, it was not the thrill of the hunt that arose me from the safety of my castle, but the sound of the delivery driver. I’m not married, nor have I ever had kids, but I like to imagine that the sight of fully stocked shelves at a konbini offers the same feeling.

I peered out the window to make sure all was safe. After all, you can never be too safe in Shinjuku at night: especially with all the wolves and people trying to pull you into bars, but when you go in, no one else is there, all the drinks cost ¥2,000 and when you ask for something special they look at you and roll your eyes. And no, I’m not bitter. You’re bitter… but I digress.

I saw a single man squatting down with cup noodles in his hands. To the untrained eye, he might have just looked like a man enjoying instant ramen of questionable flavor and origin. However, I sensed that he was there to protect the konbini, a 7-Eleven batman, if you will. I gave him a nod of respect; he looked perplexed and walked away.

Clearly, he understood that the konbini was in safer hands now.

Photo by Mark Notari

Taxi drivers know.

4 a.m. — Taxi friends

The konbini had secrets left to bare.

Clearly, the Illuminati were better at hiding their involvement here than I had originally thought. I drew my trusty sword and began to make my way deeper into the bowels of the store, just in case the wolves decided to return.

After traversing Instant Ramen Canyon, I finally emerged near Manga Cove. Although I lacked a reliable map, I knew I was there: No matter what time you go into a Japanese convenience store, a man contentedly reading manga (or at least pretending to) perpetually inhabits this area.

I could hear the distant raspy and grumpy voices of Japanese men. Either they were fellow adventurers or taxi drivers. Peering out through the shelves I spotted them standing in a circle chatting and devouring Calorie Mates as if they didn’t taste like cardboard. They were either performing kind of ritual or taking a well-deserved rest, so they could perform another ritual? I approached with caution and began to converse in their native tongue, which started with my telling about this one time I was trapped on a bus that had to stay moving at over 60 mph. I hoped they didn’t realize I had just explained the plot of Speed in intricate, possibly copyright-infringing details.

 

5 a.m. — Dawn of the final hour

It was approaching 5 a.m. — the time my train was leaving.

I had made a few new friends, drew on some objects and constructed a bento fort. I can proudly say that it lasted all of 20 seconds after I left.

Once again, I emerged onto the streets of Shinjuku, and my quest was nearly over. The konbini is a very dark and scary place at night. The people I passed looked at me with wide eyes. Perhaps they knew the horrors I had witnessed in my late-night quest. Or, that after spending all night in a convenience store — I really needed a shower.

 No one had witnessed the debauchery that I had during the graveyard shift. Yet, in the lucidity of daylight, I formed one major conclusion from all of this, though: Always spring for the taxi.


What’s the strangest thing you have ever seen or weirdest experience you’ve ever had in a Japanese convenience store? After missing the last train? Let us know in the comments!

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British teacher, Japan explorer and writer. I will exchange witty jokes for Marmite.

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