Grocery shopping in Japan

fried tofuOne of the things I enjoy about travel is how ordinary everyday activities are made extraordinary. Catching public transport is an orienteering exercise and leaving your hotel to find a meal is an adventure. A trip to the supermarket is like finding yourself in a game show where you need to buy the ingredients for a meal – in a shop where they’ve taken the labels off all the packages.

I did my first ‘shop’ in Tokyo today. We’re staying here for a month, so we get to pretend we’re living here for a bit. It was by no means a large supermarket, and I was just looking for breakfast supplies and some vegetables and rice for dinner. After a few times up and down the aisles I found everything I needed. choyaTechnically the plum wine wasn’t an essential item, but the fact I could recognise what it was meant it made its way into the basket.

While I was walking back to our little apartment, I had time to think about shopping as a metaphor for how we approach travel and adapt to different cultures. It sounds a lot more deep than it really is, but my two bags of groceries brought up some mildly interesting questions for me to consider. The most interesting and important was how much I push myself to experience new things when I’m travelling. I realised, looking at my groceries, it’s probably not as much as I’d like to think, as I spent a good deal of time in the supermarket trying to make Japanese products fit my western expectations. From the few items I bought I was able to make the following simple observations.

Bread isn’t a large part of the Japanese diet, although specialty bread shops (with ranges of sweet and savoury items) are very popular. In the supermarket sliced bread is only available in tiny 3-6 slice loaves. bread At home we would go through three times this in a week for breakfast alone. I still bought the bread, and will probably have to buy a tiny loaf every couple of days to fulfil our needs. One thing I have always found difficult on previous trips to Japan is eating Japanese-style breakfasts, consisting generally of rice, nori (dried seaweed), fish and pickles. I’ve tried and enjoyed, but just cannot face them every morning.

Fresh vegetables are generally prepackaged or individually wrapped. There was an uproar in Australia recently about individually wrapped produce. I find this ironic because the usual practise is to put our fruit and veg into plastic bags before we put them in our trolley. vegetablesIt’s essentially the same thing. Japan is big on packaging and the plastic bag is king. It’s convenient and possibly more hygienic. What changed my world today, though was pre-sliced spring onions. I didn’t know how much I hated cutting up spring onions until I realised I didn’t need to anymore.

Tofu is standard item. Even in the small supermarket I went to, there was a range of types: silken, firm, soft, medium, fried and others I’m not familiar with. Most importantly, it wasn’t tucked away with the ‘lifestyle’ or ‘alternative’ foods. Living with a vegetarian, I’m not adverse to tofu but the range in Australia is as limited as our attitude to it: it’s a substitute to meat and not something that a non-vegetarian would seek out. It’s interesting that while it’s notoriously difficult to find vegetarian food in Japan (they use fish stock and put meat in everything) tofu is also a staple. The bonus is that when you can find a vegetarian restaurant in Japan, the tofu will be the best tofu you’ve ever eaten.

Pre-prepared meals in the supermarket are amazing. They’re not nasty, prepared in bulk, tasteless mush. I had a mushroom spaghetti the other night, and it wasn’t too far off restaurant quality.

Sushi boxes and salads are everywhere and are fresh and healthy and cheap (my dinner of spaghetti was in the region of $3.00 AUD, my sushi lunch box a mere $5.00 AUD). It’s not hard to see this as an indication of the busy and cramped Tokyo lifestyle: long work days and small kitchens.

Motivation to cook, I can tell will be difficult to maintain. For this money, we would struggle to cook the equivalent ourselves (not to mention within the confines of our tiny kitchen). Added to this is within 100 meters of our little place there are two Italian restaurants, an excellent Japanese curry place, at least three Indian restaurants numerous Japanese places. We could eat out at a different restaurant every night we are here and not go to the same place twice.

All in all, I wasn’t as dazed and confused as I thought I would be during my first outing to a Japanese supermarket. Admittedly I played it pretty safe and there were plenty of clues if you looked for them: an English word here and there and standard packaging for basic items (e.g. milk still comes in cartons, although, so does alcoholic plum wine, and non-alcoholic fruit juice, so you can see where things might start to go wrong…) instructionsOn top of this is the fact that Japanese companies have mastered the art of creating fool-proof diagrammatic instructions on many of their products. Even if you can’t read a single word on the package, there is likely to be an illustration showing you exactly what you should do (for example, how to prepare these mushrooms – a kind I’ve never seen in Australia before). Perhaps this is another advantage to excess packaging?

This is the fourth and longest time I’ve spent in Japan and I’m loving it so far. Find out why I keep coming back in this earlier post and please follow my blog to stay up to date with my adventures.

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