*For the next week, we will be celebrating conbini culture on Umami Mart, in preparation for the opening of U-MART on Tuesday 6/25. Check back every day for a new Conbini Cabaret article. Umami for life! -KA
The first time in my life I stepped into a conbini (convenience store) in Tokyo was on the evening I arrived in Japan: January 3, 2005. I had rented a small, dirty, dense room in a dorm house and was still jetlagged and dizzy from the long flight and lack of sleep.
I stepped out into the dark evening of my new neighbourhood Sendagaya; it was a Lawson that caught my eye, with its neon-lit, milky white and baby blue exteriors. I peeked in through the automatic doors and it was bright as midday inside -- I was instantly mesmerized by the abundant colour and blur of products, packaging, magazines, food, music, smells and in-your-face-advertisement. Everything was crammed into a long, narrow room with low ceilings, and I could see there was a counter at the end with a teenager half-asleep, probably just in from evening cram-school.
Back in 2005, no places such as conbinis existed in Copenhagen -- we only had small daytime kiosks with candy and magazines or normal-sized supermarkets. This place had everything packed into very little space, and open 24 hours. It really felt alien and urban and very Blade-Runner-meets-a-1980's manga -- I still didn't speak a word of Japanese so it was like landing on Mars and not being able to read any of the signs written in Martian.
And I loved it so much.
What made the biggest impression on this smalltown Dane were the long rows of beautiful sushi in the take-away food section. Sushi?! The exotic, super luxurious and expensive restaurant food was for sale in shiny plastic trays for almost nothing. I couldn't believe it. It was my first meal in Japan: conbini sushi and a coke in my little dorm room, and I felt like the luckiest dude on Earth.
Future co-owner of Umami Mart, Yoko Kumano spotted at the Krazy KitKat / promotional Pocky Corner in a local Lawson, 2008.
One thing which I regret today, eight years later and back in Denmark, was that I never took enough chances to try more stuff from my local conbini. It's what the big selection and constant new product introductions are there for, right? Sampling, testing, probing unknown beverages, psychedelically wrapped candy and of course that odd looking green tea cake filled with Japanese mustard and sprinkles of raw seaweed and dried fish flakes on top. I should have tried it, it wasn't even expensive. But I was afraid.
Nevermore -- from now on, each time I walk into a conbini, whether in Japan or in Umami Mart, Oakland, I want to challenge myself and take my mouth out on an adventure!
A swanky new Lawson inside Shibuya's upscale Hikarie shopping plaza.
I look forward to help introduce the conbini concept to the Bay Area.
*Top and bottom photo by Shizuka Wakashita