One of my favorite things about moving abroad was shopping locally for food. It’s so fascinating to see what different types of food products are sold at restaurants, convenience stores and especially grocery stores in Japan. I remember mine and Ben’s first experience in a Japanese grocery store and let me tell ya, it was OVERWHELMING. Everything was packaged in colorful, eye catching designs - many of which included cute cartoon characters. At random areas in the store catchy jingles or kitschy songs would be playing although we couldn’t figure out why! The seafood selection was also unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed as well... Have you ever seen an entire octopus sold at the grocery store? In Japan it’s just another common item stocked at the grocery store.
Thankfully, our days of utter confusion and bewilderment while food shopping off base are over. We’ve since found our “go to” grocery story called San A which is located just a mile from our apartment. We don’t go super often, but it is the preferable spot for vegetables, fruits, and Japanese deliciaies like ramen noodles, sushi, tofu and miso.
From first glance, San A looks pretty much like any other standard American Grocery store. The only big difference immediately upon entering is that there are no giant, metal carts for you to dump a months worth of food in. Much like Europeans, Japanese people shop for groceries much more frequently and in smaller quantities so small shopping baskets suffice.
Once you start searching around San A you’ll start to notice the unique selections. On our last trip I noticed seaweed shaping tools that are used to make cute faces on your onigir or rice balls. My absolute favorite part of the store though is the mega wall of instant ramen. No, this isn’t the same garbage you used to suffer through to survive during college (the struggle was real) it’s honestly akin to restaurant quality ramen. Although Ben and I can’t read the directions and haven’t attempted to translate them, our method for cooking this bowls of heavenly goodness has worked well for us. I could happily live off of these forever, although the sodium content could probably be a health concern.... Oh well! If you ever have a chance to try some real, authentic instant ramen definitely do so!
I know I was meant to live in Japan, even if only for a few years, because Japanese people appear to be just as cat obsessed as me! I regret not buying the ramen featuring the cute lil kitty below. If I bought all products that featured cats though I’d probably end up with several full baskets!!!!
An interesting thing about food shopping in an area with a totally different cuisine and culture is how much variety there is for certain products that are often overlooked in America. The picture directly below is of tofu... So. Many. Different. Options!!! If I could eat tofu (thyroid problems are the worst) I would definitely try all of these brands. I’m one of the rare people who actually loves tofu and I used to use it in all different types of strange ways during my fleeting 10 months as a vegetarian.
Another must know in a Japanese grocery store is the difference in noodles. Below are just some of the many types and brands of soba noodles available. These noodles are made of buckwheat and have an entirely different texture and taste than ramen noodles. The two could be interchangeable to the untrained palate, but in Japan they are absolutely meant for two different and distinct dishes.
I find it quite interesting how extensive both the ramen and soba noodles selections were, yet the American/Italian style pastas comprised of just a few small boxes. Sometimes I forget that many Asian countries don’t find your classic “spaghetti and meatballs” dish a common meal!
Besides the bakery, which is by and far my favorite place in San A, my runner up favorite area is the pre packaged food. I can’t even begin to count how many times Ben and I have ran over to San A just to pick up a salmon roll or mixed nigiri tray for a pre dinner appetizer. If you were every curious, it’s true that the sushi in Japan is just better. It’s so, so fresh and you can tell that it’s the real deal. Not to mention, for whatever reason sushi is extremely affordable here. That giant platter of nigiri shown below is only ¥665 which equates to about $6.23..... I’VE SPENT MORE AT MCDONALDS THAN THAT!!!!! Unreal.
Sushi isn’t the only cuisine offered at the prepackaged meal section though, you can also find gyoza, pizzas, fried chicken, all different types of bento boxes and all different types of yakitori. It can be hit or miss though if you don’t utilize a translator.... I will never EVER forget eating intestines that I mistook for crispy chicken skin!!!
Checking out is also a bit different than it is in the states. There’s no conveyor belt, you simply put your basket next to the clerk and she or he will take out your items one by one and package them in a plastic bag (which you have to purchase.) I swear, I’ve had my food packaged more perfect and gracefully than Christmas presents I’ve received!
The clerk will also make sure you have chopsticks and soy sauce, they keep a little stash right by the payment area. Once again, just another little reminder at how different his culture is (although I absolutely love it.)
Both the Beni-imo (purple sweet potatoes) and sushi were purchased at our local San A, don’t they look incredible?!
Have you ever food shopped abroad? What’s your favorite part about it? Let me know below and thanks for stopping bye!
We're Kara, Ben and baby Zoe also known as the Lesniaks. We’re a Marine Corps family currently stationed in Yorktown, Virginia after a three year tour in Okinawa, Japan. Enjoy our adventures, travels, photos, thoughts, and life together!
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