Both for people living in Japan and visitors, one of the most hilarious perspectives on this culture can be gained an hour before a supermarket closes. Whereas this is a quiet time in many countries, Japanese supermarkets come alive right before the doors are locked.
For shoppers, this is the most important time of the day, as it is the time when the yellow stickers come out and out food that will expire that day can be bought at a discount.
Sometimes the difference between the discounted and regular food is so large that you can see people carefully tailing the staff carrying the discount gun, waiting to snap up the offers as soon as they are stickered.
Of course, many lack the patience to follow a member of staff around the produce aisles, so it is usually ok to directly point to something and ask, どのくらいなら値引きできますかDono kurai nara nebiki dekimasu ka・How much of a discount can you give on this?.
However, in order to really get the most of the discount tickets, it is worthwhile memorizing a few kanji characters. When I first arrived, I misread the ~円引 (~ enbiki) sticker that are usually attached to perishables like sushi shortly before closing time.
This sticker refers to the amount that is discounted from the original price and not, as I thought, the price after discounts. I cheerfully picked up a selection of fresh sushi that I thought I was buying for 400 yen, only to discover that it was 400 yen off the original price of 1800 yen. Not quite the inexpensive dinner I’d hoped for!
If I had been paying attention I might have noticed that a lot of the discount stickers are a lot less ambiguous and have the percentage mark clearly stating the discount that the customer can get. However, to get the really cheap sushi, I should have been looking for the kanji characters 半額はんがく・hangaku. These stickers are the Holy Grail for bargain hunters as they mean the product is for sale at half its usual price.
Once you have chosen your purchases and are making your way to the checkout, it is worth pausing briefly to check whether the price includes tax. As a general rule, if you don’t see the 税込(み)ぜいこみ・tax included characters written next to the cost, then it doesn’t include tax.
Knowing this can save a lot of embarrassment as you suddenly realize your carefully made calculations are 8%-10% off. 価格には消費税が含まれますかかかくにはしょうひぜいがふくまれますか・Is consumption tax included in the price of this? is a typical phrase you can use to check your calculations before purchase.
At checkout, be prepared for the staff to offer you all sorts of things with your purchases. One of the stranger ones for me was being offered a straw to drink a gallon of milk. While I appreciated the thought, I can’t imagine any adult walking down the street guzzling that much milk like an elementary school kid!
In these more ecologically aware time, it is not just money you should be trying to save in supermarkets, but also the environment. Therefore, to keep Japan a bit more plastic free, it can be worth memorizing the following:
Be aware that you will sometimes hear お箸 referred to as 割り箸わりばし・breakable chopsticks even though both words usually mean the same thing in supermarkets.
While Japanese stores usually try and fill your bags with useless things, the opposite is also true and occasionally, you may need one of these courtesies. Some of the more useful words include a cold pack to keep your food cool (保冷剤ほれいざい・cold pack) and a wet towel to wash your hands (おしぼりwet towel).
Overall, supermarkets in Japan can be a great place to save and people watch, especially right before closing. By buying food that would otherwise be dumped and making sure you only take the extra things that you need, you can also feel good that you are helping save the environment too. Being eco-friendly and getting a cheap meal is a win for everyone concerned.