The Magic of the Japanese Convenience Store Sandwich

There are over 50,000 convenience stores in Japan – sometimes it seems you’re no more than about 500 steps from one of them – and, while they sell all sorts of fun items to investigate, it’s the food – and particularly the sandwiches, that thrill most tourists. But why?

Why is the Japanese Convenience Store Sandwich so iconic… and eating at a convenience store something you need to try at least once on your trip?

After eating (a lot of) them on our past trips we decided it was time to find out.

Wait – You Want Me To Eat Where?

I hear you.

Depending where you are from in the world, the idea of visiting a convenience store might not sound like a key holiday attraction, let alone a viable dining choice – but the 7-11 – and other convenience stores in Japan like Family Mart and Lawson – are nothing like the convenience stores you might be used to back home.

They’re spotlessly clean, well stocked and the food aisle is full of everything from snacky onigiri (hunks of rice with filling in – there’s a picture below) to full take-away meals prepared fresh every day.

Some convenience stores – also known as konbini – even have seating areas where you can consume your meal.

Which is why popping in for snacks and a nose round the chocolate aisle of a konbini, is one of the main things on our list of small things you must do on your Japan trip.

But of all the cool things you’ll find in the food aisles of a kombini, the piece de resistance, are the sandwiches.

Behold The Sandoiichi

Helpfully if you’re trying to order one, the Japanese word for sandwich is サンドイッチ – pronounced sandoiichi

They are a thing of magnificance with a cult-like following on various Japanese facebook groups. And, once you taste one you’ll (probably) also join the cult.

Chef and food writer, the late Anthony Bourdain, was amazed by the Lawson Egg Sandwich

My obsession is such that, when I’m travelling solo to Japan, I normally don’t do anything the first night, instead I spend the first night in my hotel to get over the flight and pick up a convenience store egg sandwich, a Zima ‘beer’ (something I become obsessed with travelling in the US, but that you can now only buy in Japan) and whatever crisps look exciting on the day.

And I really look forward to it. It’s become my little ritual.

I’m not alone. Japanese facebook groups rave about them and during the Tokyo Olympics, at one point, one reporter’s discussion of his convenience store food purchases of the day were getting more love than his reports on the events!

So, Why Are the Sandwiches So Amazing?

In a world of artisan sourdough and sandwiches piled high with exotic toppings, I admit, when you first see the Japanese sandwiches lined up on the shelf, you might wonder what all the fuss is about.

They’re not very thick, the toppings squish against the plastic packaging and they’re (usually) made from the type of sliced white bread that it’s definitely not fashionable to be seen putting in your shopping basket!

But, you know what they say about judging books and covers and all that… use that now.

I’m not a food writer for a reason. I can’t describe food glowing terms and I can’t explain what it is about the taste that makes the Japanese sandwich experience so different from any where else, and I definitely can’t do it lyrically – but, I can look at facts and so, rather than trying to waffle on about tastes….I decided to investigate why these things taste soooo good. And, it seems it all starts with…

The Bread

The bread on most convenience store sandwiches is a standard white sliced bread – but, it’s squishier and fluffier than that type of bread elsewhere.

The reason is that the Japanese use a special way of cooking the dough in their bread known as yudane.

In this the flour and water are mixed together, and then cooked which causes the starch in the dough to change structure and become more chewy and gelatinous.

They also usually cut the crusts off for you which, technically makes the sandwich less healthy, but means you don’t have any of the normal ‘ugh, there’s no filling left and this bit’s boring but I guess I have to eat it anyway’ that you get with a normal sandwich.

The Fillings

These vary depending which store you’re in, but there are over 20 different flavours of convenience store sandwich. Among them though are a few stand-out classics.

The Egg Sandwich

This is my first choice every time. The filling is soo creamy.

It’s simply roughly processed eggs (so the chopped whites and yolks mix together) mixed with Japanese Kewpie Mayonnaise which is much creamier than the mayo you’re probably used to.

The combination is a thing of beauty.

Some brands offer egg sandwiches with more whole formed eggs in them – but personally, I just go for the mushy ones! I actually hate boiled eggs in their natural form.

The Tonkatsu Sandwich

A breaded pork cutlet with Tonkatsu sauce, lettuce and mayonnaise – between bread.

If you’re looking for a more substational Japanese convenience sandwich this would be the one to pick. You can also have these one heated up by the staff.

If you like this one, also look for the Shrimp Cutlet with Sauce. Imagine the topping from a prawn toast between bread!

There’s also a Chicken Cutlet if you don’t like, or eat, pork.

Ham and Potato Salad

Do not knock this one until you’ve tried it.

I picked this up in a hurry one day thinking it was ham and coleslaw – when I got back to the hotel I was not impressed – but, I’d walked about 20km that day, and I wasn’t going back out again so it was going to be eaten – and, it was amazing.

Also watch out for the Ham and Cucumber one. Simple yet deceptively tasty.

And, if you want your spuds to play more of a starring role, you’ll find ‘plain’ Potato Salad sandwiches

A note to any vegetarians though, despite being labelled as ‘potato salad’ these often contain small pieces of ham. You might also find that sandwiches labelled ‘salad’ sandwiches or ‘lettuce’ also have meat so look, or read things, carefully.

The Strawberry and Cream Sandwich

Yes, it’s whipped cream and strawberries between two slices of bread.

It took me a few trips to try this one and I’m not sure I need to do it again.

There’s nothing wrong with it, but if I’m going to finish my meal with something sweet it would be of the chocolate variety.

It is a very iconic, only in Japan, experience though – and others rave about them the way I do the egg option.

You might also find other fruit-based sandwiches with options like oranges, peach or kiwi..

Japanese strawberry and cream sandwich at a convenince store in Tokyo

If you can’t make your mind up, you’ll also find multipacks which might let you taste two, or even three, options in one handy packet!

If you want a full analysis of what might be on offer – including inside pictures, then check out this report from Sora News which, frankly can’t be beaten in their dedication to the sandwich discussion.

How Much Are They?

Eating in a konbini is one way to save some money on your trip. And the great thing about the sandwiches is that they are pretty cheap (usually around 250-400 yen).

They are quite light, so, if you have a big appetite, you might want to treat them as a snack rather than a meal – or, buy two and/or something else to go with them like a onigri or one of the many other things you’ll find on the shelf.

How to Order Your Sandwich?

It couldn’t be easier!

The exact name is written on the front in English (as well as Japanese) so you know exactly what you’re signing up for.

You’ll even find calories on the back if such things concern you when you travel.

The price is the first number on the pack – so 276円 – on the example above. 円 is the symbol for yen.

But, Japan has an extra tax which is 8 per cent on food and drink – so, the actual price you’ll be charged is the second figure – so 298円 for the pack above.

Convenience stores will always ring your purchases up on the till and so you’ll get a ‘written’ total anyway. I find them a great place to get rid of some of the many, many small coins you pick up in Japan as you know exactly how much to give the server.

Depending what you’ve ordered, when you get to the counter, the staff might ask you a question – if you hear the words atatamemasu ka? they are asking if you would like it heated.

Say Hai (pronounced like hi) – or nod – if you do. If not just say iie (pronounced like eee-e).

If you want to eat your sandwich now, either head to one of the seats if the store has them, or, eat it outside the shop.

Not only is this polite – you shouldn’t eat while walking in Japan – it’s likely to be the only place you’ll find a bin to throw away the rubbish. Leave at your peril or your bag could end up with egg sandwich wrapper in it for hours!

A Last Sandwich Thought…

There’s one last reason I love convenience store sandwiches in Japan. A reason that has nothing to do with how they taste or what’s in them…

Some nights on a trip, I just don’t want to go out and eat.

I just want to sit and let my poor achy feet recover. I want to have a bath in my hotel room (Japanese hotel rooms nearly always have baths) or use the onsen if the hotel has one, and just relax and plan the next few days.

If I do this while enjoying some local goodies from the 7-11 and watching Japanese television I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on some kind of ‘authentic’ experience.

I’m just doing the same as a lot of Japanese people are that evening – eating a quick, tasty meal from the konbini while watching TV – and that’s alright with me.

So, have you tried a Japanese convenience store sandwich on one of your trips – or, do you think I’m mad even suggesting the idea in a country with so many Michelin-starred restaurants. Let me know in the comments.

If you’ve had one of the sandwiches before, also let me know which is your favourite type.

2 thoughts on “The Magic of the Japanese Convenience Store Sandwich”

  1. > Japan has an extra tax which is 8 per cent on food and drink

    > If you want to eat your sandwich now, either head to one of the seats if the store has them

    If you sit to eat/drink inside the sales tax is 10%, not 8%. If you don’t say in advance when paying that you will eat inside you and then you sit down to eat you will get quickly asked to leave, as technically you (and likely the combini itself) could be considered to be evading taxes.

    Reply

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