Cut off from most restaurants because of coronavirus restrictions, thousands of international visitors at the Olympics make do — and delight — in convenience store offerings.
On languid bus rides from one Olympic venue to another, a panorama of gustatory pleasures rolls by: noodle joints, skewer shops, sushi counters.
We stare at it all through tinted glass: It is like a mirage of the people we are not meeting, and the food we are not eating.
This is all for good reason. Japan is in a state of emergency. Coronavirus cases are on the rise. Unleashing thousands of foreigners like me, an American journalist covering the Games, into a city — to its restaurants and bars and stores — would be imprudent. But we do need to eat.
Enter the saving grace of these Olympics, the glue holding the whole thing together: Tokyo's 24-hour convenience stores, or conbini, as they are known in Japan. They have quickly become a primary source of sustenance — and, more surprisingly, culinary enjoyment — for many visitors navigating one of the strangest Games in history.
All of us — athletes, team staff members, officials and journalists — are largely prohibited from venturing anywhere but our hotels and the Olympic venues. Trips outside this so-called bubble cannot exceed 15 minutes.
We can't traverse the galaxy of food outside the Olympic limits, but a conbini contains a culinary world unto itself, a bounty of bento boxes, fried meats, sushi, noodles galore and all manner of elaborate plastic-wrapped meals and rare snacks.
While requisite health protocols, including a ban on spectators, have sapped the Games of both colour and human connection, the stores have become a substitute arena of polychromatic cultural discovery for some.
"They are not Jiro Sushi," said Gavin Whitelaw, a sociocultural anthropologist at Harvard who has researched conbini for two decades. "But they are equally Japanese in that they have a 50-year history in the country now, and they have been indigenised, you might say, so much so that they don't look anything like their brethren in any other places."
In the lobby of the main press building, a Lawson store heaves each day with multinational crowds scavenging for their next meal.
The 7-Eleven outside my hotel hums with activity long after midnight, as people returning from late events gaze, frozen by choice, upon unending rows of ready-to-eat foodstuffs, looking to match component parts into a perfectly bespoke meal.
And even athletes have been spotted carrying overstuffed shopping bags of snacks.
I asked Matt Savas, one half of the pair behind the "Conbini Boys" podcast, to help me understand the spell we had found ourselves under.
"It's the quality, the variety and the ubiquity," he said. "It's hard to convey how much better they are than American convenience stores."
It's true. Here, quickly, is a partial list of items I have plucked from conbini shelves that sparked at least a basic level of pleasure, and often much more: a runny boiled egg; mapo tofu (the spicy Chinese staple); French fries; a cup of cold corn soup (which I sipped through a straw); an unnaturally shaped, suspiciously juicy disc of fried chicken; lu rou fan (Taiwanese braised pork); Okinawa-style pig ears; hiyayakko (a cold tofu dish); soboro don (ground beef and egg over rice); spicy grilled chicken cartilage; a tuna salad sandwich; an egg salad sandwich; tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet, which in this case came with a side of spaghetti); a hunk of salmon.
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Just as important, as Savas noted, conbini are everywhere. My 10-minute walk to the press centre takes me past three convenience stores, and barely a day has gone by that they haven't lured me in.
I grabbed sunscreen at a Family Mart after an early brush with Tokyo's punishing sun. I picked up a handkerchief at Lawson upon realising that bathrooms here often don't have paper towels. And I knew that if I somehow scored an interview with the prime minister, I could run to the 7-Eleven across the street to pick up a dress shirt and necktie.
"I've bought underwear there before," said Mike Markey, the other Conbini Boy, who works as a web developer in Kurobe.
Good to know. But food has remained my chief concern.
Despite their relentless schedules, the Olympics normally present little openings for epicurean adventure. In Brazil in 2016, I'd set up nighttime office hours at any number of botecos (relaxed bars with cheap food) around Rio de Janeiro, working my way through a checklist of small plates. In South Korea, I might have gone a bit overboard trying to squeeze in elaborate meals between all my reporting assignments.
As a longtime advocate of something I like to call meal-food fluidity — an elevated state of mind in which the time of day has no bearing on the dish you eat — I've found some emotional grounding in my hotel's breakfast buffet, which offers slabs of mackerel, fried chicken, noodle soups and a selection of pickles each morning.
Dining at these Games has been an alienating experience. The press building has two restaurants: a cafeteria that serves Japanese lunch staples — udon, beef curry and the like — and a pizza and burger restaurant called Pizza & Burger Restaurant. At both places, as well as our hotels, the menus are small and unchanging, and every seat is separated by a thick sheet of plexiglass.
It's no surprise, then, that people have been gravitating toward convenience stores for access to a wider selection.
Variety and innovation of this sort have been at the heart of the conbini experience in Japan for a half-century. Whitelaw, the Harvard professor, told me that onigiri (rice balls) were the first traditional foods here to receive the conbini treatment. They're sold in clever packaging that keeps the seaweed dry, allows for easy assembly and comes in seemingly endless permutations.
"They have taken a very handmade, homemade convenience meal — a ball of rice that has sustained Japan for eons — and wrapped it up and innovated it into something that is high cuisine, conbini cuisine, that is constantly changing," Whitelaw said.
Onigiri have sustained me through these Games, too. Popping one or two (or three or four) of them into my bag before running to an event has been a surefire way to stay fed.
My favourite conbini innovations were the simplest ones: a corn dog I bought at 7-Eleven came with a sauce packet designed so that a single pinch sent ketchup and whole-grain mustard shooting simultaneously from a spout, like two synchronised divers.
Some items, on the other hand, required more assembly than an Ikea desk. Cold soba noodles came stuck together in an unappealing, floppy brick. But after applying the many plastic-wrapped accoutrements — tsuyu sauce, scallions, wasabi, frothy grated yam, a gooey egg — my hesitation melted into contentment.
It's important to pause and note that the conbini experience does animate some mental dissonance. First, extreme convenience of this sort requires an incredible amount of plastic packaging. Second, it's hard to ignore how these store clerks are perched on the front lines of Japan's unending coronavirus fight — in our case, serving customers deemed too risky to enter any other stores — and yet they are among the lowest-paid workers in the country.
A small consolation of this pandemic, Whitelaw said, might be greater appreciation for these businesses, which are heavily relied upon but sometimes taken for granted.
My own dependence on convenience stores began early. After a 14-hour flight to Tokyo, I spent another seven hours in the airport for coronavirus testing. By the time I arrived at my hotel, it was close to midnight — 30 hours since my last sleep, 12 or so since my last meal.
It was a cold pack of grilled chicken gizzards from Lawson that saved my life. They were peppery, like gas station beef jerky, with a wisp of garlicky sweetness and a more satisfying chomp. Working through the pack, mixing in sips of beer, felt like meditation. I slipped on my hotel-provided pajamas and drifted into a peaceful slumber.
The biggest revelation for me has been the vinegar-flavoured squid legs from the snack aisle at Lawson. They taste like salt-and-vinegar potato chips (my favorite), but squishy.
I have amassed a stockpile of them already. I'm wondering if I should check an extra bag for the flight home.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Andrew Keh
Photographs by: Andrew Keh and James Hill
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES