Is there anything simpler or more mundane than going to the supermarket? When you’re well-acquainted with the local supermarket, going for the peanut butter in aisle four, next to the home cooked-style jams doesn’t even require any conscious thought; it’s all on autopilot.

But going to the supermarket in Japan is a whole different thing! At first glance, there’s nothing particularly unusual: fruits and vegetables in the open, frozen products in the back, registers lined up near the exit, and the aisles make up the rest of the store. Exploring these aisles full of local products is when most people realize they’re not home anymore!

Refrigerated section in a supermarket

Different country, different products

Japanese cuisine (washoku) is different from Western cuisine (youshoku), no surprises here. It is therefore completely understandable that supermarkets in Japan offer various food items that you’ve never seen before or even heard of. Of course, there’s the classic udon (うどん), soba (そば), sōmen (素麺), but also other less common things, such as pre-mixed okonomiyaki (お好み焼き); a kind of pancake made with cabbage which is very popular in Osaka and Hiroshima.

Don’t forget the long aisles full of different kinds of instant ramen (and the long contemplation of which one you should go for)!

Here are some products that can be surprising at first:

  • Nattō (納豆): fermented soy beans
  • Tsukemono (漬物): pickled food; products that have been marinated in vinegar
  • Kon’nyaku (こんにゃく): some sort of jelly, black or white, made by the konjac plant
  • Shirataki (白滝): thin, translucent noodles made from konjac
  • And so much more…

Vegetables at a supermarket

Fruits and vegetables: a luxury?

You may not be aware, but fruits and vegetables in Japanese supermarkets are usually fairly expensive. I’m not even referring to boutique style shops your could find in an expensive area like Ginza in Tokyo, where prices are absurdly high (how about two mangoes for over 300 USD?). However, when a single apple is priced between 2 and 4 USD and a melon goes anywhere from 6 to 20 USD, fruit aficionados will run out of cash very quickly.

Here are two ways you can get your daily dose of fruits and veggies without breaking the bank:

  • Find the closest Lawson 100. This is another branch of the popular konbini (コンビニ) Lawson and offers products for 100 yen (a bit less than a dollar), including all-important food items like fruits and vegetables.
  • Follow the seasons. Although it’s possible to get pretty much anything all throughout the year, it is a fact that some items are less expensive when buying them in season. Example: buy mandarins (called mikan) in winter, strawberries in spring, corn in the summer, and sweet potatoes in the fall.

Bento boxes in a supermarket

The ready-made section

Not only limited to take out boxes called bentō (弁当), which offer a great variety of cold meals (like sashimi and sushi) or food to heat up (fish, fried chicken, croquettes filled with potato served with rice, pasta, etc.), Japanese supermarkets usually have a large section of cooked foods. Unlike bentō, they are often made at the store, and are therefore very fresh. You can find karaage (唐揚げ), fried pork cutlet called tonkatsu (豚カツ), tempura, more croquettes (korokke), vegetables, Japanese side dishes, as well as cooked rice! Not being much of a chef myself, I have often used this section to get my lunch meals at work.

How to save money

While living in Japan, you will need to go to the supermarket regularly, and eventually, it can get expensive; that’s totally normal. Here are some ways you can save money while shopping for groceries:

  • Go in the evening. Most supermarkets in Japan offer discounts between 5pm and 8pm. It’s a good time to go and get what you need! Just be aware that at the end of the day, the selection may be a bit more limited.
  • Get a point card. Japan LOVES point cards and supermarkets are no exception! Some cards allow you to collect money you can then use in that store later.
  • Buy local products. Example: local seafood, fruits and vegetables grown in Japan, rice, Japanese dairy products, Japanese pork, etc. Imported foods are usually expensive and can actually be hard to find (in which case, it’s easier to get them online).
  • Put on your rain boots. Rainy days are depressing, and a lot of people want to stay indoors, which means supermarkets have an incentive to discount prices and make sure they can still sell products that day.

Once your basket is filled up, pay at the register and pack your purchases yourself at the various counters on the other side of the registers. Even after visiting supermarkets in Japan plenty of times, there will always be something new to catch your attention: that’s what daily adventure is like!

Still looking for ways to save money? Check out our article on how to save money in Japan.