Watch any travel program on Japanese television, or pick up any travel magazine in the local bookstore, and you will soon realize that sampling is the local cuisine is a major focus for anyone travelling in Japan. A good meal is second only to a long soak in a hot spring as the defining highlight of a holiday away from home, and in this, the average Japanese tourist has much in common with cyclists.
For many Westerners food is more of a necessity, something which has to be dealt with unfortunately, like brushing the teeth in the morning. Well, one must drink and eat, if only not to bonk on the way up the hills. Luckily Japan has many different options to deal pleasantly with these types of problems.
Unless one connects a trailer to a bike, one can hardly bring enough water in bottles to ride a full day in the blazing sun during the months of July and August. Luckily Japan is blessed with an incredibly dense network of 24 hour convenience stores (“Conbini,” for short) so that buying food and drinks anywhere and anytime is not really an issue. In summer 2009 there were more than 42.000 convenience stores open in Japan; more than a quarter operated by 7-Eleven (12.300), followed by Lawson (9.500) and Family Mart (7.500). These three offer the best variety of goods in our opinion and, because of sophisticated logistics, the shelves are almost always full with all items on their menu. Circle K, Sunkus, Ministop, Daily Yamazaki, AM/PM, Shop99, Popular, Three-F, Community Store and HotSpar are one rank down but still a viable alternative if it comes to the purchase of simple drinks and food items. There are also smaller regional convenience chain stores plus the odd independently operated store which cannot really compete with the “smart” ones.
“Smart convenience stores" offer everything you need for your daily life within a minimum of space. All purchases are tracked and analyzed so that the operating companies can respond very quickly to the changing needs of their customers and supply exactly the required quantities that are sold at any location. It is amazing to wander around in a Combini and to realize how few things one really needs to live. And that we basically all need the same basic stuff.
Apart from being open for 24 hour and having all kind of ready-to-eat food and drinks available, Conbini offer other enticements to lure the weary cyclist: The ones outside of the urban zones mostly have a clean toilet (Japanese or Western style) plus tap water to fill your water bottles. The better ones, especially the big three, do also have bank ATMs so that you can withdraw money from almost every Japanese bank account on the spot. You can rely on this service for app. 360 days a year, but there are times when bank ATMs issue cash only for accounts of the banks they are operated by. This is usually the case during New Year, Golden Week and Obon summer holidays when the cash trucks cannot come quickly enough to replenish the reserves.
The main attraction, however, is the wide variety of ready-to-eat food and drinks. Apart from rice balls, bread, burritos, salads, noodles and sweets there are many more items to sample; many can be cooked on the spot, either in the microwave or with boiling water available by the cash register. Fried food, Chinese steamed buns and even “oden” (the stuff that broils on 7-Eleven counters and gives the store it's distinguish odor) also feature on the menu.
Conbini also sell energy bars and sport gels, although don’t expect to find the familiar brands from back home. Soyjoy, made from soy beans, is the dominant brand these days, although the amount of joy they impart is debatable. Drug stores and sport shops tend to have a bigger selection and cheaper prices but may be harder to find on a cycling trip.
Various brands of soft drinks and water can also be easily purchased at the convenience stores, however with an average price of 150 Yen for the typical 0.5l PET bottle, they are much more expensive than in supermarkets.
Finally a word of caution: Don’t be appointed, if your favorite snack of drink isn’t sold any more. Apart from some classic items, the average product shelve life seems to be less than three months. Japan as a consumer market is famous for fast product cycles and ever changing new products.
VENDING MACHINES Can one travel from the very South to the very North of Japan without encountering a vending machine every single kilometer of the journey? It is hard to believe when one lives in Tokyo, but vending machines get rarer out there in the country side. The stories about vending machines are legend, selling everything from soft drinks, cigarettes, hot food, vegetables, comic books to porno magazines and used schoolgirl’s underwear. In 2007 there were about 5.4 million vending machines operated in Japan, about half of them selling drinks and food.
The soft drink vending machines, or “Jidohanbaiki” as they are called in Japanese are operated by the major soft drink brands which are Coca Cola Japan, Suntory, Otsuka, Asahi, Itoen, Calpis and Dydo. They offer a wide variety of drinks, classical soft drinks, sport drinks as well as water, green tea and canned coffee. There is something there for every taste although Dydo makes it a little bit more difficult than other makers.
Sometimes they have red and blue colored fields around the bottoms where you can select a drink: They are standing for HOT (red) and COLD (blue) as some coffees and teas can be bought in both variations. As a rule of thumb, most 0.3 liter cans sell in the range of 120 Yen, the 0.5l PET bottles in the range of 150 Yen. Most vending machines accept not only coins but also 1,000 Yen bills and provide change. A red indication “売切” at the bottom means “sold out” so you need to select another drink or push the return change bottom.
Supermarkets are also a good choice to buy food and drinks, but much more rare then convenience stores. The big ones, such as Ito Yokado, Daiei or Seiyu are a little bit too big to just drop in and buy something, but they are much cheaper the Conbini. Smaller supermarkets, in particular those in villages out in the countryside have a much smaller variety of food and drinks to sell and they are mostly catering to people who tend to prepare the food in their kitchen. Normally, for example, you will not find ready-made sandwiches there, but you can still stock up on soft drinks, chocolate, biscuits, ice cream, and various Japanese snacks such as dried squid or rice crackers, should the fancy take you.
Another alternative are bakeries, which are often found near railway stations. Beside bread and pastry, many also sell sandwiches, soft drinks, yoghurt and other food so you can get everything you need in one place. Some are really good, like the famous Aurora bakery in front of Ome station or the Shirokuma Pan bakery in Chichibu which draws a lot of cyclists to its doors.
FAST FOOD CHAINS
There are much less Mosburgers, McDonalds, Lotteria, First Kitchen, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and others out there in the countryside. The main advantage is that you will know exactly what you get and that there are no surprises.
One can expect “ramen” (noodles), soba (buckwheat noodles), or small country restaurants known as “shokudo” in every corner in the countryside. The obvious disadvantage of restaurants are that it may be hard to order if you cannot speak or read Japanese, they are more expensive than the local supermarket, and they will take longer to serve your food. Some shops draw long lines of customers waiting outside. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is excellent, but that the shop is famous.
However, the quality of the food is almost always good to excellent. As everywhere, people in the countryside are much friendlier than city folks and will help you to navigate through the menu even without speaking English.
Ramen shops serve Chinese style noodles in a pork broth, with soy sauce, miso, or other flavorings. Soba restaurants focus on Japanese-style buckwheat noodles served in dashi, a seafood and soy sauce broth. Both ramen shops and soba shops, as well as shokudo, may also serve a variety of rice-based dishes and teishoku, or “set meals”, such as breaded pork cutlets, fried chicken, curry rice (Japanese style), tempura, and stews.
MICHI NO EKI
Literally “Stations of the Road” are locally operated shops clustered in one place along spots of some vague touristic value. One of the bigger examples is located along Road 411 Doshi Michi. Yes, you can find something to eat there but their main purpose is to sell local specialties (think about hand beaten raw soba noodles, or mushrooms) to tourists who need to buy presents for those left back at home. So unless you want to buy 12 Chinese cream buns in an expensive wrapping for the back pocket of your jersey these places might be a little bit disappointing.
WATER FOUNTAINS AND TAPS
Water fountains are less frequent, but can be found at public parks and train stations. There are also water taps at public restrooms at parks. Note however, that in some of these locations the water is not for drinking. There will also be signs to that effect, but in Japanese only. The rest areas at Nokogiriyama,, Matsuhime lakes Yabitsu pass, and Matsuhime pass are good examples. In case of Matsuhime, a nice diagram shows how the drained liquids from the toilet are recycled on the spot and supplied again from the water pipes. So unless you want to have the residue liquids from other cyclists and hikers in your water bottle, stay away from these taps.
Many times when riding in the mountains, you will ride along a river or at least hear the sound of flowing water close to you. There are many natural fountains in the countryside and for example on the North side of Yabitsu pass and before Yamabushi pass in Chichibu there are quite famous fountains where people stand in line with plastic canisters to take the fresh and tasty water home. Many times when we have ran out of water we have resorted to such fountains and so far we haven’t had any problems. It is of course safer to buy bottled water.
A good strategy for riding out is to have one or two full water bottles plus some energy bars and/or energy jelly in the back pocket for emergency cases. Eating in two to three hour intervals is a good idea if you would like to stay in form through longer rides. So when you ride a new road and you have nothing left but your last reserves, it is always a good idea to buy at least some food if you see a Conbini. Most conbinis, restaurants etc. tend to be concentrated along villages or major road crossings and there is very little in between. Buy something immediately and don’t wait for something better to come. Once you feel more confident with the area where you ride and you know where you can buy food supplies you can rely on your reserves.
Water and Drinks is a little bit less problematic due to the overwhelming presence of vending machines. But again, there are roads, for example forest roads out there, which are beautiful and tranquil and without any cars so the chances that you are found dehydrated the next day are very slim. So better replenish your reserves when you have time and opportunities – it can be very hard to run out of water in summer.