Grocery shopping in Japan is like stepping into an alternate universe. The staples are there, bread, meat, fruit, candy, drinks, etc., but the availability of items on the island versus the mainland, and specific items that are exclusive to Japan is wholly different. Not to mention, the culture of Japan is totally ingrained into the grocery shopping rituals in Japan and of course that is unique unto itself.
Grocery stores range from the Aeon, which is like a Super Walmart meets JC Penney, to the local chains that are not complete without a huge cat section. Even though, most locals don’t own cats, or aren’t allowed cats in their housing, so they instead opt to play with them at Cat Cafes.
Fruit is considered a luxury in Japan. It’s like food meets brand collections, it’s all designer fruit. Particularly cantaloupes, apples, and grapes. Cantaloupes are individually wrapped in a cushioned satin doily, then tied with a bow, and placed inside a box. In 2013, two cantaloupes sold for $15,730USD; in 2016, a pair sold for $27,000USD! Granted, these were a special breed and you might think this was out of the ordinary, and while we may not have seen a thousand dollar price tag, we did see single melons selling for upwards of $125USD.
On any given day at Costco in the United States you can find an entire pallet of rotting raspberries going for $5.99 a box. In Japan, this is unheard of. When grocery shopping in Japan, fruit is impeccable in shape, size, color, looks, taste and presentation. The Japanese, lovers of all cute things, started the trend of square and heart shaped watermelons, and pentagonal oranges. We even saw odd colored fruit, such as white strawberries that taste no different than traditional red ones.
The most expensive item we purchased were apples and we paid upwards of $10 a pound. We were definitely shell shocked when it came to the prices for fruit, but couldn’t do without.
On the flip side, when it comes to vegetables, good luck trying to make a salad. The largest bagged lettuce you can find comes in 4oz packages, and the only dressing comes in tiny packets the size of a fast food ketchup packet.
Breads that you think are pain du chocolat are actually filled with bean curd, or a meat substance. You never know what you are going to get when you purchase a pastry. Liver is skewered and covered in teriyaki sauce, along with a variety of other meats, and they are always discounted up to 90% at night. The discounts are applied to fresh fruit and breads as well.
Caramel doesn’t exist here. We searched high and low and couldn’t find it anywhere.
Drinks are labeled as containing sweat, with giant chunks of a jello like substance (Pocari Sweat is technically filled with replenishing vitamins, but the name leaves something to be desired). Cola is named after the city you buy it in. Calpis, which doesn’t sound anything like cow piss and doesn’t taste like it either…, is also abundant.
The sound system channeling music through the store while grocery shopping in Japan is always blasting American music, songs from goldie oldies to modern top 20. But even more interesting was that each section in the store, from the bread and pastries to the toy aisle, had a small stashed boombox playing select music and announcements on repeat.
That was truly bizarre to me, and the language barrier didn’t help because all I could recognize was the word please. I couldn’t figure out what they were asking me to please do.
Don’t go to a grocery shopping in Japan expecting to load up on groceries either. You cannot purchase more than a basket worth of goods, because they do not offer shopping carts. The only option for collecting groceries is a basket, though they do provide basket sized carts to push around your heavy basket. Cashiers do not greet you with a smile or a hello, they formally make your acquaintance by bowing and voice their pleasure at having had the opportunity to meet you. Once the cashier scans your items, they are placed into the basket and then you take them to a separate table to bag them up. You must either bring your own bags, or purchase bags at the store for a small fee, but the ice to pack your meat in for the walk/bike ride/drive home is free.