Food Shopping In Japan

Although we have access to the commissaries and American-style supermarkets and products on several bases in the Tokyo area, Brett and I decided we wanted to do as much as possible of our food shopping “out on the economy” (the military expression for anything off base). Not only would it be more convenient, but we wanted to see what it would cost to feed ourselves if we lived here, and what and how we eat might change.

Japanese shoppers typically only buy enough food for a couple of days at a time so that they are getting the freshest food possible. And, because Japanese meals usually consist of small servings of several different items, and kitchen storage space is minimal compared to the U.S., product sizes are much, much smaller than what Americans are used to. There are no big family packs of anything, no big cuts of meat, or five-pound bags of fruit. Loaves of bread have maybe six slices at most.

We did our weekly food shop at the Tokyu supermarket this past Saturday. We feel very lucky to have such a big supermarket nearby as they offer store brands and regularly have sales going on. Shopping carts, as I’ve mentioned, are just a standard plastic shopping basket on a trolley, but because the sizes of everything are so small we can really pack a lot into one of those baskets.

We spent a little more than we usually do last weekend, but that was due to the addition of a few items we don’t regularly buy, like two bottles of wine and a bag of flour. We also purchased a couple of splurge items, and spent more on one item because we decided to buy the more expensive “American” name brand (Johnsonville sausages) when we couldn’t figure out any of the similar Japanese products.

Our haul from the bakery – all of this deliciousness cost around $8.

We began our shopping trip with a visit to the bakery just down the street, where we bought two raisin rolls, an onion and cheese roll (for me), a cinnamon doughnut (for Brett) and a matcha cookie (for me). The raisin rolls were deliciously yeasty and light and we ate them for breakfast on Sunday morning along with some fruit. The onion and cheese roll was my breakfast this morning.

Below are pictures of what we bought this week at the supermarket, a fairly typical weekly shop for us. It was an all-food shop as well – we didn’t buy any toiletries or other non-food items. To give an idea of how small the below items are, everything fit into one standard size plastic shopping basket. 

Our produce purchases included a small head of broccoli; a bag of small eggplants (for mabo nasu); a carrot and a potato for curry; red, yellow and a bag of small green peppers for a pork & pepper stir fry; two tomatoes for BLTs (we have some bacon in the freezer, and lettuce in the fridge that needs to get finished); half of a cabbage for another stir fry and some cole slaw; and bananas and strawberries.

Our meat purchases were beef stew meat for the curry; ground pork for the mabo nasu; thinly sliced pork for a stir fry; a bag of frozen shrimp for chili shrimp; and Johnsonville sausages. We’re not exactly sure what type of sausages they are but we’re going to have them for breakfast. None of the meat packages weighs more than a quarter pound. The beef was the most expensive at $7 for that tiny package while the pork for stir fry was around $2.89. The seafood selection at the store is immense, but there are many things we don’t recognize. There are also several cuts of meat we don’t recognize either.

We bought two bags of raisin cookies (there are only five packages in each bag and the cookies are tiny); a package of sesame biscuits; two bags of soy peanut crackers, our favorite snack; two matcha cream cookies that we want to try (they were very good!); a bag of cheese snacks for the grands; two individual containers of purin (a flan-style custard) for dessert one evening; a package of Boursin pepper cheese, a surprise find as well as a total splurge for us; and wheat crackers to have with the cheese.

Beverage purchases included a small container of fat-free milk to use for pancakes and cereal; a bottle of unsweetened iced tea for Brett; two bottles of French wine, one red and one white (both are from Bordeaux, are delicious, and were surprisingly affordable); and two bottles of water. The bottled water is for drinking – there are still lingering concerns because of the Fukushima accident. All plastic bottles in Japan are recycled – we have a separate container for them in the apartment.

Miscellaneous items include three Cook Do sauces (chili shrimp, mabo nasu, and pork and cabbage stir fry); a box of curry sauce cubes; a small bag of flour for pancakes; and a bag of Chinese steamed pork buns (nikuman).

Tokyu supermarket, like almost all markets in Japan, has a wide selection of high-quality, affordable prepared foods for sale. We bought two katsu (panko-breaded fried pork cutlets), finely-shredded cabbage, and tonkatsu sauce for our Saturday night dinner – all I had to do was make rice and we had a delicious restaurant-style meal for around $8!

Everything we bought is recognizable to us, and we know what it tastes like and what to do with it, but about 75% of what’s available in the market are things we have no idea about how to cook or what they are (even if I can read the label). So, we are fairly constrained in what we buy compared to what’s available although we try to push our boundaries from time to time.

Food is expensive in Japan – there’s no getting around that – and we’re fortunate to not have to feed a family over here, at least not cooking the way we do now. For just Brett and I though the expense hasn’t been bad. The total amount spent this past weekend was $123.76, more than usual but still within our food budget of $500/month. Brett would like us to segue into more frequent shopping trips so that we don’t have to carry several heavy bags of food back to the apartment, but I worry that doing so might mean we spend more. Maybe shopping twice a week might be the answer though.

Some of what we bought will segue into next week’s meals as we’ll probably have dinner a couple of times with our son and family. Still, we’ve got everything we need for some tasty meals this week!

8 thoughts on “Food Shopping In Japan

  1. So interesting! I love seeing how your meals have changed as you travel to different parts of the world. Are there certain foods that you miss? I bet it is very overwhelming to go into a big store and not recognize 75% of the things for sale! I’m very impressed with all that you bought for $123 dollars. It would be fun to do a “how much did this cost?” guessing game again.

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    1. Cooking has been a challenge at times because we don’t have an oven so everything has to be made on the stovetop. And, I don’t have a slow cooker or grill either to mix things up. I’m so grateful for the prepared foods – they’re affordable and good quality (and delicious too). Brett and I can have fried chicken and potato salad for dinner for around $6 – a favorite meal and doesn’t break the bank.

      I think most Americans would be shocked by the food prices here – they’re so expensive compared to U.S. prices (like $7 for a tiny package of beef stew meat). Package sizes are very small as well.

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  2. I go to Publix every couple of days to buy fruit, tomatoes and salads. This keeps everything fresh. I did have to make Banana Nut Bread because they went bad too quickly but my parents were pleased with the result.

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    1. You’re shopping Japanese style! Here it’s a combination of wanting to serve the freshest food possible along with not having a lot of storage space that has people going to the store every day or every other day.

      I bought a tiny loaf of banana bread at the bakery between when I read your comment and now! I was craving it!

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  3. For fruits and vegetables I like to go to small local stores (more like a market style) it’s about half price of the regular supermarket. However they are usually not listed in google maps. You might have to ask some locals or look around your area.

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    1. We have looked around our neighborhood but there are no small produce shops near us. It’s disappointing because I agree about prices. The supermarket has pretty good sale prices for some produce – that’s what we typically buy. There seem to be fewer and fewer ‘mom and pop’ stores than there were in the past overall though.

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  4. The smaller sizes of certain things would certainly help my shopping from time to time. I often try a recipe that needs some random ingredient and then search for another recipe that uses it or never use it again. But I do buy in bulk and and freeze things. I guess having to shop every few days has its ups and downs. You’re also way better at long range meal planning than I. 🙂 So interesting that the Japanese shop frequently, have smaller packages and pay more. I suspect that our habits lead to the obesity crisis we’re seeing now.

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    1. I’m coming around to the idea that smaller is better, and I prefer the smaller packages. It’s made us think more about how much we eat, especially since it’s just the two of us these days. I’m not sure if we’ll be able to go back to buying bulk again after this experience. And, I think you’re on to something with the link between package sizes and the obesity crisis. I also think the amount of sugar in our products plays into it as well.

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