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Ultimate Guide to Shopping in a Japanese Supermarket

Ultimate Guide to Shopping in a Japanese Supermarket

By Norie Matsumoto | November 15, 2021

If you want to survive in Japan, you should know about the Japanese Supermarket, because chances are, you’ll be spending a lot of time in them to find ingredients for your next meal or to get necessary household items. 

Although you may think that supermarkets are the same everywhere, there are actually some key differences that are good to know for your future visit. When you move to Japan, finding out which stores are the closest should be your top priority. This article will give you all the information you need about the bright fluorescent world of Japanese grocery stores from useful phrases to finding the best bargain.

This article is a part of our extensive series of guides on living in Japan.

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    Japanese Supermarket affordable food

    What is a Japanese Supermarket like?

    You may have never thought too much about the supermarkets back in your own country, maybe you just mindlessly picked up groceries and left as quickly as you came in. But you’ll start paying attention to the little details in supermarkets when you come to Japan.

    Differences in a Japanese supermarket compared to other countries

    The first thing you’ll notice are the differences of Japanese supermarkets in contrast to supermarkets back home:

      • Cleanliness: Compared to supermarkets in America or elsewhere, you’ll find that the ones in Japan are kept extremely clean. It’s rare to find anything on the ground and sanitation is of utmost importance. 
      • No damaged products: Another big difference is how there are no damaged products. Employees usually take care to keep damaged goods off the shelves as they are usually not sellable for their original price. Japanese people can be sensitive to keeping even the packaging in good condition. 
      • Well stocked shelves: Some items become very popular and you may find an empty row or two but you won't see too many because that can be an eyesore.
      • Shopping Carts: The shopping carts in Japan are pretty compact compared to American ones that are massive. The Japanese shopping carts are built on a smaller frame. Many are double-deckers, with space for two shopping baskets and easier to push around because they don’t take up a lot of width space.
      • Freshness: The produce section may have fewer quantities compared to American grocery stores but the ones you can find are often pretty fresh. 
      • Produce prices: Speaking of fresh produce, you will probably notice that the price of fruits in Japan is higher than the ones in your home country. This is because most Japanese fruit and vegetables are grown locally, and the farmers are paid a reasonable price. Don’t be surprised when you find $100 strawberries or just unfathomably expensive grapes, those are special ones for gifts that have the taste that is worth the price tag. 
      • Fish: in Japan are sold in different grades ranging from the highest grade of fish, which is suitable for raw consumption. Those say 刺身用・sashimi-yo (to be eaten as sashimi) on the package. Other grade fish are for cooking and frying. Only eat the sashimi-grade fish raw. 
    • Bagging: At most Japanese supermarkets, the cashiers will put your items from your basket, into another basket after checkout and you’ll have to go to a bagging station to bag up your own items. This quickens the checkout time and you won’t be in the way of the next customer. 
    • Nowadays, Japan has adopted the price charge on plastic bags like many other countries, so if you want to save the earth and some coins while you're at it, bring your own eco bag. They sell them at the supermarkets. Usually, they are at the front of the register and you have to take one and put it in the basket for the cashier to scan. 
    • Otherwise, you can ask for a bag by saying, 袋をお願いします・Fukuro o onegaishimasu (Can I please have a bag?)
      • They may ask you beforehand, 袋はいりますか?・Fukuro wa irimasu ka? (Do you need a bag?)or 袋はご利用されますか?・Fukuro wa go riyō sa remasu ka? (Will you be using a bag?)

    When checking out, it’s important to be able to count in Japanese, Ultimate Guide to Counting in Japanese

    Japanese Supermarket 24 hours open

    24-hour shops

    You may already know that convenience stores or conbini in Japan are all 24/7 but there are some big supermarkets that are also open all day and night, especially ones in big cities like Tokyo. Some ‘AEON Food Style’ markets are open 24 hours, but it’s best to check the hours of your local one as not all apply. 

    They say 「24時間営業」24-Jikan eigyō in big letters on their shop sign. Another one is 「成城石井」Seijō ishii which, if it is a 24 hour one, will have a big light-up square sign on their window, “24h open.” There are other ones that are 24 hours but these two companies usually have the most 24 hour shops. 

    Side note: Seijō ishii is one of the best places to stock up on international goods if you’re craving snacks, jams, or what have you from back home.

    Limited Time sales

    Time sales, where certain food items are on sale for a limited time might be common in your country as well. Japanese supermarkets have colorful flyers showcasing that week’s on-sale items, in recent years you can find them on their dedicated website. These deals can be different for every store so remember to enter your postcode on their website to find the one closest to you. Coupons on select items are not that much of a thing here, you just have to rely on the time sales. 

    If you’re new to Japan this guide will be helpful, Ultimate Guide to Life in Tokyo.

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    What you can find in a Japanese Supermarket

    Ready-Made Hot and Cold Foods

    Arguably the best thing about Japanese supermarkets is the number of ready-made meals that are made and put out every day. These are typically made in-store and are thrown out at the end of the day because they are made fresh every morning. Some locations even have them made throughout the day and have a label that says the time they were made. They are fried foods like croquettes and tempura. Also, there are many bentos you can choose from, as well as yakitori. They are also pretty affordable so you never really have to cook, many people just buy these and eat at home without the hassle of preparing their own meals. You can take tongs and grab however many croquettes or other fried items into clear packages and help yourself. Those are usually just counted up individually at checkout. 

    Get to know delicious Japanese food like Nabe, Ultimate Guide to Japanese Nabe.

    Seasonal Products

    Seasonal items are a big seller in Japan and every season or holiday, there is some new unique item made just for that short amount of time. Restaurants are big on Halloween-themed menus or Spring packaged items. People love the limitedness of products, and companies never disappoint. Next time there’s a holiday around, at the front of the store, look for everyday foods or snacks that are either specially flavored or exactly the same as usual but with a different package. 

    Food label Breakdown in a Japanese Supermarket

    If you pick up any product in the Japanese grocery store and turn it around, you'll find a complicated-looking food label where you would usually find the nutrition facts. If you don’t want to blindly eat something without knowing what it contains or want to know which food allergens it might have, let’s break down the label. Food label is 食品表示・しょくひんひょうじ shokuhin hyou ji. Here are the words you should look out for on the label:

    Japanese

    Hiragana

    Romaji

    English

    糖質

    とうしつ

    Tōshitsu

    Sugar

    エネルギー

    えねるぎー

    Enerugī

    Calories

    脂質

    ししつ

    Shishitsu

    Fat

    植物繊維

    しょくぶつせんい

    Shokubutsu sen'i

    Fiber

    ビタミン~

    びたみん

    Bitamin

    Vitamin

    タンパク質

    たんぱくしつ

    Tanpakushitsu

    Protein

    炭水化物    

    たんすいかぶつ

    Tansuikabutsu

    Carbohydrates

    ナトリウム

    なとりうむ

    Natoriumu

    Sodium

    カルシウム

    かるしうむ

    Karushiumu

    Calcium

    The expiration date is written after these words: 賞味期限・Shōmi kigen or 有効期限・Yūkō kigen. They both mean "best before '' or the expiration date. 

    Generally, under the nutrition facts are the ingredients list, which first has the name of item 品名・Hinmei, ingredients 原材料名・Genzairyō-mei, quantity 内容量 Naiyo ryou.

     

    nuts allergen peanuts snack

    Allergies: In Japan, only 7 core allergens are required to be labeled. The allergenic foods in Japan are: 

    Japanese

    Hiragana

    Romaji

    English

    ピーナッツ / 落花生

    ぴーなっつ / らっかせい

    Pīnattsu / Rakkasei

    Peanuts

    かに

    Kani

    Crab

    海老

    えび

    Ebi

    Shrimp

    たまご

    Tamago

    Eggs

    牛乳

    ぎゅうにゅう

    Gyūnyū

    Milk

    小麦

    こむぎ

    Komugi

    Wheat

    蕎麦

    そば

    Soba

    Buckwheat

    A lot of packages have at the bottom, 本製品工場では、乳、卵、ピーナッツ、小麦などを含む製品を生産しています・Hon seihin kōjōde wa, chichi, tamago, pīnattsu, komugi nado o fukumu seihin o seisan shite imasu. (Manufactured in a facility that also processes dairy, eggs, peanuts, and wheat.)

    If you can’t remember all of these words, you should use the ‘Google Translate’ app which has a camera feature that automatically translates the words if you point the camera at it. 

    If you want to know more in detail about allergens and nutritional facts in Japanese, see this article, Food Allergies in Japan: How to Enjoy Traveling Safely with a Food Allergy or Intolerance 

    Japanese Supermarket in Japan

    Best Japanese Supermarket to buy cheap groceries in Japan

    If you’re a student or just looking to save a few yen, we’ll let you in on the best places to find good deals on your next grocery trip. 

    OK super・オーケースーパー

    This is one of the biggest affordable chains, famous for its cheap prices. There are many locations throughout Tokyo, they are usually pretty large and have a couple of floors. Their large orange, red, and white, store sign that just says ‘OK’ is noticeable. The ready-made meals are at especially great prices. They also have household items like dish soap and paper towels. OK Store club members receive around a 3% discount for food (excluding liquor) with no fee to make one, but you must pay for your items in cash when you use them. Their stores are in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama.

    Life・ライフ

    Smile Life. This is another big store with cheap prices, rivaling OK super. It’s known for its green and orange company logo with a four-leaf clover on it. This store also usually has more than one floor. Life has a lot of its own-brand products which are typically cheaper than name brands. Look for the clover logo. They have a point card called LaCuCa. Their stores are in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Nara.

    Gyomu Super・業務スーパー

    My personal favorite, this company has its own production plants which means it can offer competitive prices on food products. 業務・ぎょうむ meanes ‘business’ because many people who run restaurant businesses shop here to buy affordable wholesale products to cook with at their stores. With these types of low-cost stores, they look a little different from typical Japanese supermarkets as their focus is not on appearances. They save money on having people unbox and display so you’ll see items displayed in cardboard boxes. Gyomu super has a lot of frozen foods and may not have as many healthy options as other supermarkets but to make up for it, have unique items like international snacks. Relatively small and fewer compared to the other stores on this list. Gyomu has some halal food, check out their website for details. 

    fresh fruits veggies in japan

    Big-A・ビッグ・エー

    Big-A has cheap fresh produce, relatively low meat prices, and a nice snack selection. Their stores are in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Ibaraki. 

    Maruetsu・マルエツ

    Known for their bentos and fresh produce. Some of their stores have self-checkouts. They even have online grocery shopping where they deliver your groceries to select areas so you don’t have to step outside your home. There are also Maruetsu petit which are smaller version stores, however, the products here tend to cost a little more. 

    Ozeki・オオゼキ

    They have affordable produce in front of their stores and can get pretty busy at night and on weekends. Ozeki has fresh, quality products and inexpensive meats and fish. They also have a huge selection of sushi for quite cheap prices. They have a point card and cashback. 

    Hanamasa・肉のハナマサ

    Hanamasa also has a delivery service where they will bring your groceries to your front door. This store doesn’t really look like the other supermarkets and is pretty small. Their stores are directed at the restaurant and hospitality industry, therefore the sizes are pretty large. This place is good if you have a family or if you have a big fridge to stock food in. Hanamasa is typically only found in central Tokyo. 

    Y’s Mart・ワイズマート

    Y’s Marts are generally small to mid-size supermarkets and are known for good value fish, meat, and pre-prepared food. 

    MEGA Don Quijote・ドンキ

    Don Quijote, or Donki for short, is a sensory overloading paradise for foreigners. You can’t be in Japan without going at least once. This isn’t technically a supermarket but past the chock-full of other random gadgets, haircare, and clothing, they have a basement floor dedicated to groceries that are super affordable, even ready-made meals. 

    They also have a lot of international snacks and noodles. If you’re looking for alcohol, they have lots, and for the cheapest prices around. Donki has a lot of great items for gifts, find out about omiyage, Guide to Japanese Omiyage. Be careful, if you go shopping for groceries, it’s hard to not want to buy other items and there’s no telling what you may end up walking out with.

    There are other spots that have affordable groceries for sale, The Best Places to Buy Cheap Groceries in Japan.

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    Japanese Supermarket money saving

    Money-Saving Tips at the Japanese Supermarket

    On the topic of affordable shopping, there are other ways to get a deal at your local supermarkets, without having to go to the discount stores. 

    Late night shopping

    The number one tip for saving a few hundred yen is to go to the supermarket at night, around 6-8 pm when ready-made meals are reduced because they have to get rid of whatever they don’t sell that day. The 割引・Waribiki (discounts) range from 20%-半額・Hangaku (half off). They usually have a new price sticker with a barcode. If they don’t sell they will keep discounting it so the price will be lowered throughout the night. The kind of foods you’ll find discounted are items like onigiri (rice balls), bread, croquettes, rice bowls, sushi, and more. 

    If you want to know more about sushi, Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sushi: How much do you know?

    Discounted blemished or close to expiration products

    Some supermarkets will have a corner in the back where they put damaged or unsightly products for sale at a discount. Here, you can find slightly overripe bananas or an ugly carrot that are just as good as the other produce. If you don’t care about appearances and more about the inside, why not buy these to save some money?

    Supermarket apps for coupons

    You’ll find that more and more Japanese grocery stores are jumping on the bandwagon of creating apps. Many of these apps have special discounts or coupons that are exclusive to application users. It can also be an easy way to see what kind of new products they have in store or the weekly deals since the flyers are digitized. I hope you have a lot of phone storage because almost every store has an app now. 

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    Words to remember in a Japanese Supermarket

    You might be nervous to go shopping if you don’t know a lot of the words that are written throughout the store, so to ease your anxiety, here are the most common Japanese words you can expect to see at the supermarket.

    Common ingredients with different names in Japanese

    Japanese

    Hiragana

    Romaji

    English

    重曹

    じゅうそう

    Jūsō

    Baking soda

    Su

    Vinegar

    醤油

    しょうゆ

    Shōyu

    Soy Sauce

    小麦粉

    こむぎこ

    Komugiko

    Flour

    しお

    Shio

    Salt

    胡椒

    こしょう

    Koshō

    Pepper

    佐藤

    さとう

    Satō

    Sugar

    あぶら

    Abura

    Oil

    Japanese Supermarket items with Katakana names

    Here are some items that are in Katakana and are loan words from other languages.

    Japanese

    Romaji

    English

    パン

    Pan

    Bread

    ケチャップ

    Kechappu

    Ketchup

    チョコレート

    Chokorēto

    Chocolate

    ピザ

    Piza

    Pizza

    カレー

    Karē

    Curry

    アイスクリーム

    Aisukurīmu

    Ice cream

    ケーキ

    Kēki

    Cake

    サンドイッチ

    Sandoitchi

    Sandwich

    スパゲッティ

    Supagetti

    Spaghetti

    チーズ

    Chīzu

    Cheese

    Useful Phrases you need to know for the Japanese Supermarket

    Now that you know some words that you’ll see in the store, you should learn about the useful phrases you can use while shopping. 

    Asking for help from an associate

    • 「____はどこにありますか?」Where is ______?
    • 「これはいくらですか?」 How much is this?

    Have an easy conversation in Japanese, Ultimate Guide to Japanese Conversation.

    Checking out at the register

    • お次の方どうぞ・Otsugi no kata douzo - Next in line please
    • ポイントカードはお持ちですか? ・Pointo ka-do wa omochi desuka? - Do you have a point card?
    • 少々お待ちください・Sho sho omachi kudasai. - Please wait.
    • スプーン/フォーク/箸はお使いになりますか? ・Supu-n/fo-ku/ohashi ha otsukai ni narimasu ka? - Would you like a spoon/fork/chopsticks?
    • 袋はいりますか?・Fukuro hairimasu ka? - Do you need a bag?

    There are so many other phrases to learn while living in Japan, Useful Japanese Phrases

    Japanese Supermarket cashier bag art cart food

    Payment Options in a Japanese Supermarket (So many!)

    For the longest time, Japan was a purely cash-based society, however, in recent years, big cities like Tokyo and Osaka have introduced many new ways of cashless payments and it seems like every day there’s a new payment method popping up in stores. These can acquire points or just make the checkout process smoother. Still, cash is king and will be the only guaranteed payment method that can be used anywhere in Japan, like the countryside. 

    Here is a list of the most commonly used cards:

    • Credit Card 
    • IC Card (Pasmo, Suica)
    • Pay Pay
    • Line Pay
    • Ali Pay
    • D払い
    • RPay
    • MercariPay
    • Wechat pay
    • Origami Pay

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    Japanese Supermarket point card credit

    Point Cards at a Japanese Supermarket

    Although many point cards are for convenience stores, some of them can be used in supermarkets and in restaurants. They are a good way to save money as once you acquire enough points, you can convert them into discounts at the stores or even for prizes.

    • T-Point: Associated with FamilyMart (but really a Tsutaya card). This is the most commonly seen point card. You can receive and redeem points at a big selection of shops, restaurants, and cafés.
    • Nanaco: A prepaid cash-rechargeable contactless electronic money card for 7-Eleven convenience stores, Denny's restaurants, and Ito-Yokado merchandise stores. It costs 300 yen to first get one at a 7/11 or Ito-Yokado. 
    • Ponta: Often seen at Lawson’s convenience stores. Points can be redeemed for items or discount coupons at Lawson. 
    • D Point: Run by Docomo. D points were established in December 2015, so still pretty new. You can get coupons and various other special bonuses depending on your stage. 
    • Waon: This card makes a cute “waon” sound after every transaction at the register. Waon is supposed to sound like a dog barking. There are Japanese municipalities that sell Waon cards with scenic views. 
    • Rakuten/Edy: Best for online shopping. It costs 300 yen to first get one.

    For a more detailed explanation of each of these point cards, Guide to Point Cards in Japan – How to Earn and Redeem Points

    convenient store convenience store 7/11

    Conbini vs Japanese Supermarket

    You may be wondering what the difference is between supermarkets and convenience stores as they are sounding very similar. 

    Here are the key differences:

    Japanese Supermarket: 

    1. Lower cost
    2. Larger space and inventory
    3. Mostly dedicated to food
    4. More fresh produce
    5. Bulk items

    Conbini: 

    1. One-stop shop
    2. Sells stationary/electronics/clothing in small quantities
    3. Ability to send and receive packages, make bill payments. 
    4. Buy newspapers/magazines/cigarettes
    5. Small portions
    Food for sale snacks food

    Where to find International Foods

    Feeling homesick? Sure, Japanese food is good and there’s a lot of variety at the supermarket, but sometimes you miss the taste of home. So if you are looking to find food from your home country or from other countries, these are the stores to go to.

    • KALDI: Not necessarily a supermarket but Kaldi Coffee Farm stores have roasted coffee, imported goods from different countries around the world, and original products. Asian foods are easy to find here. Very popular with Japanese people. 
    • Seijo Ishii - These smaller chain stores have a combination of foreign and local foods. A little bit on the pricey side compared to normal Japanese supermarkets. 
      • NISSIN World Delicatessen: This store also has a combination of Japanese and International foods. They have a lot of American and European snacks. They have several floors and LOTS of cheese. 
    • National Azabu - They usually have big stores with more than one floor. You’ll notice around these stores, there are a lot of international folks. They also have a lot of American and European snacks. You can even find Krispy Kreme sold in the store if you’re having a sugar craving. 
    • Natural House - They have a lot of organic and sustainable options. They have an array of supplements and beauty products that are hard to find in Japan. There's a large selection of vegetarian and vegan products. 
    • Costco - You might have Costco where you’re from, it's a little different in Japan but they still have American foods in bulk. However, Costcos are farther out from Tokyo since their stores are so large. You probably need a car to go to and from, especially if you want to buy a lot of food. Don’t forget, you still need a membership card if you want to get in. 

    Here’s an article that goes more in-depth about international food stores, Top 5 International Supermarkets, and Import Stores in Tokyo to Get That Taste of Home While in Japan 

    Conclusion

    There are so many great options to shop for your groceries in Japan, hopefully, this article has narrowed down your options and you learned something new that you can use for your future shopping trips. If you want to learn Japanese to make your life living here easier, Japan Switch offers helpful and affordable Japanese lessons that can set you on the right path to mastering the language. 

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