The convenience store, or “conbini” in Japan, is an essential part of daily life for those living, working, or traveling around the country. Often open 24 hours a day, Seven-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart are as convenient as advertised, selling snacks, drinks, and pre-prepared meals of high quality, alongside stationery, and even clothing.
However convenient and amazing convenient stores are, however, many food options in the convenience store are not vegan or vegetarian. It is also rare to find foods that are organic, gluten-free, or products for those with food allergies or sensitivities.
This article covers some vegan-friendly options present at convenience stores and how to find them; however, keep in mind it is very difficult to determine what is 100% vegan and what is not.
Vegan-friendly Onigiri Rice Balls
Plain white rice balls and rice balls filled with pickled plum or kelp tend to be a favorite of many vegetarians and vegans in Japan. These three varieties often do not contain any primary ingredients that are derived from fish or meat and are sold at all convenience stores.
However, the exact ingredients used depends on the store and the food processing plant the product comes from. There is no guarantee that the dashi or preservatives used do not contain animal products.
Soymilk and plant-based milk
There are usually at least a few varieties of soymilk and plant-based milk available at convenience stores in Japan. The most common you will find is soymilk, although there is a handful of almond milk and oat milk options, too.
Many sweetened or flavor-adjusted beverages contain white sugar and emulsifiers, calcium lactate, fragrance, and stabilizers, that may or may not be vegan-friendly. Honey (蜂蜜) is sometimes used as a sweetener, too.
For this reason, it is best to stick with plain, unsweetened soymilk if you are unsure, and try clearly-labeled vegan options when you come across them.
The most common unsweetened soymilk you will see is Kikkoman’s unsweetened, unadjusted soymilk: 無調整豆乳 (pictured in the middle of the photo above). It costs around 100 yen for a small 200ml serving and less than 300 yen for a 1,000ml carton.
Edamame, Plain Nuts, and Fruit
If you’re searching for some snacks, stick to plain, whole foods.
Ready-to-eat edamame is sold in a triangular shape at Seven-Eleven and most convenience stores.
You can find 75-80 gram bags of assorted nuts (think peanuts, walnuts, almonds, and cashews) for less than 400 yen. If you want to avoid salt, oils, and possibly non-vegan flavorants added to the nuts, choose the unsalted kind (無塩 or 食塩不使用 will be on the package).
Fresh bananas, apples, and other fruit will be located in the conbini’s small selection of fresh produce. Be aware that most fruit will be wrapped at least once in plastic.
The red bean paste buns, french fries, and hash browns located near the cash register of convenience stores tend to be vegan-friendly. However, sweeteners and oils used in these items may or may not be 100% vegan. Before you make your decision, is recommended to check with the staff on the ingredients or directly with the manufacturer to be completely sure.
Tips for shopping at Japanese convenience stores
Keep the following in mind when at a convenience store in Japan.
- Always inspect the back of the food label. Salads may look meat-free and/or contain tofu or soy products–however, accompanying this is usually animal-based ingredients, whether in the dressing flavoring or hidden amongst the vegetables
- Bread sold will contain dairy products 99% of the time.
- Rice balls (onigiri) and most food products often use a dashi broth containing bonito fish.
- White sugar processed with bone char is used as a sweetener 99% of the time in food products.
- Food processing factories that supply convenience stores change their ingredients frequently and without notice: something that is “accidentally” vegan today could contain fish or meat byproducts in it tomorrow.
- Food labeling laws in Japan are not strict when it comes to which types of broths or seasoning are used. For example, “dashi broth” (だし) is often written on food labels, but the type of dashi remains a mystery: it could contain only kelp (昆布, こんぶ), but it could (and usually does) contain a mixture of kelp and bonito fish (鰹, かつお). There is no way to tell except by calling the manufacturer of the food product.
- Natural Lawson, a branch of the popular Lawson convenience store chain, sells natural and organic food and snacks, and will have a better selection of plant-based foods than other convenience stores.