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Put yourself in my gourmet moccasins for just a moment. Imagine the fridge in your tiny Japanese hovel is empty, save for an ancient jar of kimchi, some Dijon mustard and a couple of eggs. Either you rustle up a freakish Franco-Korean omelet, or hit the road bound for the nearest konbini —  Japanese for convenience store. More than just a mini-mart, the konbini is a life-saving oasis that features an almost overwhelming array of snacks, light meals, and alcohol that appeals to locals and tourists alike. They are also a testament to the rich diversity of potato chips, with a good 30 kinds on the shelves at any given moment.

 

Maybe more importantly a conbini the only place you can go at 2 am to buy a Melty Kiss—a brandy and orange-peel flavored mini-chocolate bar that melts at a glance. That can be tough on your white gloves in the summer, but luckily in March the weather is still a bit cool.

Konbini on the city outskirts often feature a parking lot that hosts red-haired, teenage construction workers squatting on their hams, drinking cheap ersatz beer and smoking vile Hope or Peace cigarettes. It’s their home away from home, but that’s another story.

 

I needed a Melty Kiss, its true, but what I really came for was a nikuman—(niku = meat and man is short for manju; a filled bun) an elusive seasonal delight that shows up in October and disappears around April. A classic Chinese nikuman is a steamed, yeast-risen, wheaten bun; usually filled with lightly seasoned minced pork.

 

But this is Japan and “classic” is just a point of departure for creative bun-stuffers. We have pizzaman with cheese and tomato sauce, curryman stuffed with curried stodge--they even have sweet ones filled with pastry cream or red beans.

 

Now that I’ve got you interested in tasting one of these delights, I’ll have to break the bad news. These buns are nearly unobtainable. Just as toast always lands buttered side down, the steamer case in which the various buns reside is always either empty or full of frozen buns being slowly heated.  On occasion you may see a lonely bun or two sitting neglected in the case. Don’t get your hopes up. These will inevitably turn out to be an unloved squidheadman or chickenfootman.  No one can be sure where the buns go once warmed.

 

On my last visit to 7-11, the steamer case tauntingly advertised a “baked deli tacoman.” I was able to stay calm in the face of such obvious provocation because it was clear that nobody on the material plane would have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever savoring a baked deli tacoman.

 

There were exactly two buns on display — a premium nikuman and a pizzaman. I asked the cashier for a nikuman and she asked, “A premium nikuman for 167 yen?” I asked from behind my gritted teeth if there were any other nikuman option. She sheepishly admitted there was not.

 

If you haven’t yet had a konbini nikuman, I urge you not to get started. Stick to the curry donuts or the always available creamy egg-salad sandwich on squishy white bread. You’ll thank me some day.

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