Saturday, 20 October 2012

Japanese convenience


Most of the dormitory resident prefer to do their convenience store shopping at the nearby Ministop, but when I embark with a similar purpose I break in the opposite direction. When it comes to buying useless stuff I don't need, Circle-K is the only love I know. There are three reasons for this: One is legit and two are stupid.

Selection. Sometimes I'm too busy, sometimes I'm too tired, and sometimes I would simply rather eat nutrition-free garbage than food, but I often buy a snack to be consumed sometime in the day, perhaps during my kanji reps. Convenience stores here have most everything you would expect to find in your own country, along with specifically Japanese products, sandwiches and onigiri and the like, and hot canned drinks (which you can also get from vending machines.) They even have alcohol.

And they also have all manner of bread, an entire array of racks, ranging from the delectable (soft melon-pan with cantaloupe filling) to the revolting (oven-baked sausage with cream cheese). I've made a game out of trying something different every time, and I've discovered that Circle-K just has higher-quality products as well as a wider selection. Also, have you tried Ministop's chocolate chip melon-pan? It's terrible.

Nostalgia. Me and Circle-K, we've got history together. There're some good memories invested in that store, because it was close to where I lived with one of my host families during my last exchange. I want to make it clear that I am grateful to all of them, but of the five that I had in that single semester, these were the people with whom I got on the worst. The fact that I was a dumbass kid who didn't make enough effort to participate in the family and would occasionally come home drunk and late at night probably didn't help or anything, but insufficient language skills on both sides and a lack of patience on theirs made a bad relationship worse.

At some point they got it in their heads that I had told them they weren't feeding me enough. This never happened, and I could think of nothing I'd said that could be misinterpreted in that way. But in any case, their reaction was to cut me off completely. I didn't even realise what was going on until the second night, around 2 am, when it dawned on me that I'd been abandoned.

Luxuriously, the room they'd given me had its own balcony, onto which I would often walk out to ruminate, sometimes accompanied by people stopped at the nearby light gesticulating at me. That night, I tried to find an escape route, and although it was a storey off the ground I realised that I could creep along the fence to the sidewalk, from which juncture I could also climb back.

I strapped on my backpack so I would have both hands free on the return trip, popped over the railing, and hung by my fingers off the top of the fence, carefully working my feet along the crossbeam. I wore my hood up to conceal my identity, feeling like a ninja. Every time a car passed by I pressed myself flat and froze, praying they wouldn't notice me. It was so absurd it was surreal, and all I could think was “Oh God, if someone sees me they're not going to think I'm sneaking out – they're going to think I'm a burglar!”

Getting away from the crowd. Most of the time I like to avoid my fellow guy gins, and I've got a whole post about why that is eventually coming down the pipes. Suffice it to say for now that I like to differentiate myself, and also step away from the bastion of English that is the dormitory. Circle-K is a little bit farther and thus virtually unknown to them, devoid of other foreigners except for a rarely seen Saudi, and so would probably be my preferred destination on that grounds alone.

However, when travelling with my own kind I do sometimes have occasion to visit Ministop instead.

Recently we ryuugakusei were required to submit a number of papers to the school's international office. Most were photocopies of documents with which we had already provided them in order to come here, and the rest were lists of information that they had easy access to. To procure the necessary materials, I teamed up with Kojak, a stylish, chain-smoking, coffee-loving Italian who looks like a serial killer but is actually the nicest guy ever. He is not bald. For the first few days he had a habit of apologizing for his (excellent) English, until I finally told him that if he ever comes to Canada, then he can apologize for his English. In Japan, it makes as much sense as me apologizing for not speaking Italian.

Anyway, we weren't too vexed about the task because pretty much every convenience store in Japan is equipped with a photocopier and fax machine. Colour? Non-standard page sizes? No problem! For the extremely reasonable price of ten yen per page, you pick your settings and get to cloning.

It's all part of the Japanese service culture, which even the Hate Japan blogs are forced to admit is world-class. Japanese convenience stores are genuinely convenient, open 24 hours without exception and spread so thick that there's one every few blocks. If it's a hot day and you can't decide if you want a drink, don't worry that you'll have to go back – just stop off at the next one, five minutes away. This is in contrast to my hometown, where it was common to literally take a taxi to the nearest convenience store, then make your purchase through a tiny window near the locked doors. Maybe this is just because the population density in Japan can sustain such a high frequency of convenience stores, and because if a stick-up ever did occur it would go something like, “My apologies, but if you have a moment and it's not too much trouble, would it be possible to have you give me all the money in the cash register and then get up against the wall?”

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