Like any good club DJ, I do take requests. Recently, a new reader of this blog and future colleague asked if I might write an article about food shopping in Japan. Sure! To the uninitiated, the task of collecting basic food supplies in Japan is a perilous one. Especially if you are: a vegetarian or vegan; are shopping for a family of hungry stomachs but who have differing tastes; do not speak Japanese or recognise any written language; or have food allergies. Perilous? I’d say it is downright terrifying.
I must confess, however, that I am no expert in either shopping or cooking at home. Cooking is something that I personally enjoy, but predominantly it is a means to an end. So, instead of providing an ill-judged guide to Japanese vegetarian food shopping; I will outline the basics, provide you with researched and well-informed information on this area, and describe my first experiences/chaotic missions into my local supermarkets.
- Most supermarkets open at around 10am and close at around 11pm.
- Some of the larger stores are open 24 hours.
- Many shops accept credit cards, though I prefer to use cash as do many people in Japanese society overall.
- There are a range of different supermarkets, such as those listed on Kana Net.
- Each shop differs slightly in its content, e.g. the ‘Peacock’ supermarket is more Western in style and the products on offer reflect this. ‘Ozeki’ is more Japanese in style and content.
- Only the larger stores go beyond food and sell items such as clothing, electronics and toiletries.
- The shops are generally laid out in a similar way to Western ones and goods are organised in ways that seem familiar.
- Procedure for paying is to: put your basket down next to the till, wait as the assistant scans everything and puts it back into your basket, answer if you want bags or that you do not have a points card for THE HUNDREDTH TIME and then pack your own bags. Charming.
I thoroughly recommend consulting these sites to be prepared for supermarket success…
- Gaijin Pot – A beginners guide to supermarket shopping, complete with Kanji and Kana for simple food items.
- Matcha – Japanese supermarket basics.
- Taiken – Some of the pitfalls when trying to find food.
- Is it Vegan? – Convenience store vegan food!
When I first arrived in Japan a year ago; I did not speak much language (beyond a little English); read any Kanji, Katakana or Hirigana; or have any clue as to what Japanese supermarkets were going to be like. My research had tended to focus more on the insanely exciting tourist activities, rather than logistics that are actually useful. Like, you know, food. So, it was with some trepidation that I took my first visits into my local Ozeki or Maruetsu. Indeed, I seem to remember huddling among a group of fellow ‘newbies’ whilst trembling with fear.
Once dispersed, you notice that in fact the supermarket is organised in a familiar way and it mirrors much of Japanese everyday life. It is sparkling clean, there is proud and friendly service and it is very well organised. I distinctly recall looking at some beautifully presented apples, shading my eyes from the reflection on the fruit’s surface and saying, “Are those actually real?”
They were. This drew me closer and after examining the products and attached prices, I noted some themes. ‘Non-Japanese’ goods are noticeably more expensive. If you are here on a budget then eat more traditional foods. Some more specific items are only in specific ‘Western stores’, such a vegetarian stock cubes or red lentils. Food is seasonal. Prices rise and fall depending on this, especially fruit. Quantities of foods such as cereal or bread are minuscule (when compared to ‘Western supermarkets’)!
Specific vegan or ‘Western’ supermarkets are available, but the prices are generally much higher. The cost of food in ‘Japanese’ stores, conversely, is fairly affordable. If you live sensibly, then the myths are untrue and Japan is actually an affordable place to live in. Therefore, initially what I found was that I could confidently buy a series of ingredients for simple dishes, such as: stir fry, pasta, rice dishes, curries, egg-based dishes, soups, stews, homemade onigiri, homemade sushi or salads. This was easy to organise and I essentially strayed clear of the gigantic aisles of ‘Japanese’ food: the miso, the soy sauces and the varieties of pre-prepared meals. It was certainly helped by the fact that I do not have any allergies and that I eat anything vegetarian.
With time though, and with a good deal of trial and error (“I seem to have put salt in my tea!” “This cooking oil smells very fishy!” “I just ate a pastry with curry sauce in it again!”) I have begun to branch out. Learning Hirigana and Katakana certainly helps, and surprisingly is a fairly quick task. Using a site such as Surviving in Japan for a wealth of Kanji phrases is also so useful. As you settle into life in Japan, you find that your tastes change and adapt to the goods available. Cheese and butter become less important. Raw food becomes crucial and a regular meal option. ‘Heavy-Western’ style dishes become a treat for the return home on holiday. Admittedly, this is certainly more difficult for some, especially children, but you eventually find your way and expand beyond those initial simple meals.
If all this fails, it is surprisingly cheap to eat out in Japan! And it is delicious!