Grocery Shopping in Japan: Making the most of your budget

While Japanese supermarkets and grocery stores operate much like their counterparts in other countries, you might find that you can’t find familiar brands or be overwhelmed by ingredients you haven’t seen before. It’s also possible that you might start to spend a little more on groceries if you rely on the boxed meals or imported brands. Getting a grasp of how to navigate a Japanese supermarket is a bit of skill that takes a little time, so here’s a few of our tips on how to get the best values when going on a grocery run in Japan!

According to data from the Statistics Bureau of Japan, the average food costs for a one-person household in 2018 was ¥44,600 per month (about $415) and ¥36,400 for non-workers and students. There’s a lot of room there to make smart(er) purchases! In today’s article we’ll go over some helpful tips for those getting used to life in Japan and all the mundane adjustments you’ll have to make, including grocery shopping.

Make a grocery list

If you don’t make a list, chances are you will overspend or forget to buy certain items. Go in with a plan of attack to also avoid wasting time wandering the aisles of the store.

Take advantage of discount supermarkets

If you check out your neighborhood on Google Maps, look for discount supermarkets which will generally have lower priced, generic brand products. These include stores like Super Gyomu (スーパー業務), OK Store, and Niku no Hanamasa (肉のハナマサ). This is a completely optional step, but it can save a few hundred yen per trip depending on what you buy at the supermarket. For those keeping track of their monthly budget, this is a good start to lowering your overall spending.

Get familiar with cheap and easy-to-cook basics

Here are some cheap items that you should be able to find in any Japanese supermarket that will help expand your cooking repertoire!

You can find fresh/dried noodles at grocery stores, which make for a very quick and easy homemade meal! Photo: Raneko via Flickr

Here’s a look at a small dried noodle section in a supermarket. There’s quite a variety, and each has it’s own specific dishes. Experiment to find the noodle that best suits your mood!

Noodles! No, not the instant ramen aisle. You can find both dry and fresh soba, udon, and ramen at most grocery stores here. Soba can be a very quick dish to make. And it’s a pretty blank canvas that you can adapt to how you’re feeling; adding a soft-boiled egg, green onions, and pickles can turn simple soba into a tasty meal! Or, stir-fry your noodles a la yakisoba to mix things up!

Tofu is very easy to add to many dishes! Photo: shop boy via Flickr

Tofu is a fantastic ingredient to have to add some substance to your meals without drastically altering the calorie count. Add some to your miso soup, or add some with a few veggies and protein of your choice for a quick and hearty dish!

You can find bean sprouts in packages like these in your supermarket. Very cheap veggies that you can throw into almost anything!

Onions (玉ねぎ), hakusai (白菜、はくさい), and bean sprouts (もやし) are very affordable ingredients that you can adapt to many dishes for cheap and nutritious meals. Other produce and ingredients that you can find for cheap include chicken breast, eggs, cabbage, potatoes and cucumber.

Rice is also a huge factor in preparing easy meals in Japan. There is a huge range of features for rice cookers, and some you’ll find cost upwards of ¥50,000! But a simple rice cooker can be found for even under ¥10,000, and this will make things very easy for the budding home chef. Depending on the features of the machine you choose, you might even be able to make types of bread in your rice cooker!

June 2020 actual prices of a few everyday items

The prices below are as advertised by SEIYU, a major discount supermarket chain as of June 1, 2020.

Item JPY Price Approx USD price @ 107 JPY = 1 USD
500 gram pack of dried udon ¥294 $2.73
321 gram pack of dried soba (4 servings) ¥231 $2.15
350 gram pack of silken tofu ¥98 $.91
360 gram pack of pre-cut chicken thighs

for “kara age” chicken

¥580 $5.39
520 gram pack of chicken breasts

(2 breasts)

¥348 $3.24
388 gram pack of American beef (shoulder

roast pre-sliced for stir frying / sukiyaki)

¥764 $7.10
Hakusai (napa cabbage) 1/4 head ¥173 $1.61
Moyashi (bean sprouts) ¥18 $.17
Tamanegi (onions) 3-pack ¥204 $1.90
5-kg bag of Akita komachi rice ¥1,780 $16.55

Experiment with different recipes

If you can only make the same 1 or 2 dishes you’ll quickly get tired of eating the same thing and can easily slip into routines of picking up take-out or expensive ready-made meals. This idea pairs well with writing a grocery list, since you can plan out your meals in advance. Take a little time before running your errands to research meals and dishes you think you would be able to create in your kitchen! Adding life skills like a set of go-to recipes is a huge confidence booster for living by yourself in a new country, too.

Get to know Japanese recipe sites/books

Sites like Cookpad, Kurashiru, and Delish Kitchen are great starter resources for finding recipes. However, the information is only provided in Japanese. But, if we’re looking on the optimistic side of things, this could be a fun way to practice your Japanese language skills and do some hands-on cooking in one activity! If you’re really serious about taking your cooking to the next level, there are cooking schools like ABC Cooking Studio that have cooking spaces all around Tokyo and classes – even in English!

Lead photo: Packets of dried udon and soba