There is a convenience store every 500 meters in Japanese cities. They are really hard not to find. For the Japanese this means you hardly ever have to cook or have anything in the fridge. Many families give their schoolchildren money for the convenience store instead of a family dinner. But for those with smaller children, the convenience stores can also be a lifeline, especially for those who have an infant in tow.
While convenience stores aim to be convenient, they are not all equally convenient for everybody, however. Some stores are in areas with few parents, and they do not carry diapers (those who do have only small day packs). Others are too small to carry more than the bare minimum of necessities, and hardly offer more than snacks and drinks. The owners of the stores are masters at squeezing in shops where you would never have expected anyone to try to fit a store.
Three-packs in three chains
There are three big convenience store chains in Japan: 7-11, FamilyMart, and Lawson. Then there is a slew of smaller chains: Circle K, Sunkus, Daily Yamazaki, and many more. Some are owned by the big chains, and you will recognize the brands and names of the goods, even though you had never encountered that chain of stores before.
And then there are the important things that help you care for and feed your child. The convenience stores in Japan are everywhere, and the three main chains all sell the same basic tings. The difference between a Familymart, Lawson, and 7-11 is smaller than the stores which are supermarket-sized and the pocket-sized stores you would classify as kiosks if you could not walk into them.
Copy, taxes, and dropping off
What you want is a reasonably big store, and not one of the stores that are squeezed into a corner of a shopping center corridor. The bigger stores are easy to find when you go out, as they are usually on the street level. They typically have more than two aisles and you can bring in a stroller.
The stores have all the normal services of a convenience store, which goes far beyond the goods you need to run your everyday life. Since you are probably not going to pay taxes and bills, you may not see the need for their administrative services, but you may find it helpful to use the copier.
The stores all work in the same basic way, and have the same basic functions. There is usually a ticket printing machine, a copier-printer where you can print out physical copies of documents (and send and receive faxes if you should ever feel that need), an ATM, a ticket printing machine for tickets to shows and events, and a bathroom. If you are staying long, it is probably useful to know that you can also make payments (of your taxes and bills), and pick up Amazon and other Internet shopping packages (or anything you can receive from one of the ubiquitous courier firms). And you can drop off things to be shipped, although they often balk at receiving suitcases you want to ship to the airport, or some other destination. The reason they are reluctant is that they do not have any space to keep them. They may direct you to the dropoff center for the courier company. Japanese typically either go there with their luggage, or more often they will have the courier company come and pick it up. Kuronekko Yamato, the biggest courier company, does have an English customer service. You can call and ask them to pick up, but if you stay in a hotel, guesthouse or ryokan they will help you.
Hot water at lunchtime
The convenience stores make most of their business around lunchtime. The number of customers buying bento lunch boxes far outnumber other customers.
The customers buying lunch do not always buy bento. Many people have cup of instant ramen for lunch, and the convenience stores provide a pot of hot water for those customers.
That is useful for you if you have a baby who is still on formula. If you bring your own bottles, and either measure out the powder in advance, or use the Meji formula cubes, you can quickly create your own formula at the right temperature by cutting it with a little cold water from a bottle you just bought.
That is a useful service to know about, but if you are looking for something to wipe off the result of the latest milxsplosion, or a pair of extra diapers since you ran out, then the convenience stores are even better for you. The bigger stores normally have diapers - in packages of three. Since the stores have a limited assortment of things there is not a lot of choice when it comes to brands and sizes, so if you want a better selection go to the drugstores. As I have written about before, the drugstores are the easiest places to buy diapers in Japan.
Open when closed
But convenience stores are open when the drugstores are closed, and there may not be any drug stores in the vincinty of where you are. But in Japan, you can be pretty sure there will be a convenience store.
Just be aware that it can be pretty random whether they have any baby goods. The convenience stores ruthlessly clean out goods that do not sell from their shelves, and if diapers do not sell, they will soon be gone. The only reason the store may want to keep them is if there is a baby oriented attraction nearby, like the Anpanman Museum near the Familymart store where I took the picture. But otherwise it can be pretty random.
They have other things that are useful for traveling parents as well. Tissues are the most obvious - and the lotion tissues are soft enough to use as baby wipes. Just remember that they are not flushable.
Toilets without changing rooms
Speaking of flushable, all convenience stores have a toilet for customers. But very few have changing tables. If you have toddlers who walk by themselves it is very, well, convenient. But not with a stroller.
The other baby product they have is baby soap. Babies have sensitive skin and especially if you are staying in a cheap hotel you may not want to wash your baby with the hotel soap. So running down to the convenience store is an easy way of being nice to your babies skin. They have towels in the convenience stores too, by the way.
When you buy something in a convenience store in Japan, they will stick it in a plastic bag. Even if you buy an icecream bar the cashier will hand it to you in a plastic bag. Those bags are really useful as used diaper bags. When you want to throw away the used diapers it will come in handy.
If you have toddlers you may appreciate some other things. Band-aids are something you will often need but do not have handy, and as you know, kids are masters at scratching themselves. Tissues are usually something toddlers need as well, and for those times when your kids fall or scratch themselves, disinfectant wet tissues can also come in handy.
Of course you can buy food and snacks in the convenience stores as well, but they typically do not carry baby formula or other specialized goods. The convenience stores have fruit and sandwiches, normally very heavy on either mayonnaise or fried food. But there are exceptions, like the strawberry and cream sandwiches. If you have toddlers or school-age kids, they will love those.
Best toddler food
The best toddler food is onigiri. I have written before about the ten foods your kids will love in Japan. For us, besides shaved ice, our kids love both onigiri and senbei, the rice crackers which are the healthiest alternative to potato chips in the world (and taste better too).
So if it is daytime, you may want to look around for a drugstore. They are more likely to have what your babies need, but they are not about convenience - which is what convenience stores do.
This was one of my posts about everyday life in Japan. I have written about how and where to buy baby supplies, how to take the train in Tokyo (and the rules you have to follow when you do), how to use a Japanese laundromat, 20 questions people ask about bringing their kids to Japan, why there are three wastepaper baskets when you find any, and many more posts to help visiting parents get around in Japan.
Nothing ruins a vacation like being forced to stay in your hotel room wit a high fever, cough, and a nose that does not stop running. Well, maybe throwing up at the same time. Well, maybe your kids doing it is even worse.
So we had our kids vaccinated against the flu, with two separate shots a few weeks apart. They love telling everyone that since they are five years old, they did not cry when they got the shots.
So when my son came down with high fever and vomited everything we tried to feed him, we naturally called the nearby clinic, since a child with 40 deg c fever does not walk anywhere. They told us to come in about 5 PM.
By then, his fever was almost normal. The doctor listened to my sons lungs, looked in his throat, and took a very unpleasant test for flu (by inserting a probe in his nose). And sure enough, he had the flu. His sisters were completely unaffected and in the evening his temperature was down to normal and he ate a double helping of Japanese curry, so it was over quickly (although it is the second day now and he is asleep, even though he stopped taking naps around lunch on normal days). So naturally I asked myself what we could have done. There are four simple precautions you can take:
* Wear a mask
* Stay out of crowded places
* Wash your hands
Why people wear masks in Japan
The need to protect themselves against the flu has meant some very publicly visible ways of protecting themselves. People in Japan wear masks - surgical quality face masks - during large parts of the year. There are four reasons people wear them:
* They want to protect themselves against germs, in particular viruses.
* They want to protect themselves against allergens, in particulsr pollen.
* They want to protect others against getting their colds.
* They want to hide their faces.
The last reason is not as common as you might expect, given that at times half the people you see on the train are wearing masks. But if you want to hide your face, you may be hiding something else. We have a neighbor whom I have never seen without a mask, but he is evidently somewhat famous, which explains it.
The other three reasons are much more common. And while you can see people with masks at any time of year (usually because they have a cold), you see many more from November to March - flu season, followed by the cedar bloom.
The Hello Kitty Masks
If your kids hate wearing masks (my daughter complained that it chafed her ears) there are lots of variety with cute motives to choose from. There are child-sized masks with Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse in any drugstore. The masks filter out anything the size of a flu virus and above, and since the virus has to go from the person sneezing to your mucus membranes before they die to infect you, it means you will be safe. Be careful when getting rid of the mask, as viruses can be infectious up until 30 days after expulsion from the host, and if you get live virus on your hands and touch your babies (for instance, blowing their noses), you could infect them.
The masks are extremely effective at filtering out pathogens, but also allergens. This is a real problem in Tokyo, because many people (like anywhere) are allergic to common plants. But it gets extra bad in spring when the Japanese cedar is blossoming.
When temperatures go over 10 deg c, the cedars start to flower. Since the mountains surrounding Tokyo are almost exclusively planted in cedar trees, and when they bloom they can create so much pollen that it looks like a sandstorm. The masks filter it out, making the air considerably easier to breathe for allergics.
The masked innovations
The Japanese mask makers are nothing if not creative, and while cute prints on childrens masks could probably count as an innovation, just trying to find the right grownup masks are more likely to leave you stymied.
There are masks for people with glasses, with mint and herbal aromas, with extra filtering, and with moisturizing pads. Masks actually moisturize the air that you breathe by keeping the air that you just breathed out close to your face. Moisturizing pads are usually less necessary, but one innovation still missing from the market is masks that channel away the snot from your nose when it is runny. If you have a runny nose cold, the inside of the mask can get pretty icky pretty fast. Not that this stops a Japanese salaryman, especially when there may be important meetings about the format of documentation.
Killing viruses: Poison and violence
Killing viruses (or virii, for all Latin sticklers out there) is not very different from killing humans. You apply a little poison and a considerable amount of violence, and the virus goes to the happy hunting grounds. Well, it may be debatable if it was alive in the first place, of course.
The amount of violence that it takes to kill something microscopic is very small, however. Your three-year old child will be able to excert sufficient force - when they wash their hands. The combination of the rubbing action and the soap is really deadly to germs, especially if you carefully wash away any residue. So make sure your kids wash their hands, not just at the end of the day, but also before meals and after playing in the dirt. There is usually a separate wash stand outside the toilets in Japanese restaurants, even in McDonalds.
Crowded train epidemics
There is always an extra peak in the influenza epidemics after the new years holidays. When kids go back to daycare the viruses they may have been carrying mutate to adapt to the new hosts, and when the parents crowd onto the commuter trains, they are sure to be sprayed with viruses.
I have written before about the daily travel rythm of Tokyo, and why you want to avoid bringing your kids onto the trains in rush hour. The risk of getting the flu is just one additional reason. When people litteraly are packed together tighter than sardines in a can, unable to move either hands or feet, one sneeze will infect tens of people. Including your children, if you managed tosqueeze them on board.
The lobby hand sanitizers
One thing that will help you kill viruses, although on your own hands rather than those of your kids, are the bottles of hand sanitizer you will find in the lobbies of hotels, office buildings, and in many stores. Just push the dispenser once and a small shower of rubbing alcohol comes out. Do not use it on your kids; while this is not drinking alcohol, the sting can be unpleasant. Especially if they rub it in their eyes.
Those bottles are a fairly recent addition to the Japanese virus-killing arsenal. There used to be nothing in the lobbies and stores, but the bottles were introduced after the 2011 Great Northeastern Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Outside of Japan, it may be better remembered as the cause of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster. But following the disaster, companies and government offices started putting out bottles of hand sanitizer in their lobbies. Initially it was intended to ward off far worse epidemics, but the hand sanitizers proved so effective in reducing sick leave that they stayed.
An opening at the garglery
You may wonder what gargling has to do on the list of preventive measures, but it is very simple. The virus attaches to themembranes of the nose, throat, and mouth. There, they take over the cells of your body, making them produce more viruses in the process.
That is why a runny nose is a good thing when you have a cold, and why the influenza virus is more prevalent in winter. Winter in Japan means the air is dry, which is why you can see mt Fuji from Tokyo. There is no haze, because it freezes out in the cold air.
When the air is moist there is a constant lubrication of the membranes in your breathing apparatus. When the air is dry this does not happen. That is why a runny nose makes it harder for viruses to stick - and why gargling is effective. Always drink a lot (of water) when you are out, and gargle when you come home.
What do do to protect yourself from the flu
So let me sum up what you should do to protect yourself from the flu:
* Get vaccinated (it worked for two of our three kids!)
* Wear a mask when in public places
* Wash your hands often with soap and water
* Do not re-use the same towel to wipe your hands and your childrens faces, use paper towels
* Gargle when you get "home".
* Avoid rush-hour trains
This was part of my ongoing coverage about life in Japan. I have written about safety for tourists in Japan, what you should plan for your budget, how to figure out where to stay, how to buy diapers and other baby supplies, what and where to eat with your kids, ten foods your kids will love in Japan, how to cope with winter, how to use a laundromat, and how to avoid insect bites (and when you need to do it).
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You may not be old enough to remember, but there was a time when the air in Tokyo was so polluted that there were oxygen vending machines in the streetcorners. Japan was drowning in household garbage, since the small islands have limited space for landfill - in particular landfill that pollutes by runoff into the groundwater, smells and attracts noxious birds. The traffic was so bad that it could take several hours to get from one part of the city center to another. And all those cars would create even more pollution.
Today, Japan is well on its way to meet the Paris targets for carbon dioxide pollution, and the country could become a fossil-free economy if the governement worked a little harder on it. All households recycle plastics, glass, and metal, and household garbage incineration generates hot water and electricity. Most people take the train or subway when they want to go somewhere.
The air is clean and breathable, except when there is a dust storm from China or the Japanese cedars are flowering. There are so many of them in the mountains surrounding Tokyo that the pollen becomes like a dust cloud. But in winter, you can see mt Fuji from almost anywhere in Tokyo.
Quiet and poop-free
.But even though Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, it is also one of the cleanest. Even though dogs outnumber children (by some counts two to one or more), it is rare to see dog poo anywhere outside the dog exercise compounds in the parks, and even there the owners pick it up. There is hardly any grafitti (it is considered a crime, although sometimes the grafitti remains for months in unmonitored places). There is only occasional littering, even though there are no public wastebaskets.
And it is quiet. Noise is a kind of pollution but you do not have to go far from the main streets of any neighborhood in Tokyo at night for it to be as quiet as a boreal forest, the occasional cyclist.
The main reason that Tokyo is such an ecologically successful city despite its size rests on two things: strict regulations and an eco-conscious population. And this is also how you notice the eco-consciousness as a visitor.
The most noticeable thing is the lack of public wastepaper baskets. You have to carry your garbage with you either until you get "home" or until you come to one of the few places with wastepaper baskets. There are public wastepaper baskets in some parks, in the train and subway stations, and in some convenience stores.
Triple wastepaper baskets
There used to be wastepaper baskets outside all convenience stores, where you could throw away the packaging of the things you just bought, or the bento trays after eating. But in many places they have moved them inside the stores, because people threw away their household trash. In Japan, garbage is collected on alternate days, so you have to keep your trash at home until the pickup day comes.
That does not apply to diapers (or nappies) which are not recyclable no matter what you do with them. There are usually plastic bags and wastepaper baskets in the changing rooms, but not always. That is why you need to carry a few plastic bags of your own, so you can put your trash there and tie it shut when you are done with the change. Even if it is tempting you should not throw it away in the convenience store or train station wastebaskets. Especially not in summer. You can imagine yourself what it will smell like.
There will usually be at least three wastepaper baskets in a row, which are used for sorting garbage. All garbage in Japan is sorted in at least burnable and plastics. In addition the PET bottles and cans are sorted separately, and often glass bottles as well. The train station wastebaskets usually have a separate wastepaper basket for newspapers and magazines, especially the incredibly popular manga comic books that people read on the train. Those are often fished out by people who resell them from streetcorner stalls for 100 yen or less.
Use it till it breaks
Japan has a long tradition of re-use and resource stewardship. To mend things and use them until they have broken so badly that they can not be used anymore is common, but so is throwing away things that are no longer wanted. But the perception of what is old and what is broken is not necessarily the same as yours. At times, things that may be considered completely new are thrown away. Often they end up in the recycling stores, if they can be reused.
Mottainai means no waste
It begins at home, where children are told that the "mottainaimonster" will come if they waste water, or heat, or cold, or other things. "Mottainai" translates as "wasteful" and is very negative when it comes to household economy, although it does not really apply on the macro plane (to things like bridges to nowhere and airports on uninhabited islands). But not wasting is a virtue in Japan, although it is always subsumed by the goals of the activity. If you have a goal to achieve a certain amount of waste is allowed, and if the goal is to entertain, expected.
Not wasting, including time
Not wasting means not wasting time as well, which is one reason trains always run on time. To consider your neighbor and their resources is the oil that makes the gears of the Japanese society revolve and makes sure that things do not come to a screeching stop. That includes time. To waste the time of other people is frowned upon, so as a tourist you will be appreciated if you make your questions easy to answer and if you do not ramble along but come to the point quickly. While people will take a long time to become visibly frustrated, they will be seething inside that you are taking advantage of their kindness and wasting their time.
This was one part of my ongoing series about daily life in Tokyo. I have written about how you buy diapers as a parent, how and where to buy other baby supplies, how to get around in Tokyo taking the train, how to use a laundromat in Japan, how you can get your tax back when you go shopping, and what foods in Japanese supermarkets your kids will love. And answers to 20 common questions about traveling with children in Japan.
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Did you know you can get the tax back on the diapers you buy in Japan - and then some? It is one of the perks you can enjoy as a foreign visitor.
The stores that will give you tax back have a special red sticker in the windows. Usually you have to spend over a certain amount, which can vary from 30 USD to 300 USD. You will have to fill in a special form that declares you will not resell the goods you have bought, and that you are not living in Japan and are not buying for someone living in Japan. And you will have to show your passport, so be sure to bring it.
Make sure to get all the tax back
When you shop you either get the tax free price right away, or the store will give you the tax back. If you shop in a mall you can package all the items together. In that case, you need to seal them in the same bag as other items. Normally, only consumable items need to be sealed in special bags.
Be careful to only shop in stores that actually give you the full 8% back. Some will not give you all the tax back.
Additional social discount
Some stores will give you an additional discount if you show your passport. Others, like Matsumoto Kiyoshi (at least some stores) give you an extra 5% on top of the 8 % tax back if you sign up for their social media channel. And I just got an offer for a 7% off cupon from BIC Camera when I rented a car.
Other stores have a similar offer. This means you can buy a package of diapers for 1100 yen instead of 1500 yen. Even more if they have a discount offer. And it may be even more if they have a special offer. Check before you shop.
An extra tip is to buy gift cards in a ticket store and pay with them. Gift cards is a very common gift in Japan but sometimes people want to cash in on the full amount rather than buy piecemeal. So they sell the gift cards. Sometimes companies also ask employees to buy gift cards before the end of the fiscal year to increase turnover, and give the employees a discount, and they will sell them instead of using them.
You buy the gift cards in the ticket shops that also sell concert tickets, train tickets and other tickets of all types. The ticket stores buy the gift cards at maybe 10% off face value and sell them at 95% of face value. So if you buy gift cards and pay with them you get a 5% additional discount.
The 5% additional discount
Just check in advance that the store takes the kind of gift card you want to pay with. An additional 5% takes an additional 50 yen off your packet of diapers, which may not soung much but if you buy something else than diapers which takes less space in your suitcase than diapers, you can get 50 dollars off your 1100 dollar purchase.
If you have a credit card that gives you an additional discount or cash back, check if you can use it to pay for the gift cards. That will give you an additional discount an in addition of course the airline points you are no doubt collecting for your next Japan trip.
The department stores take most kinds of gift cards. And they have desks with English speakers to help you.
Did you enjoy this post? It is one in a series of posts about shopping in Japan. I already covered buying baby supplies in Japan, how to shop for diapers in Tokyo, and what to but to prepare for the Japanese winter.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.