At the request of one of our lovely HealthyTOKYO readers, “P”, I decided to share my top 10 tips for grocery shopping in Japan.
Even with my Japanese background, when I first got here, I found going to the supermarket an incredibly daunting, if not overwhelming experience. I figured it may be something we all struggle with, especially if you’re new to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.
Our gorgeous and growing community has experienced the world through many different lenses and brought those unique perspectives with us, so we’re used to different foods and products. When we come to a place like Japan, which is quintessentially unique in every aspect, we may experience culture shock. In an effort to relieve this feeling, it’s natural to cling to the familiar and seek out food that remind us of home. But…unfortunately that can get expensive, not to mention – said products may be impossible to find (I’m looking at you beetroot!).
There were also many times that I’ve gone into the supermarket and whether it was due to the crazy kanji or some other factor (but most likely the kanji), I subsequently bought something, only to return home and realize that what I bought was not even close to what I sought.
Ok rant over! That being said, everyone should have a stress free, happy shopping experience, because going to the grocery store is heaps of fun!
Here are my 10 tips for grocery shopping in Japan!
1. Buy produce and proteins in season
I can’t stress this one enough. What I love about Japan is the emphasis on ‘shun’ or seasonality, is huge here! I’ve come to greatly appreciate different foods associated with the distinct seasons since I moved here.
Some worth noting are:
- ‘Kon’ root vegetables like daikon and renkon
- All sorts of citrus fruit! My faves are ‘Dekopon (fun to say and even more fun to eat’), ‘Mikan’ – Japanese mandarines, and if you ever find it – Yuko (a type of citrus from Nagasaki).
- Sakura!!! (Please eat Sakura flavored EVERYTHING)
- Takenoko – bamboo (something I used to hate but it has grown on me since moving here)
- Strawberries! (Technically they’re in season in Spring but they start to show up in store in winter)
- Corn!!!! – It’s so sweet here!
- Okra – I used to think it was weird but now I love the ‘neba-neba’ quality!
- Shiso! Why not try Norma’s Matcha Shiso Salmon recipe out?
- Watermelon (well, all melons)
- Unagi (eel)
- Basically, most seafood
- SWEET POTATOES – probably one of my favorite foods ever. Please try Anno Imo (it’s the sweetest) and Murasaki-Imo (PURPLE SWEET POTATOES). Murasaki-imo contain more antioxidants than blueberries and they’re delicious. Need I say more?
- Any and all Japanese mushrooms
- Kuri – Japanese chestnuts – try ‘Kuri Gohan’!
- Chum salmon and Sanma (Pacific Saury)
2. Buy locally
It may be hard to step out of your comfort zone but, try and buy local produce rather than imported. You’ll save a lot of money and the food will be fresher because it hasn’t sat in cold storage for extensive periods of time. There’s also the added bonus of developing your Japanese palate. Most, if not all supermarkets will also have a dedicated ‘local’ section – with produce grown from the surrounding area or neighboring prefectures.
Some ‘Japanese’ versions of familiar food worth noting are:
- Seafood (Japan is an island after all!)
- Japanese ‘Jagaimo’ potatoes
- Japanese spinach, Shungiku or Mizuna over greens such as kale
- Rice over quinoa, or other grains
- Nashi pears over Anjou Pears (which are called La France pears here)
- Fuji Apples
- Japanese dairy products (especially those featuring milk from Hokkaido) are incredibly delicious and aren’t often stripped of fat like their western counterparts
- Japanese pork
There are also some farmers markets popping up. A good one is the Farmers Market on Saturday mornings up at United Nations University. An added bonus is, Norma loves the UNU market so you’ll likely bump into her there!
3. Time your trips
Of my 10 tips for grocery shopping in Japan, this is one of the major ones. Many supermarkets mark down goods within a 5pm – 8pm window. It’s a good way to get food that was produced the same day at a heavily discounted rate.
4. Get a point card
Japan is the land of point cards, it seems that you can get a point card for everything these days. Make use of the service! Usually you can save these up for a present or as ‘money’ for use within the store
5. Discount days
Almost all supermarkets have dedicated days where the entire shop is discounted by 5% or 10%. Some chains even have promotions where you can score double or triple points on your point card.
6. Get to know your local (fruit and veg shop)
You may have seen the little local fruit and vegetable shops around your neighborhood. These are usually owned by the same friendly grandmas or grandpas for decades. In my experience, they are more than happy to lend you a helping hand. Go there enough and they’ll show you what they got in that day!
7. Different chains for different mains
I have a few different grocery stores I go to for different products. The reasons being, different stock, cheaper prices or distance and opening hours. It’s worth exploring your area to see what options you have.
8. Get foreign/specialty foods online
Even if you don’t follow a special diet or lifestyle, some things, such as plant based milks, cereals, NUT BUTTERS, jams, and fair trade or organic products can be incredibly hard to come by. Or if you do find them, they’re highly marked up and you’ll end up paying a premium for them. Regardless of whether I’m vegan and worked at HealthyTOKYO or not, I would still buy from our online store because we stock a lot of ethical, high quality products. We’re also a lot cheaper than other foreign/organic specialty stores and we have a good selection. We’re constantly adding products to our line up, so if you have any special requests, then let us know and we’ll look into it for you!
9. Buy in bulk
This is a no brainer, especially if you have a family because many products like grains keep for a long time. You can usually freeze a lot of things too – like meat and bread. Also, if you like berries (ok who doesn’t) then buy them frozen because they’re much cheaper. You can add these to smoothies, baked goods or just to pop them in your mouth like I do. (A little fairy told me some healthy frozen food might soon pop up on the HealthyTOKYO online store, so keep an eye on the shop for updates!)
10. Go green
You’ve probably noticed that in Japan you can get a bag or multiple bags for every single product. That’s due to the strong gift-giving ‘Omiyage’ (souvenir) culture here. While it’s nice for a present, it can feel quite wasteful. Luckily, Japan is finally catching on to the rest of the world and many supermarket chains are starting to charge for plastic bags. So next time you pop out for groceries, bring your coolest enviro bag or calico bag. When you’re at the register – grab the little card that says ‘No bag’. Usually the checkout operator will confirm this with you just in case, and a simple ‘Fukuro daijoubu desu’ or ‘Purasuchikku baggu kekko desu’ will suffice. It’ll save you a couple yen here and there, and give you the warm fuzzies because you’re doing your bit to make our world a greener and healthier place!
There you have my 10 tips for grocery shopping in Japan! This post was fairly long and drawn out so let me summarize the key points for you!
10 Tips for Grocery Shopping in Japan
- Buy in season
- Buy locally
- Time your trips
- Get a point card
- Make use of discount days
- Get to know your local produce stand
- Shop around at different chains
- Get foreign or specialty foods online
- Buy in bulk
- Go green
I hope these 10 tips for grocery shopping in Japan help you to live a healthier life in Japan! Do you have any other tips and expertise? Sound off in the comments!