Supermarkets in Japan

Visiting a supermarket when you are in a foreign country can be  a lot of fun. Similarities, differences, oddities... and picking up a few items as souvenirs, it is a great way to spend an hour on a rainy day during your travels.
Japanese supermarkets (スーパーマーケット) are no exception. Coming from New Zealand, I can say the biggest differences for me are the sizes, of the supermarket itself, as well as the products for sale. Many kiwis (New Zealanders) shop for a week`s worth of food and supplies at a time, so the large shopping carts, huge loaves of bread, big plastic bottles of milk and liters of ice-cream are commonplace.
I have noticed that a lot of housewives in Japan shop for the day (or a few days at the most) when they visit the supermarket. Many don`t even push a cart, but carry a basket as they get fresh vegetables and fish for the night`s meal.
According to the world wide web, the large supermarket chains in Japan (with the highest annual sales) are...
- AEON supermarket
- Seven and I holdings
- Uni group holdings
- Daiei supermarket
- Izumi supermarket
- LIFE corporation
I went to the local supermarket (Kansai Supa) this morning and took some pictures to help you visit a Japanese supermarket from the comfort of home!
As soon as I walk in the door I can smell the hot sweet potatoes. Baked over hot stones, they are soft and gooey in the center. Very nice when the weather is a bit chilly outside.
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Fruit is VERY expensive at department stores and some specialized fruit shops. You've no doubt seen the $60-$100 watermelons and $10 peaches on social media! But at local supermarkets it is more reasonably priced. One big difference I notice is the way fruit and veggies are sold. The price advertised is for one piece of fruit, rather than per kilo (which is the norm back in New Zealand). Bagged fruit and vegetables are obviously priced for the whole bag.
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Check out this selection of pickles! Great with rice or curry!
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Making miso soup? You can buy every kind of miso imaginable.
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A wide selection of soy sauces.
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Some weekly magazines and comic books.
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Bags of rice. Smaller 2kg bags or larger 5kg bags here.
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Pouches of baby food.
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Furikake: sprinkle this over your rice or add it to your rice balls as a nice change to plain white rice.
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Green tea (in bags or as powder) to be enjoyed hot or iced.
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Plastic bottles of tea.
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Ice-cream. There are no large family-sized buckets at my local supermarket, just the small single serve cups and cones.
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Fresh meat. My local supermarket has recently started selling marinated meat ready for cooking.
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Pet food.
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Beauty items like shampoo/conditioner, toothpaste, face wash etc are available but a little more expensive than the local drugstore, so check the prices first!
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Baby shampoo, wipes and diapers (also more expensive than at the drugstore).
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A kitchen must-have in Japan... bento goods!
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Everyone`s favorite aisle, the snacks and chocolates!
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Chips, crackers and salty snacks.
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Breakfast cereals (some resembling our favorites from home - in much smaller boxes).
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Bread. Sold in packs of 3-6 slices depending on thickness. There are a huge range of WHITE bread, and recently a handful of rye or wheat grain bread too. Japanese white bread is a little sweeter than the loaves back home.
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Deli meat (ham, bacon etc). There is no fresh deli in my local supermarket, so all ham and bacon is sold pre-packaged.
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Sake! Japanese alcohol in a wide variety of flavors and sizes.
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And wine (definitely less selection here than back home in NZ).
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Yogurt and probiotic drinks.
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Soy and almond milk (flavored and plain), in single serve and 1L sizes.
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Ready made bento lunches for picnics in the park or quick dinners at home.
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Sushi rolls.
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Keep an eye out for seasonal flavors which are HUGE and big business here in Japan. Today I found Sakura flavored yogurt. If you find something you like, stock up quick! Chances are they'll be gone next time you visit.
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Cheese, butter etc. A much smaller selection than back home. And mostly processed cheese here.
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Once you've filled your basket, head to the checkout. I have never seen a conveyor belt checkout in Japan (with the exception of large foreign ones like Costco) so just put your basket on the counter, and the staff with scan everything through. They will likely put the scanned items in a new basket (sometimes of a different color - to indicate you have paid for them) and tell you the total price. Most supermarkets charge for plastic bags (around 2-5yen per bag), so if you plan to stay a while in Japan, bring your eco-shopping bag with you each time to avoid the charge for a plastic one. And unless you only buy a few items, the cashier won't pack your bag for you. After you have paid, move your basket over to the packing table and pack your items away yourself.
*note: some supermarkets have recently introduced the electronic self-checkouts. They are still in their early stages, so unless you are buying a small number of items, and don't mind the inconvenience of beeping machines, alarms and staff running over with their special keys/cards, I would much prefer chatting with the cashiers the old fashioned way!
*note: most Japanese supermarkets will stock mostly Japanese food. So if you're after something a little more exotic, try an import shop like Kaldi, or the basement area of a department store which will have more selection.
*note: if you find out-of-season fruit or veggies at your local supermarket, chances are that they have been imported. Check the signs/labels to find out where they come from (if you are worried about this type of thing).
*note: shopping with allergies is a bit difficult in Japan, so look for this label on the back of packaged foods to find out what might be contained inside, and what allergies might be triggered. The label below shows that this product contains dairy (乳), wheat (小麦) or soy (大豆).
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*tip: visit a supermarket in the evening to get discounts on fresh food, ready-made meals, and meat/fish! Discounted items will have stickers on them showing the % discount or 円 discount. The stickers don't show the new price of an item... be careful! These kanji 半額 (hangaku) mean half price.
Happy shopping!
Fran xx

Fran Japani