When I first came to Japan I had no knowledge of Japanese and zero understanding of a country’s language means that at any time, a normal day to day task can turn into a frustrating experience because you just can’t beat the language/cultural barrier involved.
For me, this happened most often in the supermarket. I can still remember the heartbreak of my third day in Japan; desperate for a taste of home, I bought some strawberry donuts to cheer myself up. Instantly revitalized, I rushed home to eat them, only to find out when I bit into them that they weren’t filled with strawberry, but Red Bean Paste. Now Red Bean Paste has grown on me since then, but at the time it felt like the final straw on an already difficult day.
Everyone who has lived in Japan long enough will have similar stories to this (look no further than GaijinPot’s own Grace Mineta’s article for another example) and in some ways it is just a part of the overall process of acclimatizing to a new country.
Having said that, the more you know starting out, the fewer times you have to go home frustrated, so here is everything I’ve learnt since coming to Japan when it comes to supermarkets.
Let’s start by focusing on the supermarket themselves. In many ways Japanese supermarkets are exactly the same as those in any other country, but they also differ in one or two ways too. Firstly, most supermarkets in Japan are actually better described as grocery stores, in that they exclusively sell food. Don’t go in expecting to buy bubble bath, a razor and a few cheap t-shirts because most supermarkets just won’t stock these kinds of items.
Secondly, most average supermarkets in Japan are somewhat limited when it comes to exotic foods. There are plenty of fruits and vegetables on the shelves but if you are looking for something specific that isn’t already a part of Japan’s culinary landscape, you may have to search a little harder for it.
Import/export shops, dedicated exotic food stores or, in my experience, the high quality supermarkets attached to department stores may all have the items you seek, but an average supermarket probably won’t.
Finally, Japan is known for being in tune with the different seasons and nowhere is this more obvious than in supermarkets. For example, if you want strawberries in January you are probably going to search a little bit longer, and pay a little bit more for them than you would if you wanted them at other times of the year. That isn’t to say that it is impossible; only that picking up a bag of mikans (tangerines) will be easier and cheaper during mikan season.
This brings us on to the language barrier. It doesn’t matter how good you are at guessing what’s inside the packaging, or how many pictures you look at on the box, at some point you will come up against the language barrier involved in supermarket shopping. So here is a list of some essential ingredients, their kanji and how to read them in hiragana and English. Hopefully this will help you avoid mixing up the sugar and the salt.
|Item||Kanji Reading||Kana Reading||Romaji Reading|
|Wheat Flour Noodle||うどん||udon|
Any vegetarian or person with allergies will tell you that it isn’t enough just to know what something is, you also sometimes need to know what is inside your food. Here is a breakdown of two common Japanese labels to help you understand more about what you are buying.
The label above is used to explain what allergies may be triggered by the product if consumed. The allergies that could be triggered are written in black on the yellow background (this product is not suitable for those with allergies to dairy, wheat or soy). Most processed foods will have this sign, or one similar to it, to let you know of the possible dangers for those with allergies. Keep your eyes out for these signs but also be aware some products simply don’t have an allergy warning.
Next is the label explaining the origin and important information regarding a supermarket’s fresh produce. A Japanese food label will tell you what a product is, its quantity, its price and, most importantly, its storage instructions and its expiration date.
So that’s it! This is everything I have learnt about supermarket shopping over my time in Japan. It is by no means a complete guide and I learn of new ingredients; and the kanji for them, every day. If you are already a seasoned pro when it comes to food shopping, please feel free to add to this guide by adding in the comment section below.
UPDATE: If you need to avoid eating any gluten in your diet you can print this card out here.