Today I thought I would share with you about something we can all relate to: shopping at the grocery store. Stores in Japan are a little different from those in Canada and the States, so let me walk you through a typical experience here in Okinawa.
Our supermarket is called かねひで (kah-neh-hee-deh). It’s an Okinawan-owned chain, and often the stores are small even by Okinawan standards. Think: about 1/2 the size of the smallest old-style No Frills you’ve ever seen in Canada.
Above: our local store
The first major difference comes just before you enter the store. There’s an umbrella rack there. If it’s raining, the rack is full. People trust that their umbrellas won’t get stolen! If a store doesn’t provide a rack, they’ll offer long, plastic umbrella bags. Putting your umbrella into one ensures that you’re not dripping all over the place and endangering the safety of other customers by creating slippery floors.
We do have a rainy season in Okinawa, so if you’ve brought your umbrella but it’s not raining yet, you can put it into a special holder built right into your cart.
So you’ve picked up your cart now, but you’re not done preparing to enter the store. People don’t put their food directly into their carts. Rather, it goes into a hand basket which is put into the top of the cart.
Above: the way Okinawan people set up their carts
Now we’re ready. On the way in, we might look at the campaign displays placed at the entryway. Every year, our chain runs a campaign where you get one sticker for every ¥1000 you spend (approximately $12CAD). If you collect enough stickers, you can buy a featured item for almost 70% off the regular price. One year’s featured items were pots; another year’s were knives; another’s, towels. Right now, it’s thermoses.
Above: a flyer advertising this year's campaign stickers
Okay, now we enter the second set of sliding doors. As they open, if there are any shop workers nearby, they’ll call out “いらっしゃいませ!” (ee-rah-sh-eye-mah-seh”), which means “welcome”.
If it’s around the time of a holiday—for example, Sports Day, or Respect for the Aged Day—there will be themed music playing from the store intercom. Each holiday has its own 20-second musical theme that’s played store-wide on a repeating loop just before the day in question.
But that’s not the only music you hear. As you walk around the fresh produce section, certain vegetables will also have their own theme music. In Japan, it’s not uncommon to hear three or four or five different types of music overlapping each other at any given time. This happens in department stores too.
In the fresh produce section, you will notice that there’s a very small fruit section. Most of the fresh stuff is vegetables. Vegetables grow faster; farmers prioritize them because there is so little land available. Fruit can be very expensive. The cheapest apples are ¥200 each (about $2.50 CAD). We usually have apples, pineapple, bananas, and grapes available to us in the store. However, many types of fruit aren’t available at all. Certain types, such as pears and plums, only show up for a week or two about once a year. When we see them, we splurge!
Certain vegetables, like cauliflower or white mushrooms, are also only available for an extremely short time each year. For our first three years in Japan, we never saw a cauliflower or a white mushroom. We do our grocery shopping weekly, so that gives you an idea how short the time frame is. (Most Okinawans shop 2-3 times per week.)
Dairy products are another interesting item. Dairy farmers prioritize the production of school milk for children. Only after milk quotas are filled do they produce butter and cheese. This means that in years when overall milk production is low, it can be hard to find butter for baking.
Cheese requires aging to taste its best. But in a land where space is a hot commodity, cheese on the grocery store shelf is often pretty young—so young that it might disagree with your stomach! Peter and I usually stick with imported cheese for this reason.
As you go up and down the aisles, you notice that the logic for organization is very different than in North America. There are only three kinds of breakfast cereal, but an entire aisle dedicated to ramen. The salsa is in the same aisle as the juice. There are loads of different types of seaweed and dried fish flakes. The ready-made foods are mostly rice balls, sushi, and cooked fish.
There are no big sales. Meat may be discounted by ¥100 (about $1.20 CAD), but that’s about the biggest discount. The only exception to this is the rice. There always seems to be some sort of rice sale. You might get ¥500 ($6.25 CAD) off on a 5kg bag.
Now it’s time to check out. There are no express lanes, but there is a special lane for pregnant, elderly, and disabled people. Some lanes are designated self-bagging; in some, the cashier will do it for you. We have a lot of groceries, and the cashiers are really skilled at fitting tons into each bag, so we go into one of the cashier-bagging lanes.
Above: special lane designated for pregnant and disabled people
When we reach the front, we put the handbasket with our groceries on the counter. The cashier asks us if we’ve brought our own bags. If we have, we hand them over. If not, we have to ask to buy bags.
Here’s where an idiosyncrasy of the Japanese language asserts itself. The Japanese are very specific in their word usage, and generalizations are typically not well understood. It took me a long time to figure out how to ask for a bag properly. The word for “bag” is 袋 (“boo-koo-row”). But if you ask for a bag, the cashier won’t understand. You have to ask for a “bag purchased at the cash register” (レジ袋, “reh-gee-boo-koo-row”) in order for them to understand.
As the cashier scans each item, she reads the full price aloud before putting it in the bag. At the end, she asks if you have a “T card”—a general-purpose points card, like AirMiles.
When paying, most people use cash. Japan is a cash-based society. You can use cash to pay for orders from Amazon, airplane tickets ordered on the Internet—pretty much anything! Occasionally, you might see someone using a credit card at the supermarket. There are no debit cards.
At the end, we collect our change, our receipt, and our campaign stickers. Off we go, putting our cart away, and collecting our wet umbrella at the door. We’re ready to start another day!