What makes a Japanese grocery store special?

by Emi Noguchi

For anyone outside the country, Japanese food is often considered a luxury, and certain Japanese groceries are hard to come by. But within Japan, of course, Japanese food, Japanese snacks, and Japanese grocery stores are all just...food, snacks, and grocery stores. Today we’ll be taking a virtual tour through your average supermarket. When the stars align, we hope you’ll do your own “Japan haul” in person.

Japanese grocery ingredients

First off, shout out to anyone who started making more Japanese food at home during quarantine. Pandemic grocery shopping for standard ingredients was already a fraught experience, but acquiring specific imported goods was next-level challenging. If you struggled to track down new ingredients, we’d wager that a trip to a bonafide Japanese grocery store would have you walking on clouds. Why? Availability. Variety. Substitutions? Unnecessary. If you ever dreamed of cooking with light and dark soy sauces or buying pre-fried tofu and beef already sliced ultra-thin, if you never dared imagine miso in all its colors or how it must feel to walk through an actual aisle of seaweed, you have made it. At the Japanese grocery store, the gourmand with a sweet tooth will find kinako and red bean paste. The new cook tired of scraping together meals for one (or seven...we don’t know your life!) might enjoy sampling from an astounding diversity of furikake. A sprinkle of seasoning mix (think spice, sesame seeds, dried fish, and nori) on a bowl of sticky rice will fill the stomach quickly.

Japanese Grocery Items

If you’re looking for ready-made Japanese food, the average Japanese grocery store offers up some seriously high quality ready-made meals in a section called Osozai. At night, discounts can dip as low as 50% on beautiful trays of sushi, udon with the sauce on the side to prevent sogginess, and tempura donburi (that’s tendon, tempura over rice, for short), to name some examples. If you don’t have time to build your own, Osozai also offers up bento boxes.

Much has been made of the astounding quality of Japanese convenience stores (for a peak behind the curtain, check out Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman). It’s true, the combini puts its foreign counterparts to shame. But it’s a little known truth that a Japanese grocery store is where you go for Japanese snacks in greater quantities at a lower price point.

This brings us to one of the guiding principles behind the modern Japanese grocery store: quality over quantity. There are plenty of practical reasons why Japanese groceries come small. To name two: limited storage space and modestly-sized kitchens, and the fact that many shoppers will return home on bicycle—child in a carseat, bags in baskets. Some might argue that there are cultural sensibilities behind the less-is-more approach to shopping. We’ve written on the blog about the all-important template by which one builds a traditional meal: ichijusansai, or “one soup three dishes” (not including the rice). Building a meal in this format might make for more little dishes to wash, but it also makes for healthy and balanced meals. Another thing that makes for healthy eating? Fresh food. Here, you’ll find fresh-made udon and ramen bagged in the refrigerated section.

On to the produce section! Let us put forth a bold proposition: you may have had a peach before. Maybe your whole life you’ve eaten peach after peach, all peach season long. But if you haven’t eaten a Japanese peach, the size-of-a-softball, juice-to-your-elbows peach, you haven’t really tried what a peach can be. Like many fruits here, it comes wrapped in its own little styrofoam sweater. Every moment of its life, from stock to seed, delivery to the shelf, this Platonic ideal of a peach has been treated with real care, and its sticker price shows it. Perhaps these prices are yet another reason why, at the Japanese grocery store, less is more. Food waste will hit your wallet harder when everything’s a premium good. Here, a person’s “Japan haul” is more of a curation than it is an abundance. If you’d like to indulge, we suggest buying two or three stems at the in-house florist.

Japanese Mochi

As serious fans of Japanese snacks and candy, we ought to close on one of the most exciting products available at even a chain Japanese grocery store: wagashi, or traditional sweets. Alongside seasonal offerings, all manner of mochi and dango can be bought any day of the week. Also in the baked good section? East-West hybrids like sweet melon pan and soft white bread sliced three inches thick.

It’s time to check out. Leave the chiming announcements and talking shelves behind you. (Did we mention that there was a lot of ambient advertising going on?) Once you’ve paid, pack up your bags in the designated area past the register. Bike to your Japanese home with your Japan haul on your Japanese bike. For the next few days you should have plenty of Japanese groceries in your Japanese fridge to make your Japanese food. And all that shopping should have provided you with plenty of Japanese snacks, until your next visit to the Japanese grocery store.

Take a peek inside a real Japanese grocery store!

Author Bio

Emi Noguchi is a fiction writer, blogger, and freelance writing instructor, and co-founder of MFA App Review. After studying standard Japanese at Columbia University, she picked up Kansai-ben while living in Osaka and some Awa-ben in her paternal hometown in Tokushima. Emi is a 2020 recipient of the John Weston Award and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. You can read her work in Essay Daily, The Spectacle, and Fairy Tale Review. Emi is currently writing a novel about diasporic illnesses, art-making, and traditional Japanese puppetry.