Although grocery shopping in a new country can be an interesting exercise as you discover new products and in many ways learn about the culture of that country, you may find that along with your favorite brands from home, grocery shopping is quite a different experience altogether. Having lived in Tokyo and Yokohama, I can share the ins and outs of grocery shopping there which you may find vastly different to what you are used to at home.
Grocery shopping in Tokyo: How often?
This is one of the biggest differences between grocery shopping in Tokyo and shopping in Australia. Whereas in Australia, most people will do a big shop once a week or even less frequently, in Japan, daily grocery shopping is not unusual. Women tend to do most of the household shopping and buying what they need for the day is extremely common. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, most families have smaller kitchens and fridges than those found in countries like the US or Australia, so they tend not to store large amounts of food. Secondly, a lot of people walk or ride a bicycle to do their shopping, so they only buy as much as they can carry. In fact, it is so common not to buy large amounts that most of the supermarkets I used to go to did not have trolleys, or only had a few for elderly people, while everyone else used a basket. Another reason why shopping is done daily is because of a preference for buying and eating foods while they are at their freshest. This is definitely one of the nicer aspects of shopping in Japan. Of course if you have the kitchen space and a car you might still want to do one large shop a week. In this case, you should go to a supermarket with parking attached so you don't have to cart lots of bags up the street to the nearest parking station.
Paying for groceries in Tokyo
Cash is king. While supermarkets may accept various cards, a lot of places don't, so it's a good idea to get used to carrying around enough cash to last you. Because Japan is so safe, I was comfortable taking out enough money to last me for the week.
Grocery shopping with a pram in Tokyo
Except for the larger supermarkets, don't expect wide aisles like back home. If you are using a pram and it's a big three-wheeler, you might find shopping in all but the biggest supermarkets a pain or impossible. For advice on what kind of prams suit life in Japanese cities, see the Pram and Stroller Guide for Japan.
Where to shop for groceries in Tokyo?
Coming from Australia where most people shop at one of several supermarket chains (who set their prices knowing there are few other options), Tokyo is an absolute godsend for grocery shopping with its dizzying array of shopping options. Here are some of the types of stores I frequented:
Shotengai - This concept is definitely one of the things my husband and I miss most about living in Tokyo. In most parts of Tokyo, you will find neighborhood shopping streets called shotengai where several small specialty shops supply the neighboring area with most of their daily fresh food needs. Near train stations there are sometimes even larger shotengai, which may or may be covered, with an even greater number of stores, restaurants, cafes and other consumer businesses. In the last area I lived in Meguro-Honcho, we had a shotengai less than a minutes walk away with a fish market, bakery, two vegetable shops, fruit shop, two butchers, 7/11, cooked food take-ou store, dry cleaners, laundromat, toy store, homewares store, and an Italian restaurant. In the early evening when mostly women or retirees would be on their way home the street would be buzzing with shoppers buying that evenings' dinner ingredients. Several times a week I would stop and buy fresh fish or chicken, vegetables and a crusty baguette on my way home. The other great thing about shopping in these small mom & pop type-stores is that you can develop a friendlier relationship with the store owners than in supermarkets.
Supermarkets - There are so many supermarket chains in Tokyo alone I won't even try to name them. I personally shopped regularly at at least 5 of them during my years there. I'm sure there are many differences between them, but the biggest ones I noticed were price and selection of foreign goods. I think nearly all the supermarkets I frequented also sold fresh produce and cooked food. I won't recommend any chains to you since they probably do differ depending on where you live, but do make sure to visit all the supermarkets in your area to get an idea of how they stack up in terms of price and product range. When I lived in Daita my local supermarket which was not that large had a really impressive range of foreign cheeses and chocolates, though unfortunately the prices reflected the more international tastes of its customers. Another important thing to find out is what days there are specials. I only discovered this when I was leaving but one of the supermarkets I used to go to sold all its frozen goods at half price one day a week. In Tokyo at least you will also find several international supermarkets in the Minato-ku area, though you will find they are significantly more expensive than local stores, so you might want to save them to buy goods that are not available locally. Finally, all the supermarkets I went to had loyalty cards so do sign up as over time you'll earn discounts or credit.
Discount supermarkets - Unlike regular Japanese supermarkets where items are displayed neatly on shelves and there are many different brands available, discount supermarkets tend to display items still in their boxes, and have fewer brands. For the lack of shine and order, you pay less, sometimes a lot less, so it's definitely worth finding out whether you have any in your area. My local one also had fruit and vegetables at really good prices so it was definitely worth the 10 minute bike ride to get there.
Fruit and vegetable stores - I've noticed that these are often separate stores. Vegetables in Japan tend to be quite cheap with plenty of variety. In some smaller vegetable shops you are supposed to tell the store owner what you want and they'll get it for you. Don't worry, quality is really important in Japan so they won't try to offload old or bruised items on to you. There are also stores that sell fruit and what fruit it is, perfectly formed and coloured. I personally rarely bought my fruit in one of these stores since they were so pricey. I have a feeling these stores are more for people who are buying fruit as a gift.
Fish and meat stores - As mentioned in the shotengai section, most people will have a local fish market and a butcher selling poultry, red meat or both. You may find your butcher doesn't display the meat at all and you are supposed to order what you want and they'll prepare it especially for you. I've shopped at both this type and the larger ones where all the different meats and poultry are on display.
Bakeries - If you appreciate good bread then you will find a lot of Japanese bakeries lacking. I can't tell you how many times the smell of freshly baked bread would tempt me into a bakery, only to discover that with the exception of baguettes, most of the other breads were some kind of variation on sweet bread or cheesy bread. That said, there are some truly excellent bakeries around with a more European take on bread.
Online grocery shopping - Check out Online Groceries in Japan if you want to avoid the crowds and buy online instead.
Co-op - When I lived in Yokohama I used to do co-op shopping where I'd receive a catalogue each week (with my latest order) and note on the form what products I wanted to receive two weeks from then. I'd then put that form with the empty co-op container to be picked up the following week when they dropped off my next order. If that was confusing, let's just say co-op shopping required me to think ahead two weeks. I won't say it replaced my grocery shopping completely, but was very convenient considering I lived in an extremely hilly area where it was impossible to go shopping with a bike. If you are interested in co-op shopping and you don't speak Japanese, ask a friend to help you since setting it up will require Japanese ability. You may even notice neighbours in your apartment block who shop co-op (once a week you'll see a cooler outside their door), and perhaps you can ask one of them to help, or you can intercept the co-op deliveryman next time he comes as I did.
Kaldi - I mention these stores by name since they are a Japan-wide chain and because I don't know of any store like them. In addition to selling coffee (they almost always have someone standing outside the store giving passerby's small cups of coffee to try), they sell a variety of foreign goods including a big array of sweets, cereals, jams, dairy products, pasta, sauces, snacks, etc.
Hanamasa - Another store I wanted to mention by name since it is also a chain located throughout Japan. Hanamasa is basically a bulk-buy store selling mostly large-sized packages of some dry or canned goods, frozen meat and chicken, fruit & veg, dairy goods and more. When shopping there I noticed that the owners of small bars or restaurants would also shop there, so the prices were definitely better than buying at regular supermarkets.
Costco - There are many Costco stores located throughout Japan that are also great for bulk-buying American and some Japanese goods. When you go there you'll be tempted to fill up the massive trolleys and you'll probably spend quite a lot, but what you buy will last you for ages. I purchased some plastic wrap from Costco and I think it lasted me for almost two years. You must be a member of Costco to shop there so either become one or go with a friend who is. Membership costs 4,200 yen per year. The other thing to note is that Costco stores are not located very centrally so most people go with a car. If you don't want to go there you can always order Costco products through Yoyo Market or The Flying Pig (see Online Groceries in Japan for details).
Department stores - A lot of department stores have a floor dedicated to food and some of them are truly not to be missed, and even well worth taking friends and family visiting Japan too. I couldn't possibly do them justice here except to say you will find a mouthwatering array of cooked foods, salads, fruit & veg, sushi, Japanese sweets, baked goods, beautifully decorated cakes, and sometimes world-renown foreign food items such as chocolates, macaroons, bread and more. Instead of going out to a restaurant, treat yourself and take home some prepared dishes. Some notable department stores for food include Daimaru at Tokyo station, Isetan in Shinjuku, Mitsukoshi in Ginza, Takashimaya in Nihonbashi, and Odakyu in Shibuya.
Convenience stores - The combini deserve a special mention, and are another of my much-missed aspects of living in Japan. Convenience stores in Japan really do live up to the name. In some areas you will literally find one on every street or two. I used to have several within a 5 minutes walk radius of my apartment. If you need milk, bread (just the white, highly processed kind unfortunately), drinks of many kinds, ready cooked meals, snack foods, and more, you will really appreciate having so many convenience stores around. And what is really great is that they are not priced outrageously like the ones in Australia!
99 yen stores - I debated whether to list these under the convenience store heading since they are often open 24 hours, but I felt they deserved their own mention. I had two of these within 2 minutes walk of my apartment and they were truly fantastic for buying things like milk and dairy products, pasta, canned goods, and snack foods. They also sold a small range of fruit and vegetables, perfect when you realize you've run out of onions or tomatoes, or fruit. With everything priced at 99yen, you'll appreciate having one nearby.
Take-out - I'm not going to talk about fast food take-out or restaurant take-out, but rather the stores which sell ready cooked food sold by weight or number of items. I had a few of these in my neighborhood and they are honestly the working person and/or busy parents dream. Let me describe my favorite one which is not so dissimilar to the others. Basically you walk in and there are about 10 different salad or cooked vegetable dishes, about 10 cooked dishes based on meat, poultry, seafood or tofu, a few pasta and rice dishes, tempura or deep fried foods, hamburg (basically a thick, hamburger patty in sauce), grilled or fried fish, gyoza and other dumplings, and of course boiled rice. Most of the dishes are sold by weight and it is self-service. There are disposable plastic containers which you fill up yourself, and after you have collected all the food you want, you go to the counter where they are weighed and priced. It's very reasonably priced and not at all difficult to put together a relatively healthy meal, with barely any effort including no dishes to wash at the end!
As you can see there is no shortage of stores to buy groceries or even cooked food in Tokyo or other Japanese cities. Happy shopping!