The mega-mall has yet to make its way to Japan. Neighborhoods tend to be spotted with small specialty shops and restaurants. Some neighborhoods have a "shopping street" leading out from the station, sometimes a long as half a mile. These roofed-over pedestrian streets have wall-to-wall shops and eateries, interrupted by the occasional pachinko parlor.
Department stores tend to cluster near the larger train stations; these buildings are usually 5 to 10 stories tall, with groceries on sale in the basement, restaurants on the top floor, and almost everything else in between. Don't count on finding Price Clubs in Japan, but there are some close alternatives. There is a small chain called "Topos," a department store with no advertising or glitz, that sells just about everything for discount prices straight out of their cardboard packaging. I know of only three, one in Tachikawa, another in Kita-Senju, and a third in Omiya, all of these being in or around Tokyo. There may be more, but I don't know their locations.
The Local Supermarket. Most neighborhoods have a local supermarket within perhaps 20 minutes walking distance; you might want to add proximity to one of these markets to your list of imperatives for an apartment, as you will almost certainly not have a car to bring groceries home in. There are not too many nationwide chains; many supermarkets are local affairs.
The Japanese supermarket (self-standing, not the kind in department store basements) will be perhaps half or even a third the size of a big-city Safeway back in the U.S. The setup will be similar to what you are used to; aisles from one end to the other, and checkstands in a line near the front of the store. Sometimes there will be a second floor, which will probably feature non-food items from kitchen supplies to gardening items to toys.
Many of the items sold in the supermarket will be familiar, but a lot will be a complete mystery. They sell milk, but it may taste a little strange to non-Japanese. Nonfat milk is not always available. Yogurt is there, but don't expect flavors (unless they stock Yoplait). The fish section will be pretty good, and the meat section is pretty complete, if a tad expensive--and yes, those steaks are cut really thin, aren't they. You might want to try out the yakitori for home cooking--they even sell a special hand-held grill for cooking them--but expect them to give off a ton of smoke when cooking.
One quick description may fit all of the shelves in a supermarket: less variety than you're used to. They sell soup, but there's not much variety; cereal, but there's not much variety; ice cream, but--you get the idea. Expect 3 to 5 flavors or varieties of any given food item. Ice cream is mostly vanilla and chocolate, with the occasional strawberry, rum raisin or green tea flavors thrown in. Bread is usually sold in cubes, kind of like half-loaves; few include end crusts. Most fruits and veggies are there, but don't expect raspberries or blackberries. Melons are famous for being incredibly expensive in Japan, but in truth they're just really expensive.
A few items not to expect: licorice candy or root beer. Japanese people always think these taste awful. Japanese people also tend to stay away from foods or candies that are very sweet; traditional Japanese candies, like sweet bean paste, tend to be very bland to western palates. Generally speaking, however, you will be able to find most food items you are used to
Don't expect to be able to use credit cards to pay, and I don't think any shops accept ATM cards. Expect to use cash. There is no choice between paper and plastic, just plastic. Also, some supermarkets are closed one day every few weeks; get to know your market's schedule.
Convenience Stores. They really are convenient, believe me. A convenience store will likely be the closest source of food to where you live. Open 24 hours as well as all those days the supermarkets are closed, they are a great source of most of the items you might need when it's too late or inconvenient to go to the supermarket. You can also pay your bills, send and receive faxes, and send parcels via "takkyu-bin," the Japanese version of Fed Ex-type shippers.
If you have a hankering for food like you could buy back home, there is a mail-order outfit called the Foreign Buyers Club, or FBC, has the kind of products you'd find in an American supermarket. The drawback is that you usually have to buy in cases of 12 or 24 units; prices are higher than in the U.S., but lower than you'd pay if you found the same kind of items in Japanese stores. The goods are delivered straight to your doorstep. They also sell meats, cheeses and even books available. Payment is made by money order or by a bank transfer, call them at 078-857-9001 for a copy of their catalog and the papers needed for ordering.
Back To Main Page