What would life in Japan be without combinis? Ask residents of the city of Wakkanai in Hokkaido, who’ve had to remain content with a single convenience store chain. Fortunately, that changed this week as Lawson finally moved into town – and drew a big crowd for its grand opening.
Wakkanai is a city of 31,255 people in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. It also happens to be Japan’s northernmost city. (The part to the east of Wakkanai is uninhabited.) The city’s name comes from the Ainu language (yam-wakka-nay) and means “river of cold water”.
Never been to Wakkanai? Your best bet for getting there would be a flight from Wakkanai Airport (WKJ), just about 1 hour and 50 minutes from Tokyo. But be warned – the airport is frequently known to shut down during the cold winter months, in which case traffic is diverted to Asahikawa. You can also travel to Wakkanai from Sapporo by bus, which will take you about five hours.
Once there, you can check out the area’s natural beauty and attractions. The top selling point? Cape Souya, the literal end of Japan, from which you can see the Russian Sakhalin Island.
If you go, you’ll be in good company: Close to 400,000 people visit Wakkanai every six months, including (before the travel lockdown) over 12,000 foreign tourists.
Seico Mart – and nothing else
Those who live in Wakkanai laud the city for its close-knit community and its sense of separation from the worst parts of Japanese life in a big city.
“It’s a happier life than living with the absurdity of laboring for a big-city ‘black’ company that doesn’t carry unemployment or accident insurance,” writes the author of the (now defunct) Souya Journal blog on Yahoo! Answers. “The salaries are low but so is the cost of living, so you don’t feel life is as stressful relative to life in Tokyo.”
However, being located in such an extremely isolated location has its disadvantages. I wrote a couple of months ago about how one Okinawan island has been left high and dry after its only Docomo cell phone store closed.
Wakkanai has felt that inconvenience as well. Until this month, the only combini chain in the city was Seico Mart. (Seico Mart was one of Japan’s first combini chains but now trails a distant 5th behind 7-11, Lawson, Family Mart, and Mini Stop.) After that, the next closest convenience store chain was 100 kilometers away.
They came from as far away as Sapporo
Fortunately for the residents of Wakkanai, that changed this week with the opening of two new Lawson convenience stores. The stores on Sakae 5-chome and Komadori 5-chome opened at 8am on August 1st – and already had 100 people waiting outside to enter. Lawson marked the openings with a ribbon cutting from the deputy mayor and the sale of grab bags (福袋; fukubukuro).
The opening didn’t just draw people from Wakkanai either. One man told Hokkdai News that he drove all the way from Sapporo – about a five-hour drive – to help celebrate.
The stores mark a record for Lawson, as they’re now the chain’s northernmost locations. Before this, the northernmost Lawson was 160km away in Omucho.
By contrast, the northernmost 7-11 is in Bifukacho, some 140km away from Wakkanai. And the northernmost Family Mart is a solid four-hour drive away in Takikawa.
So why the lack of other convenience store chains in Wakkanai? Lawson told the press that the main blocker was supply chain concerns – i.e., getting goods, such as fresh-made sandwiches, to Wakkanai even when the weather turns terrible.
Recently, Lawson launched in-store kitchens where employees can make sandwiches and other fresh food on premises. That gave the company the confidence that it could keep its new Wakkanai locations stocked.
Experts don’t expect the Lawsons to effect the city’s Seico Mart much and see them living more or less in harmony with Lawson. And with the arrival of Lawson, the citizens of Wakkanai are now dreaming of bigger things. As one person put it:
“If 7-11 comes next, Wakkanai will join the ranks of the big cities.”
What to read next
北海道・稚内にローソン開店 「市民の悲願」2店に100人行列. Mainichi Shimbun
令和4年度 上期観光入込客数 調査表. City of Wakkanai
“日本最北”稚内市にローソンがやってきた！ 店舗の広さは通常の約1.4倍 冬の悪天候に備え物流見直しバックヤードは約3倍. Hokkaido News UHB