Living in Japan

What you can and can’t find at a local Japanese supermarket

Sometimes it’s the little things that are the most surprising when trying to adjust to life in a new country. Take, for example, the simple act of grocery shopping. We get accustomed to the products in our supermarkets where we are from that once we get to Japan it can be a little jarring to suddenly not be able to find your favorite peanut butter or whole-wheat bread.

Here’s a glimpse into what a typical local supermarket in Tokyo looks like. Since this is a neighborhood supermarket, and not a large retailer, there’s no parking lot for cars. At the entrance, you’ll see stacks of baskets and some wheeled carts in which you can place a basket if you would rather push around a cart. Just keep in mind that if there are stairs in the supermarket (like there are in this one), you might find yourself having to use the elevator to move between the floors.

Use one of the store’s baskets while you shop. You have the option of just carrying around the basket, or putting the basket in one of the carts (left of the baskets in the picture).

Supermarkets in Japan tend to look pretty familiar to those in other countries. Aisles of produce arranged by type, refrigerated sections, and even some home goods can be found in most supermarkets here.

Let’s take a closer look at the available produce. While mainstay vegetables like potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes (actually a fruit, thank you wikipedia!), cucumber, broccoli, etc. are generally easy to find in supermarkets, you’ll also find some ingredients that aren’t common in western cuisine. Here’s a short cheat sheet of some Japanese vegetables that you can find in supermarkets.

English Japanese (romaji) Japanese (hiragana) Japanese (katakana) Japanese (kanji)
Bamboo shoot takenoko たけのこ タケノコ
Bean sprout moyashi もやし モヤシ
Burdock gobou ごぼう ゴボウ
Chinese cabbage, napa cabbage hakusai はくさい ハクサイ 白菜
Garlic chive nira にら ニラ
Japanese mustard green mizuna みずな ミズナ 水菜
Lotus root renkon れんこん レンコン

The meat section of supermarkets will generally have beef, pork, and chicken.

English Japanese (romaji) Japanese (hiragana) Japanese (katakana) Japanese (kanji)
Beef gyuniku ぎゅうにく ギュウニク 牛肉
Chicken toriniku とりにく トリニク 鶏肉
Chicken breast torimune とりむね トリムネ 鶏むね
Chicken thigh torimomo とりもも トリモモ 鶏モモ
Ground meat hikiniku ひきにく ヒキニク ひき肉
Pork butaniku ぶたにく ブタニク 豚肉

Here is a section displaying various furikake (ふりかけ – dried seasoning to be sprinkled on cooked rice). Most consist of nori (のり – dried seaweed) mixed with a variety of different ingredients. The different types consist of different flavors, including sake (鮭 – salmon), goma (ごま – sesame seeds), and wakana (若菜 – various greens). As shown on the pictures on the packets, these are also used when making homemade onigiri (おにぎり – rice balls).

Curry is a staple dish in Japanese households, and as such there is almost an endless selection of brands and types. To the left of the above picture are ready-to-eat varieties which you can heat up and pour onto some rice for a very quick meal. The curry packages on the right are little cubes of curry roux. You’ll have to provide the vegetables and protein of your choice and mix in the roux to complete the curry. If you’ve never had Japanese curry before, it’s actually quite different from Indian or Thai curries.

Shoyu (しょうゆ, 醤油 – soy sauce) and tsuyu (つゆ – dipping sauce) are main condiments and ingredient in Japanese dishes. As you can see in the photo above, there’s a huge variety in selection for these sauces. The most salient difference is quality of ingredients/production, and as with most things the more expensive, the higher quality you can expect.

In the picture above you’ll see canned foods. Most of the time you’ll find canned fish, and depending on your supermarket there might be canned meats (like spam or Vienna sausage). Towards the left of the picture are cans of bluefin tuna (まぐろ) and skipjack tuna (かつお). On the right side of the photo are sanma (さんま), saba (さば), iwashi (いわし), etc. After living in Japan you’ll probably start to learn a lot more about fish!

Here’s a small selection of cheap Japanese snacks. These are very common to have handy when expecting company. Or just to munch on while catching up on your favorite TV shows! I suggest trying these all out while you’re in Japan. I’m partial to imokempi (芋けんぴ – candied sweet potato) which have a very sweet taste and crunchy texture. Karinto (かりんとう) is another sweet snack, made from deep-fried flour dough balls that are coated with brown sugar. You’ll also usually find a couple shelves stocked with sembei (せんべい – rice crackers).

Even in these neighborhood supermarkets you’ll find some familiar snack foods like Oreo cookies, Kit Kat chocolates, and potato chips. But you might not find some snacks that are readily available in your home country. For Americans this includes items like Cheez-its, Pop-tarts, Chex Mix, and Nutter Butters. Import stores or Costco might have some of these items, but part of living in Japan is also experiencing life away from the comfort (foods) of home!

Cheese is also usually a pretty heated topic for foreigners adjusting to Japan life. Getting used to the lack of cheese selection in Japan is painful, particularly for foreigners from countries where dairy products are consumed regularly. In neighborhood supermarkets you’re most likely going to be finding different types of processed cheeses. You can find natural cheese in import food stores, specialty stores, and upmarket grocery stores, but expect to pay more than you would in your home country.

Although bread is available in Japanese supermarkets, you probably won’t find any full loaves with heels (end pieces). The ends of loaves are often cut off and either reused in other baked goods, or sold alone in packs of just heels. Bread tends to come in smaller quantities as well, you’ll find bread available in bags of 4 to 8 slices in general. Sliced white bread in Japan is called shokupan. Whole-grain wheat bread is usually not sold in local Japanese supermarkets. In some stores you might be able to find English muffins or bagels, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up. Other than that, stores often carry a selection of fresh baked goods as pictured above. These include both sweet and savory items. A mainstay is karepan (カレーパン) or curry bread, a deep-fried bun filled with Japanese curry.

You’ll also find a section dedicated to ready-made boxed meals (bento, べんとう, 弁当). These can be very convenient when you aren’t in the mood to cook, or when you’re just too busy to find the time to cook for yourself.

There are some sections that we haven’t covered here, but are pretty easy to navigate when you start shopping in Japan. Things like beverages and instant ramen, but let us know if that is something you’d be interested in taking a look at in a Japanese supermarket!