Food Shopping in Japan Week #1: What We Bought, What We Spent

We always take our own reusable bags when we go food shopping, ones we’ve collected from different places during our travels. They include the Beatles bag from Portland; famous sights in Bath, England; flowers from Perth, Australia; and Mt. Fuji from Japan.

One of our first tasks on our first full day in Japan, besides getting some yen, was to walk over to the Seiyu store and get some food. We had brought along coffee, oatmeal, and granola bars in our suitcases so we had enough for breakfast on our first morning, but after that, the cupboards were bare.

Our weekly goal while we’re here is to spend no more than ¥10,000 ($90) or less on groceries for a week. Our first shop, on Wednesday, was over that, ¥13,025 ($118.40) but that’s because we purchased a few pantry items that will last through our stay, things like rice, oil, Parmesan cheese, butter, and mayonnaise, and we also bought two bottles of French wine (less than $8 each) that will last us for the next two to three weeks (we have a glass of wine of Friday and Saturday evenings only). We also bought a package of sushi (¥398/$3.62) to share for lunch because we didn’t have leftovers or items to fix anything else. By using the extra ¥4,000 we got from YaYu we stayed under our regular budget, but it was still a bit difficult.

Here’s what we bought for our first week’s shop:

Dairy items: We purchased 1-liter low-fat milk, a small container Parmesan cheese, 2 400-gram containers of plain yogurt (¥99 or 90¢ each), a half dozen eggs, 2 packages wrapped cheese cubes, 200 grams butter, and 10-pack of Yakult. What we call “real” cheese is difficult to find and expensive in Japan. Even though they’re sort of pricy at ¥398 ($3.62) per package, we like these snack bags for the variety they provide and because they’re pre-portioned. Yakult (fermented milk drink) is great for the stomach and digestive system so I plan to have one every morning. When I came to Japan as a teenager I could not drink Yakult without gagging but now it tastes good to me.

Meat: We bought one package of ground pork, one of thinly sliced pork for stir fry, one of cubed pork, one of chicken tenders, and a package of six Johnsonville smoked sausages. I really like that we can buy meat in Japan in these smaller portions of around 300 gm or 2/3 of a pound (larger packages are available though). Also, note the silhouette of the pig on the labels – it’s very helpful for making sure I’m buying the right product versus chicken or beef (which also have an appropriate silhouette). The prices can be seen on the packages and range in (converted) price from $1.87 for the chicken tenders to $2.88 for the ground pork and pork cubes. The sausages were the most expensive item at ¥697 ($6.34) but will be used for three meals. We also bought a package of frozen shrimp but I forgot to put it in the picture.

Prepared foods: We bought a package of sushi for our lunch and packages of karaage (fried chicken) and potato salad for our first night’s dinner. We also bought two ready-to-cook packages of Chinese food items: shumai and gyoza. Prepared foods are a big thing in Japan and can be found everywhere, from convenience stores to high-end food establishments. They’re affordable and made from high-quality ingredients, and are sold fresh every day. The fried chicken and potato salad cost ¥848 ($7.71) but there was enough for two meals.

Produce: These purchases include package of three Japanese eggplants for making CookDo mabo nasu, a package of three carrots, a package of three onions, a head of broccoli, five Japanese cucumbers, one-half head of cabbage, a small box of fresh blueberries, 2 packages of strawberries, and a package of four bananas. Strawberry season is just getting started in Japan – be prepared to see them for the next several weeks! We bought the least expensive packages available at ¥377 ($3.43) each and will have them along with some blueberries on our morning yogurt. We skipped the packages going for ¥697 ($6.34) although the berries in those ones were huge. Fruit is generally quite expensive in Japan, but we hope to find ways to have it every day.

Pantry items/wine: Purchases in this category were Kewpie mayonnaise, three packages of CookDo sauce (eggplant with ground pork/mabo nasu, chili shrimp, and stir-fry pork with cabbage), a bag of rice (our most expensive purchase at ¥1,050/$9.56), canola oil, and a bottle of white Bordeaux wine for me, and red Bordeaux wine for Brett. The CookDo at Seiyu is currently on sale for ¥155 ($1.41) per package. If the sale is still going next week I will buy more and start stocking up as the typical sale price is $3.98 back in the U.S., and they don’t have the variety we can find here.

Paper products/cleaning products/personal items: Toilet paper was the only item we bought in this category. The apartment came with extra rolls of paper towels, boxes of tissues, lots of shampoo, laundry detergent, and plenty of cleaning supplies, so we’re good for a while.

We did not buy any bread nor snack items – we’re trying to keep away from that stuff this time around. It all looked very, very good and very, very tempting though.

Food in Japan can expensive, but there are bargains to be found if you look and shop carefully. We noticed that there had been price increases for a few items we used to buy when we were here last year, so we’ll do without those things this year. Also, by shopping at Seiyu we saved over what we would have spent at the slightly closer but more expensive Tokyu grocery store, so that was a win. Finally, we’re determined to spend less next time we shop!


30 thoughts on “Food Shopping in Japan Week #1: What We Bought, What We Spent

  1. Wow, the rice is expensive by comparison! I would have thought that it would be cheaper given it is a staple. Wonder if they are off loading pork because of fear of the swine flu thing as the porks seems very cheap.

    Mr S and I buy reusable bags on our travels too. We have English, French, Italian ones. Love using them.


    1. The price of rice is a classic example of supply vs. demand: Japanese will only eat rice grown in Japan and there is a limited supply of land on which to grow rice. If there are issues that affect the supply of rice (i.e. weather) than the price is affected. Pork is also a domestic product only, and so far no issues with swine flu. Pork is a very popular source of protein here so there’s always plenty available in stores.

      We also have some fun shopping bags from Hawai’i, but they are currently in storage. Our four bags seem to be enough for now.

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  2. This is fun, it looks like you’re mostly set for the week. I’m also surprised by the price of rice, but it seems like there is a good reason for that. BYOB is a familiar habit as California has banned the use of plastic bags a couple of years ago. I’m a big fan of smaller packages, it makes portion control so doable.Please enjoy your meals, everything looks good and fresh!


    1. I think we’ll be OK until next Monday, which is when we plan to go shopping again. Hopefully we won’t run out of anything before then. Both of us are missing bread and snacks, but we really overdid those when were in England and are paying for it now. It’s not that we’ll never have them, but for now we don’t need to keep them around all the time. I love that the meat here not only comes in small portions, but that it’s already cut up for different needs and ready to cook.


  3. Those are definitely some things I miss about Japan – how meat and produce are available packaged in smaller amounts, plus the high-quality and affordable ready meals!

    Thanks for the detailed post with all pics, I really enjoyed it 🙂


    1. The variety prepared foods here are a wonder, and it’s no wonder they are so popular, from housewives to students to workers. I can’t imagine buying a meal in a convenience store in the U.S. (ick) but won’t hesitate to eat them here. They do have some weird things though – like a hamburger roll stuffed with yakisoba. Uh, no.

      The meat here is also of the highest quality, but it can be expensive. This year we’re going to try and buy and eat more fish, but it’s also expensive so we won’t be having it very often. The fish section of the supermarkets is downright amazing in the variety available.


    1. Did you recognize the package for the shumai? I don’t know if it’s the same but it looks like the famous brand from Yokohama. Packaging in Japan is an art form – sometimes I’m tempted to buy something just because the package is so pretty!

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  4. I love that you can buy smaller portions of things – even a half cabbage! With just two of us most days, we end up eating something over and over or throwing part of it out. Cabbage is a great example. And three carrots!

    You are much more disciplined than I am re: shopping and cooking. I’ve been making a real effort this month and have only succumbed to eating out once. But I admit I just get tired of cooking and love the atmosphere of a couple of our favorite restaurants. Just don’t love the hit to the budget. That said, I’m off to cook dinner. At least it’s something I really love tonight…seafood pasta.


    1. Just about everything comes in smaller portions, including produce. The half cabbage will be enough for two meals for us, while it would take us days to eat a whole one. Same for the smaller portions of meat – I’d have to cook a dish that we’d be eating for days. The smaller amounts make it possible for us to make just enough for two, with maybe one portion left over.

      I told Brett that when YaYu went off to college I was pretty much done with cooking – I’d been doing it along with the meal planning and shopping for over 40 years and I wanted to retire. It’s been a challenge cutting back though, and Im grateful for places like Japan where it’s easy to make smaller amounts, or for places like France and Italy where we could find a wide assortment of cheeses, pates, and salami which make a fine meal along with some fresh produce and bread. However, there is nothing like eating out when we’re in Japan, so I purposely budgeted in a weekly amount for dining out. Of course, our first outing will be McDonald’s with our grandson tonight :(. I can at least get my teriyaki burger fix though if nothing else.

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  5. I just missed you (flew home today)! We went to a tiny beef katsu place in Shibuya (near Scramble) that was really good, and apparently quite popular. We went early & still had to wait outside on the stairs for maybe 15 minutes. It was an experience. 😉


    1. I have never had beef katsu, only pork and chicken. I’d like to try it and will keep my eyes open. We’re really close to Shibuya (3 stops away) so when we’re over there will look for the place and try and make it one of our weekly dining out places. There’s an affordable Michelin-starred chicken restaurant in Ebisu we’d also like to try this time if we get a chance.

      Sorry we missed each other. One of these days though . . . .


      1. Those two locations seem like the most likely for a meet-up. We’ll be in Japan until April 19, so if there’s another trip here for you coming up in the next couple of months, let me know! We’ll be back in PDX in June and December, or at least that’s what it looks like now.


  6. Very interesting post!

    One of the things my youngest and I loved to do when traveling was to explore grocery products in other countries and try them. I think although he was a picky eater he is way more adventurous than he used to be. I like to think that exposure during travel helped to broaden his outlook as an adult.


    1. What you say about your youngest becoming a more adventurous eater because of his exposure to different foods through travel is what happened with our son. He was a picky eater (still is in many ways), but became far more willing to try something new or different after our stays in Japan.

      We try to find ways here to eat or use familiar foods in different ways. We’ve tried before to go “strictly native” but give up after a few days. Mixing the familiar with the unknown seems to make us more eager try new things.


  7. Thank you so much for sharing your photos and details about the items you bought! It’s so interesting to see the costs and packaging. I have one question, what is shumai? We bought some cookdo sauces after finding them at our local Asian grocer. I’ll have to go back to the store and get some more since they were tasty and easy to make.


    1. Shumai is type a Chinese dim sum: seasoned pork in a wrapper. It’s sort of drum shaped, and the wrapper doesn’t cover the top. Besides gyoza, they’re a real favorite here, and a famous item from Yokohama’s Chinatown.

      I’m glad you liked the CookDo sauces! I love all the different varieties we can find here compared to what’s available in the U.S. We’re planning to once again fill the bottom of our suitcase with a variety to bring back with us.


      1. Oh interesting! The first (and only) time I’ve had dim Sum was when we were in Sidney in Chinatown and it was amazing! I just learned that a restaurant here serves it but only on Friday nights. I can’t wait to go and will have to get shumai if it is on the menu. Also I was interested to learn that Japanese only want to eat rice grown in Japan which totally explains the supply/demand.


      2. Shumai are typically steamed, too. They’re actually fairly easy to make – our girls have made them several times. You need wonton wrappers though, which are brought up around little balls you make of the seasoned ground pork – can you get them where you are?

        Here is a recipe for shumai made in an Instant Pot


      3. I’ll have to look up a recipe. If I can’t find the wrappers at my regular grocery store then I’ll swing by the Asian store. They sound delicious and easy to make!


  8. Thank you so much for taking the time to do such an in-depth post. It is fascinating!

    If the pork packages are 2/3 of a pound, then the ground pork is much cheaper than I pay, which is $5.98 a lb. CT has some of the highest food prices in the states per the Missouri cost of living quarterly survey.

    I think I counted correctly – there are 11 lunch/dinner dishes plus breakfast – you did really well!


    1. I typically buy pork here because it does cost less than beef or chicken (plus we like pork). Japanese cuisine is very different from the U.S. in that meat is not the “star” of the meal; it’s more of a condiment. You just don’t see big roasts, chops, etc. here. Even the larger size packages of meat are a fairly new thing here. I think the average middle class salary here is not as high as in the U.S. and with housing so expensive and a high savings rate I think stores work hard to make quality food affordable. Rice seems to be an exception, but in my opinion they can almost charge what they like because it’s such a staple here. Bread is becoming more popular though.

      Eleven lunches and dinners is about right. No leftovers for lunch today (Saturday) unfortunately as we had McDonald’s last night. We’re going to have to use some change from our miscellaneous fund and pick up something at a convenience store today (around 500 yen).


    1. The 15 bottles (10-pack + 5-pack) were 556 yen, or $5.10. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but we’re going to keep drinking it. Costco sells it in Hawaii (20-packs?) but I never checked the price there.

      OK, I just checked the Euro price against the yen – you’re getting them for less than we do here.


      1. We’re drinking “New Yakult,” (shin hatsubai!) whatever that means. The other versions are available here as well, but all I know is the original, and this packaging looks the closest to it. I can read anything on the package otherwise except for the word “new” and Yakult (in katakana).

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