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.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - 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.