Provisioning in Japan

One of the guaranteed delights of international travel for me and probably most of us is visits to grocery stores that clearly cater to a different palate than the ones back home. No trip anywhere is ever complete without a ramble around at least one or two.  Of course if you live somewhere for any extended period of time, as opposed to sustaining yourself via hotels and restaurants, the interesting ramble morphs into the more protracted and somewhat bewildering effort to choose items that 1.) you need and want and 2.) won’t kill you or take some kind of preparation that is completely incomprehensible or impossible with the tools you have on hand. Then, of course, there’s the language barrier and usually, the kilos-and-liters thing to boot. All part of the fun.

So it was with a sense of high adventure and some trepidation that I made my first serious grocery run in Japan, courtesy of the minibus schedule described elsewhere. The Saturday shopping trips go to a mall some ~25 minutes from the university, and here is our first sight of the shopping mecca du jour:

Luring the masses

Luring the masses

Once inside, of course, we are greeted with traditional Japanese hospitality, and in this case, a flyer advertising “Curves” gym classes for women:

Wonders await

Wonders await

In Aeon, as in many supermarkets, the first section is produce. My mother always grumbled, “Why make us buy all the soft stuff and put it at the bottom of the cart where it will be smashed by the time we get it to the register?” Well, the marketing psychology, it turns out, is that if you buy fruits and veggies first, you will have a sense of healthy accomplishment right off the bat and will then go and buy more of all that UNhealthy stuff. Or so they think. But my first grab was indeed some of the soft stuff, the white peaches that are in season at the moment, and boy, are they great:

Packaged to survive the trip

Packaged to survive the trip

A little further on through the produce one finds a regional specialty, the bumpy cukes:

But why?

But why?

Another local delicacy is mushrooms, and in the shot below you can see a variety as well as a typical Japanese cautionary notice, hard copy and video:

Proceed with caution

Proceed with care

So far, so good. But not so far from here I started wading into the land of “I have no idea what I’m looking at.” My best guess is that this is the Wall of Tofu, but I can neither confirm nor deny:

Not a clue

Not a clue

Nearby I think I spotted the Wall of Pickles, redeemed in my mind by their colorful nature:

All the colors of the rainbow

All the colors of the rainbow

Okay, time to return to identifiable items. I followed the visual cue being hung by friendly employees to the Land of Finny and Scaly Things:

Creatures of the deep available here

Creatures of the deep available here

On closer inspection, all sorts of goodies inhabit these chilly chambers. I’ll confess here and now that I bought none of them, but it sure was fun to look. Here’s salmon (I think):

Take as much as you like

Take as much as you like

Nearby, some snails and sea urchins, again I think…

Squishy sea things

Squishy sea things

…some smoked (?) fish, I think:

Ready for you head to tail

Ready for you head to tail

…and finally in this section, some truly beautiful but rather spendy sushi ready-t0-go. J, this one’s for you:

Grab your wasabi and go

Grab your wasabi and go

We bid a fond farewell to fresh things and enter cautiously into the long middle aisles, where bags, bottles, and boxes await. I could post about a hundred pictures here – it was hard to keep it this short – but I chose images that I think you just wouldn’t see anywhere in the US outside of an Uwajimaya Japanese supermarket, which I know are in Washington and Oregon states but not sure if they extend anywhere else.

Here, for example, is the soy sauce aisle. The bottles on the bottom, if you can’t tell, are actually really big:

Don't run out, now

Don’t run out, now

Somewhere in the maze I stumbled across this product, which is as far as I can tell is some kind of “instant breakfast-type” portable dry mix for busy people on the go. I gotta say the packaging could use some help:

Not my friend

Not my friend

I was also astonished to find an entire section of the store dedicated exclusively to green tea:

Good for you

Good for you

…but thankfully before too long I was back in familiar territory, but just with a Japanese twist:

Who's the designated driver?

Who’s the designated driver?

I was particularly charmed by brands I had never seen before, here some fruit beers from Guam:

Mango tango

Mango tango

So, cart as full as I could manage, I headed for the check-out. It’s a two-step process. The clerk takes your basket, scans the prices into the register, and then puts the food back into another basket with a plastic bag or two if you haven’t brought your own. Then you take the new basket with your items to a nearby table and bag them yourself. Here’s my colleague R demonstrating his technique:

All in the wrist

All in the wrist

One last clever stage to go. Near the packing tables is a dry ice machine. For a few yen, you put your freezer goods into the machine and WHOOSH! they’re cold. Here’s R again showing you how it’s done:

Who'd a thunk?

Who’d a thunk?

Second later, your perishables are ready for a long trek (in the melting heat and humidity) back home. J, you could use this for the island hauls:

Stay cold, damnit

Stay cold, will ya?

So there you have it….my first serious foray into the mysteries of Japanese comestibles. I’ll have another blog soon on “The 100 Yen Store,” kind of like the Dollar Store in the US, but your eyes are probably glazing over by this point, so I’ll stop for now. Bon appetit!

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4 Responses to Provisioning in Japan

  1. Janet Stebbins says:

    Most enjoyable. So how large was the store? Looks sort of like an average CVS – yes? smaller?
    It is clear they deserve a packaging award as well. So do you have a cook ring or microwave in your room? Did you find COFFEE?

  2. arleebug54 says:

    The store was actually quite large – extended a ways to the right from the entrance picture. Larger than Trader Joe’s, smaller than Hannafords. I have a stove with two gas burners (I can hear the envy). Found coffee, couldn’t find the filters. (Apparently sold at a different store.) Still enjoying Nescafe.

  3. Nice to know that I’m not the only one wandering about with a list in one hand, basket in another, juggling a camera, and a dictionary while searching for kippered herring in paprika sauce. Great pictures and your enjoyment of the moment obvious. Have you discovered the pickled dikon and kamaboku fish cake yet?

  4. Marie says:

    Wow! Those dry ice machines are new to me and I use to visit those stores nearly everyday. Must be a fairly recent addition.

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