Where has all the oden gone? Long time passing…

Ever since 2007, 22 February has been celebrated as Oden Day by people who follow obscure Japanese holidays. We here at SoraNews proudly stand among these people and were excited to do something to mark this special occasion.

The reason for this date is that the number two can be pronounced as “fu” in Japanese, so 22/2 can sound like “fu-fu-fu” as if someone were cooling the piping hot stewed foods by blowing on them. And with electric pots full of fresh oden being a classic fixture of Japanese convenience stores, our ace reporter Mr. Sato thought it might be fun to see which store had the hottest.

▼ The oden spread at a 7-Eleven circa 2014

However, when discussing it with his colleagues someone mentioned that it seemed like convenience stores stopped selling fresh oden a while ago. Mr. Sato had never really thought about it, but realized that he hadn’t seen one in a while either.

To get a clearer picture, he decided to go around to all the convenience stores near the office and see if they were selling oden. There were 13 in total, consisting of four major chains 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, and Ministop.

▼ You’re never far from a convenience store in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood.

Among them, there was only one Ministop location and it had no oden pot in front of the register. However, they did sell some pre-cooked, packaged oden sold under the retail behemoth Aeon’s store brand Top Valu.

There were three Lawson stores along his route and none of them had oden pots either. Only one of them sold packaged oden, but one of the stores was a Lawson Store 100 which is a bit of a cross between a 100-yen store and a grocer’s so they did sell the ingredients for oden, for whatever that’s worth.

Of the four 7-Elevens Mr. Sato came across there was zilch in terms of fresh oden. Three of the stores had their own brand of pre-cooked oden in a cup and the last one didn’t even have that.

Family Mart ended up as the only store carrying the classic oden pot torch. However, of the five locations Mr. Sato visited, only two had fresh oden near the registers. Two other Family Marts only had packaged oden and one had nothing.

Granted, this was a very small sampling of the vast number of convenience stores across the country. However, I did a similar survey of all the convenience stores within a one-kilometer radius of my corner of Osaka, and of the three Lawsons, five 7-Elevens, and four Family Marts, only one Family Mart had an oden pot at the counter. Interestingly, the little tables that used to hold the oden trays and condiments were all still there but instead had small cakes or daily specials on display.

One might logically assume that these often-uncovered, moist, communal serving dishes were a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the truth is they were marked for death years before the disease appeared. As the major convenience stores underwent a period of explosive expansion in Japan around the early 2010s, the costs of preparing oden and cleaning the trays were proving to be increasingly burdensome.

These stores we’re also introducing fresh-brewed coffee machines which quickly became popular with people who wanted something in between fancier coffee shop offerings and canned coffee. Around this time, the Krispy Kreme boom had died down and donut chain Mister Donut was making business headlines for raking it in in the Japanese donut market.

Almost in unison, the major convenience stores seemed to realize that they already had the coffee, so why not tap into the lucrative donut market too? This triggered a fierce period of competition known as the “Donut War” (Donatsu Senso) in which all the major convenience stores and Mister Donut vied to be THE place for donuts.

▼ A convenience store donut case circa 2016

Anyone who went to a major Japanese convenience store around 2016 might have remembered a big display case of donuts near the register while the cashier asked, “Would you like to try a donut with that?”

And when it came time to make room for that donut case, the humble yet cumbersome oden pot was first on the chopping block. Putting donuts in the place of oden, they’d be killing two birds with one stone by also getting rid of the more labor intensive stewed foods.

▼ These days, you’re probably more likely to find fresh oden at a Lawson in Indonesia than in Japan

However, about a year or two later all of the convenience stores failed to see any significant growth in the donut market and were instead just taking crumbs from Mister Donut’s market share.

▼ Mister Donut was really feeling the pressure at the time though and at one point offered all-you-can eat donut deals

The convenience stores gradually gave up on donuts and the cases disappeared, leaving a window for the oden pots to stage a comeback had the pandemic not thoroughly squashed any momentum they might have had.

▼ Now, if you’re looking for that old-school oden fix, Family Mart is your best shot

And so, on this Oden Day in the year of our savory lord 2024, let us embrace the few remaining oden electric pots as a nostalgic relic of a simpler time in Japanese convenience stores. Seeing the current state of it all makes me wish I had bought it more than once in the decades I’ve lived in Japan. Good thing I took a picture that one time.

Reference: Diamond Online
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