Supermarkets in Japan operate similarly to those found in other countries: pick out your items, bring them to a register, pay, and leave. But there are some small peculiarities that might throw you for a loop when you start running errands in Japan. Here’s our quick breakdown of what to expect when stepping into a standard Japanese supermarket.
Depending on where you’re located, there may or may not be actual shopping carts. At the entrance to supermarkets will be a stack of baskets, and you’re free to use one while in the store. You might also find wheeled contraptions without any sort of cargo-carrying mechanism. But, combine the two and you will be able to push around a cart if that is your preference.
Technically speaking, you probably don’t need to have a grasp of the Japanese language in order to shop at a grocery store. But the more you know, the more you can make informed shopping decisions. For example, you might be curious why two very similar looking bags of rice are priced differently, and if you read the label on one you’ll find that it is designated 無洗米 (むせんまい、musenmai) or “no-wash rice.” This extra processing generally incurs a higher price point, but without understanding the language it can be hard to make sense of why it is priced higher than other types of rice.
Here’s an example of a price tag for a tub of miso. The character 円 stands for yen, so you’ll be seeing it a lot in stores. The price is listed at 378 yen, but in parentheses we see 408.24. This is the price with sales tax included. And if you want to get into the nitty-gritty, in small text underneath the price you’ll see “100g当り本体50.4円” which as you might have guessed is displaying that per 100 g, this product costs 50.4 yen. By taking a look at this price per volume, you might be able to get better value with your wallet. Another tip to mention here is that we see that this particular miso is 減塩 (げんえん、genen) or “low sodium.” Learning the kanji for things like salt (塩、しお) and sugar (砂糖、さとう) can help you navigate ingredients so you can make informed decisions easily!
Displays can be set up to make your shopping experience easier. This display neatly arranged noodles with different sauces and nori (dried seaweed).
After bringing your items to the register and paying, you’ll have to bring your basket to the bagging area. As of July 2020, all supermarkets will be charging a small fee for providing plastic bags for groceries. Remember to tell the cashier that you need a bag (レジ袋ください、れじぶくろください、rejibukuro kudasai) if you need one. Otherwise, bring your own bag so that you can take home your groceries. You can use the small plastic bags at the bagging area to wrap up items individually if you want to. After bagging, deposit your basket back into one of the basket holders in the bagging area. Congratulations, you’ve successfully grocery shopped in Japan!
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Lead photo: Scott Kouchi