Japanese konbini (convenience stores) have been a central part of life for 36-year-old Michael Markey (based in Toyama Prefecture) and 34-year-old Matthew Savas (based in Boston, though he previously lived in Ishikawa Prefecture and Yokohama). The two Americans examine all things quick-service on their podcast, “Conbini Boys.”
1. How did you first end up in Japan?
Savas: I originally went as part of a study abroad program in college, and after I graduated I went back through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme.
Markey: I came on JET too, about 13 years ago, so right out of college. JET is where we met; we were both in Ishikawa.
2. What was your first meeting like?
Markey: Matt came in, and he was completely sunburned. Like he had been in the sun for years! He was telling a story about how it happened, but Matt has a really dry sense of humor, and I had never met someone like that, so I couldn’t tell if he was serious, but he was like, “I was with the mayor all day playing golf, and I won a prime rib.”
Savas: It was one of the most bizarre days of my life, and Mike thought it was funny. We became friends after that.
3. Could you share this story with us, Matt?
Savas: I had just arrived in Japan, and during festival season my supervisor was taking me and my coworker out to enjoy the festival and pop into all these homes to eat tons of food and drink. At the last house we visited, I sat next to a guy who happened to be the mayor and was also a dentist. I didn’t speak much Japanese then, but I shared that my dad was a dentist, too. So we started talking, and then he found out I played golf, so he said, “I want you to come play golf with me next weekend.” I was like, “Right, that’s not real,” but sure enough I ended up spending the day playing golf with the mayor.
It was terrible! It was the mayor and his buddy, and they were chain-smoking (in the car) the whole way down — windows up — I could barely breathe. And then it was like 90 degrees Fahrenheit (about 32 degrees Celsius) outside. I was like a rotisserie chicken out there.
4. What was your first konbini experience?
Markey: I was in Ishikawa, and right in front of the school I was teaching at was a Circle K, which has since merged with FamilyMart. I remember the smell of the oden box, and being like, “This is not a smell I know.”
5. Some people believe oden boxes should be removed. Do you agree?
Markey: I think it’s a staple. If it wasn’t there anymore, it would feel barren.
Savas: It really speaks to the Japanese love of seasonality: It’s winter time, time for oden. Grab what’s floating.
6. What do you guys do outside of podcasting?
Markey: I’ve been doing web development for a while now, and recently I started a new job in Tokyo but work remotely from Toyama.
Savas: I work for a nonprofit that does a lot of education and consulting publications on management and business management.
7. What’s a normal hang-out session between the two of you like?
Savas: We talk a lot about konbini, we’ve recently been playing a golfing video game, so we’ll hit the links on PlayStation. A couple times a year — pre-pandemic — I would get out to Japan for work, so I go to Ishikawa and Mike tours me around. Costco is a big stop for us.
8. How did the podcast come together?
Markey: We just always loved talking about konbini. At first we thought maybe we’d do a YouTube or something, but that was actually right as the pandemic was starting. We were indoors and already talking, so it came naturally.
9. A recurring item on your show is FamilyMart’s Famichiki (boneless fried chicken). Do you remember your first time trying it?
Savas: Mike has been my konbini mentor — still is, I’d say. I was avoiding the hot box (at the front of the store by the cash), except for the nikuman (steamed meat buns).
I remember sitting in the parking lot of a FamilyMart biting into the Famichiki — it was so juicy it actually sprayed my glasses.
Markey: The amount of juice that’s inside there … you bite it, like Matt said, and it just explodes. I just think it’s one of the great wonders of the world. Maybe that’s going a little too far.
10. How does a typical episode of the podcast come together?
Savas: We have a standardized agenda: We have the “chiki wars,” we have the scoreboard where we look at new items, and Mike usually has reviews. And then we try to have a lead story.
11. What’s the best konbini-related story you’ve encountered so far?
Savas: The ongoing battle between Mitoshi Matsumoto and Seven-Eleven. A court ruled that he can’t keep his franchise because he broke his contract, but Seven-Eleven can’t take the store back so he has a shell of a Seven-Eleven he continues to operate. Most recently, Seven-Eleven responded by building a new Seven-Eleven in this guy’s parking lot, since they own the land. It’s wild.
12. You ran a konbini tournament to determine the best convenience store item earlier this spring, allowing people on Twitter to vote in each round. Any unusual results?
Savas: I was really shocked that fresh coffee is so popular. I was very sad to see that because I’m such a big fan of canned coffee.
13. What has surprised you about doing “Conbini Boys”?
Markey: We originally started the podcast thinking that the audience would be visitors to Japan. The biggest thing to me is I didn’t realize how much people would care.
14. What’s the best konbini?
Savas: For me it’s FamilyMart because of the Famichiki. I just really love it. That said, I’ve been learning a lot about konbini doing the show. If I was in Japan tomorrow, the store I’d most like to visit is Ministop because of its ice cream and Halohalo action.
Markey: For me it’s probably FamilyMart, even though I’ve been veering toward Lawson a lot recently.
15. What’s your last meal on Earth, if you can only pick items from a konbini?
Markey: I’d get a Famichiki and a nikuman. I’d get a meat sauce pasta. And since this is my last night on Earth, I’d get two tall boy chūhai. Not the most well-rounded meal, but to be honest I’ve had it probably 100 times.
16. Anthony Bourdain rhapsodized about the Japanese konbini egg sandwich — does it live up to the hype?
Markey: We’re going to differ on this. I think it’s the real deal.
Savas: I don’t like it. I worked at a bakery/deli in college, and I used to make egg salad from scratch. There’s just something gross about tipping that gallon of mayonnaise into those freshly boiled eggs, mashing it together with my plastic-covered hands … it’s probably just that memory that keeps me from liking it.
17. What’s a food or flavor you hate?
Savas: For me it’s mentaiko (spicy cod roe). I hate the flavor, I hate the texture. I like other fish eggs, but I really dislike mentaiko. I’m not a fan of FamilyMart’s recent mentaiko-meets-chicken offerings.
Markey: It’s not a flavor, but I don’t really like the neba-neba (sticky) things.
18. What are your thoughts on American convenience stores?
Markey: I have some fun memories of going to 7-Eleven to get a Slurpee. But in terms of food, not so much. I feel this is something we need to export internationally.
19. How do you sell someone on the Japanese konbini experience?
Savas: I think going right to the hot box, the thing that scares people the most about an American convenience store. I heard from my mom the other day that she wants to go to Japan just to have a Famichiki. I’ve convinced my mom that konbini are great because of boneless fried chicken.
20. How would you improve the konbini experience?
Markey: The konbini, especially in rural areas, plays such an important role in the general infrastructure and backbone of society. Students go there, people eat there before going to work, the elderly like the convenience and in some cases that’s all they have in terms of getting groceries. I think they should nationalize konbini, but still give them the ability to be as creative and free as they are right now. I do think there’s something unique about how essential konbini are to Japanese society.
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