Beginners Guide to Supermarket Shopping in Japan

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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
Bamboo shoots 竹の子 たけのこ takenoko
Bean sprout もやし moyashi
Beef 牛肉 ぎゅうにく gyuuniku
Buckwheat Noodle 蕎麦 そば soba
Chicken 鶏肉 とりにく toriniku
Crab かに kani
Cucumber 胡瓜 きゅうり kyuuri
Dairy products にゅう nyuu
Egg たまご tamago
Fish さかな sakana
Gluten 麩質 ふしつ fushitsu
Lamb 羊肉 ようにく youniku
Milk 牛乳 ぎゅうにゅう gyuunyuu
Miso Paste 味噌 みそ miso
Miso Soup 味噌汁 みそしる misoshiru
Oil あぶら abura
Onion 玉葱 たまねぎ tamanegi
Peanuts ピーナッツ peanuts
Pepper 胡椒 こしょう koshou
Pork 豚肉 ぶたにく butaniku
Pumpkin カボチャ kabocha
Ramen ラーメン ramen
Rice Cake もち mochi
Rice Wine お酒 おさけ osake
Salt しお shio
Shrimp 海老 えび ebi
Soy Milk 豆乳 とにゅう tonyuu
Soy Sauce 醤油 しょうゆ shouyu
Sugar 砂糖 さとう satou
Tofu 豆腐 とうふ toufu
Vinegar su
Wasabi 山葵 わさび wasabi
Wheat 小麦 こむぎ komugi
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.

allergy

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.

food-labels-japan

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.

gluten

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Karaoke pro living in Fukuoka.
  • Treskatae says:

    I need this thanks.

  • lusanda says:

    Wow thank you for this , I just arrived in Japan an have a baby it’s so hard to go buy myself coz am frm S.A. and I understand zero Japanese, have to go with my husband all the time coz he learnd the language at work ,so thank you somuch

  • Card for vegans would be helpful, many don’t know enough Japanese to say so.

  • Kenny Martinsz Kehinde Martiz says:

    Pretty Interesting.

  • Basudeb Tripathy says:

    Great info✌️

  • Katie says:

    Thank you this is very helpful. I spent many a day feeling hungry in Japan as a celiac.

  • Matthew Borkowski says:

    Another good website if you are looking for specialty meats is themeatguy.jp They have lots of other hard to find in your average supermarket items (cheeses, dry goods, sauces) and they have a good range of payment options. Also, if you have one near you, restaurant supply type supermarkets also can offer some imported, hard to find elsewhere things. I love Japanese food, but sometimes a taco night or big roast is in order. Those can help you with that. Happy eating!

  • Elton says:

    Very helpful! Thanks!

  • Howard Japan says:

    「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.」

    Really? I live in one of Japan’s least populated prefectures and other than t-shirts, all the items you wrote about are available at every supermarket in town.

  • maulinator says:

    If you are in Tokyo and want access to more “exotic” (read foreign) foodstuffs, go to Kinokiniya, National Azabu or NIssin World Food. Of the three Nissin tends to have the best prices. If you want access to specifically American stuff go to FBCUSA.com. Sony Plaza has some foreign candies and snacks. Kinokuniya and National Az usually have English speaking staff on hand as well.

  • Londoner says:

    Thank you this is very helpful. Do you know what the Japanese word is for M.S.G. (monosodium glutamate)? And what the kanji/ hiragana/ katakana is/are? Many people are allergic to MSG and a couple of people I know ended up in hospital in Japan because of a reaction. Apparently they use it also in flavoring sauces for example as well as in cooking. Do you know in which foods or sauces it is used? It is used in Chinese and Asian food extensively but I wasn’t aware that they use it in Japan as well.

  • Jeffrey Harbin says:

    My first trip to Japan to meet the in-laws, they gave me the honor of being first to use the bath that evening. I had several soaps to choose from and they all had cats or dogs on the bottle, so I chose one and washed up. Afterwards, my wife kept sniffing my hair and giving me a funny look. Turns out I used the dog shampoo to wash my hair. On the bright side, I was flea and tick free for 30 days.

  • annalwin says:

    Many many thanks. Very helpful.

  • Cynthia says:

    Thank you for this post. Super helpful!

  • luan says:

    For those who are allergic, gluten is more グルテン than 麩質, and peanuts may also be written as 落花生 🙂

  • Brian says:

    Good post. Maybe you should include the kanji / Japanese for whale and horse for people who would wanna avoid those meats.

    • Akiko Sakakibara says:

      whale: 鯨肉 くじらにく kujiraniku

      horse: (called two ways)馬肉/桜肉 ばにく/さくらにく baniku/sakuraniku

      (I am a native Japanese, have not seen 鯨肉 in any restaurant or izakaya though.)

    • TheGirl FromIpanema says:

      Or seriously search them..

  • Becca says:

    i have seen the kanji 南京豆 for peanuts before. my main concern when i lived in japan for a semester was my severe allergy to peanuts/nuts. i was relieved when i found out that japan also listed allergens, even ones i was unfamiliar with (bananas, peaches, etc). I also remember looking for this symbol ※ because that is usually where allergens were listed on products.

  • anoymous says:

    just little thing ,dairy products and eggs have the same romanji read form, xD egg is tamago if anyone ask

  • papiGiulio says:

    Great post, I recommend people to learn the kanji where the food comes from asap
    (pointed out with 産 kanji). Especially since some of the food
    comes from 中国産! China or sometimes people are still wary about buying food from Fukushima 福島.  

    6 years here and still dont know most of the food kanji as there are simply too many, anyway adding this to my studylist 🙂

    • fm64 says:

      yup, they were some useful kanjis, kani pls

      • Saman says:

        its like you are narrating my story when i come here in japan it was really frastrating wen i go to supermarket n i am still facing these kind of hurdles as i cant understand kanji yet as a muslim i only eat Halal so Minichi Minich i have to get detail of all main and raw ingredients of products.
        your post is really appreciateable
        Thanx 🙂

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