Japanese Supermarket Guide: Must-Know Phrases, Food Label Breakdown, Money Saving Tips, and More!

Traveling Japan on a small budget? Worried about dining out in Japan because of your dietary restrictions? One way to solve both of these problems is by shopping at your local Japanese supermarket. But if you don't know Japanese, this can be a nightmare. What sort of products are even sold in Japanese grocery stores? What do the food labels say? Can you pay by credit card? In this guide to grocery shopping in Japan, we answer all these questions and more. It's the ultimate reference for anyone with minimal Japanese language skills looking to hit up a Japanese supermarket!

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Table of Contents

What Are Supermarkets Like in Japan? Answering the Most Common Questions
What Can You Find at Japanese Supermarkets?
How to Read Japanese Food Labels
Useful Phrases to Know Before You Enter a Japanese Supermarket
How to Save Money at a Japanese Supermarket
Enjoy the Japanese Supermarket Shopping Experience!

What Are Supermarkets Like in Japan? Answering the Most Common Questions

Are Supermarkets in Japan Open 24/7?

It may often seem like Japan is a country that never closes, but their supermarkets sure do. In fact, most supermarkets in Japan do not operate 24/7, especially in more rural areas! Some open as early as 7 am and some as late as 10 am, and they can stay open until anywhere between 8 pm and 1 am. This is slowly changing over time, with more supermarkets shifting over to 24/7 operation, but don't be surprised if your nearest supermarket closes at 9 pm.

Examples of supermarkets that do operate 24/7 are Seijo Ishii and Hanamasa, but even then, this differs by store.

What Are the Differences Between Japanese Supermarkets and Those Overseas?

1. Carts: In Japan, the cart is not actually for carrying groceries, but instead the baskets themselves! The standard procedure is to choose a cart and then put a basket on top. If you plan to buy a lot, you can put another on the bottom. Bigger grocery stores even have larger carts that'll let you add two baskets on the top and two on the bottom!

2. Basket Color: A lot of stores in Japan have an anti-theft two-color basket system: one only used during shopping and another one for after checkout. It's a surprisingly simple yet ingenious system!

3. Self-Checkout: Most supermarkets in Japan will not have self-checkout machines. Even for small one-item purchases, you are usually expected to line up and pay at a register. If there is a self-checkout machine, however, you're in luck—many of them have multilingual support!

4. Bagging Groceries: In Japan, you are normally responsible for bagging your items. There will usually be a bagging corner in front of the cash register where you can pack up your groceries.

These are just some of the main differences we've spotted over the years. We discuss a few more throughout the article, so keep reading to find out more.

Can I Pay By Credit Card?

Japan is a very cash-based society. While many stores today do accept cashless forms of payment such as credit cards and even IC cards, it is still common to find a supermarket that will not accept anything other than cash. Furthermore, even within a store that accepts cashless payments, you may find that some registers will only accept cash! For this reason, we highly recommend carrying some cash with you at all times.

Another form of cashless payment is points, which we cover in more detail later on in the article.

What Can You Find at Japanese Supermarkets?

Now that you know a little more about supermarkets in Japan, let's answer one of the most important sections: What exactly is available at a Japanese supermarket? Note that this is by no means an exhaustive list, as we've covered only the main sections that every shopper should know.

Bread

One of the first things people might look for while grocery shopping is bread. The main kind of bread a typical Japanese supermarket will have in stock is "shokupan." Square, often pre-sliced, and incredibly fluffy, this bread may be amazing for toast, but it is actually a little closer in consistency to wonderbread according to Western tourists. For something more resembling an American or European idea of bread, look for stores with a dedicated bakery. If you're looking for a particular kind of bread, here are some words to keep an eye out for:

全粒: Whole-grain
無糖: No-sugar
グルテンフリー: Gluten-free
小麦: Wheat
ライ麦: Rye
米粉: Rice flour
内麦: Domestic wheat

Rice

The majority of rice in Japan is short-grain (as opposed to Western long-grain rice) and usually no more than 1 year old. It usually comes in 5-10 kg bags, though you can easily find 1-2 kg bags of rice as well. Here are the common varieties you can find at Japanese supermarkets:

玄米: Brown rice
白米: White rice
無洗米: Rice that doesn't have to be washed
もち米: Mochi/sticky rice

For more unique varieties like jasmine rice (ジャスミン米) or basmati rice (バスマティ), you’ll have to visit import shops or specialty stores.

Japanese supermarkets stock far more than just rice in this section.

For example, you will also find microwavable rice, packaged like the image above. These are great when you don't have access to a kitchen, and they plump up just as deliciously as regular rice! Other examples include blocks or strips of mochi, bags of quinoa, packs of multigrain rice, sekihan (adzuki bean rice commonly eaten during special occasions), and so on.

Fruits and Vegetables

Expats usually have this to say on their first visit to a supermarket in Japan: Wow, fruit is expensive in Japan!

There are two main reasons for this: first, unlike many countries overseas, fruit in Japan is considered to be more of a dessert item. Second, the national regulatory body behind fruits and vegetables in Japan—the JA (Japan Agricultural Cooperative)—has set incredibly strict regulations behind fruits sold at supermarkets. Anything that looks less than perfect is usually not put up for sale, so whatever does pass their criteria gets marked up.

The plus side is that Japanese fruits are normally of high quality. It's not uncommon for travelers to comment on how sweet the strawberries in Japan are, or how perfectly round the melons are. Browse any decently-sized supermarket in Japan and you'll even see premium fruits being sold at exorbitant prices! These are gift items for special occasions or house visits. Definitely give Japanese fruits a try when you're in the country!

As for vegetables, their prices and variety are comparable with supermarkets overseas, so you shouldn't have too much trouble finding whatever it is you'll need. If you can't find anything at a regular Japanese supermarket, you will have better luck at an import store or specialty store.

One key thing to note, however, is seasonality. Unlike many other countries, most of Japan's produce is grown domestically. While this ensures freshness and quality, it also means that you can only get certain produce during specific months. For example, mandarin oranges are commonly seen from early winter to early spring, but outside of those months, you will be hard pressed to find them. Keep an eye out for what's in season!

Meat and Fish

Meat in a typical Japanese store will be packaged in much smaller quantities than what you’re probably used to and might not be as cheap. Chicken (鶏肉) is usually the most affordable option, followed by pork (豚肉) and beef (牛肉). Some supermarkets may also sell lamb (ラム肉). For more unique kinds of meat like venison, you'll have to check out a specialty store or butcher.

Keep in mind that there are many cuts of meat in Japan that are rarely consumed overseas and vice versa, so don't be surprised if you can't find a specific cut of meat.

As for fish, because the Japanese generally eat more seafood than meat, supermarkets with even a rudimentary fish section should have a lot to choose from. The type of fish to buy will ultimately come down to everyone’s individual tastes. The most important thing to focus on are the fish grades that you will find on the labels. Look for any of the following:

生食用/刺身用: Suitable to eat raw/as sashimi
加熱用: Needs to be cooked
焼魚用: For grilling

Dairy and Eggs

In Japan, it's pretty easy to find regular cow milk (牛乳), soy milk (豆乳), and almond milk (アーモンドミルク).

Cow milk in Japan comes in a wide variety, from those fortified with iron (鉄) or calcium (カルシウム), to low-fat products (低脂肪). To check exactly how much fat your milk has, look out for the fat content label (乳脂肪分). As for soy milk and almond milk, it's pretty easy to find both regular and sugar-free versions, so pick whichever you prefer. Other varieties like goat milk will require a visit to specialty stores.

When it comes to Japanese cheese, most supermarkets will not have much to offer, and even when they do, you might find the prices significantly more expensive than back home. Shredded/sliced yellow cheese is common, but for anything other than that, you’ll need to look for expensive imports.

Yogurt is a different story, with Japanese supermarket shelves being stocked with many yogurt brands, including drinkable ones. These, too, are often fortified with calcium and other minerals.

It's common to find both white and brown varieties of eggs, as well as quail eggs, in your average Japanese supermarket. Unlike some countries overseas, however, the expiration dates of Japanese eggs can be quite short. The reason why they are kept short is because it's assumed that they will be consumed raw—a perfectly safe and normal practice in Japan, thanks to its strict and thorough sterilization process—in such dishes as tamago kake gohan, or raw egg mixed into a bowl of hot rice.

If you've never tried raw eggs before, definitely try them out while you're in Japan!

Alcohol

The first thing you should be careful of when shopping for alcohol is the word "sake" (酒). In Japanese, this simply means "alcohol." So, beer is sake, and so is whisky. For what people in the West understand as "sake," look for "nihonshu" (日本酒), which is Japanese rice wine. There's also "shochu" (焼酎), a distilled spirit that might remind one of the Korean soju.

Beer (ビール) is also a bit complicated. Not all the products that look like beer at supermarkets are actually beer. Under Japanese law, alcoholic beverages made with less than 67% malt content are classified as "happoshu" (発泡酒), not beer. Though happoshu is very similar to beer, some Westerners claim they can taste the difference between it and the real thing.

Next up is the alcohol content. It is measured in ABV percentages instead of proof, so look for the word "arukoru-bun" (アルコール分) followed by a numerical value and either a % or a 度 sign.

Lastly, please note that while in some countries the drinking age might be 18, it’s 20 in Japan. You might be asked to show ID to prove your age, so please have something ready at all times and always follow the law.

International Food

Some supermarkets will have a section with imported items where travelers will occasionally be able to find basic products from their home country. But they are rarely extensive, so we recommend checking out chains that specialize in imports, such as Gyomu Super, Kaldi Coffee Farm, AEON, or specialty shops found in such parts of Tokyo such as Ueno, Shin-Okubo, or Shimokitazawa. Here are our favorites.

Ready-Made Hot and Cold Foods

Most stores have hot and cold food sections stocked with ready-made side dishes and meals. If you just need a quick bite to eat or if you're looking to save some money by not eating at a restaurant, these sections can be lifesavers. Most of the food is prepared the day they are sold, including the bento boxes and sushi, so rest assured on the quality and taste.

The best times to visit these sections are in the morning—just a few hours after the store opens—and around lunchtime. These are when most supermarkets will push out fresh, new batches of food.

Tsukemono

Many supermarkets in Japan will also have a section dedicated to pickles, known as "tsukemono" (漬物) in Japanese. While most of the offerings in this aisle are, indeed, Japanese pickled items, you will also find Korean kimchi, pre-made tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelet), packaged potato salad, and so on. They are surprisingly cheap and come in small portions, so why not try some for yourself?

How to Read Japanese Food Labels

The Basics

Apart from the Japanese words we've already introduced earlier in the article, here are some more important words for you to remember. Even better, print out this article and carry it with you as a reference!

賞味期限: Expiration date (in Y/M/D format)
内容量: Net content (in grams)
本体価格: Pre-tax price
税込: With tax
税抜: Without tax

How to Tell Where Food Is From

To be clear, all the food that you’ll find at Japanese stores is perfectly safe to eat, but if you want more information about its origin or where it was processed, then the characters you need to know are 産 and 地, which should appear somewhere on the label.

You can tell if the food was sourced from Japan if, right before or after the above characters, you see the words 県, which specifies which prefecture it comes from, or 市, which points out which city it comes from. If it does not have the word 県 or 市 on it, chances are high that the food was sourced from another country.

Another useful word is 国産, which means "made domestically" or in this case, "made in Japan."

Nutritional Information and Allergies

For nutritional values, look for the word 栄養. If you search for the words listed in the above picture, it should be pretty easy to decipher most Japanese nutritional information labels, but just keep in mind that Japan is on the metric system. In other words, if you come from a country that uses the imperial system, you ought to bring a calculator that can convert between the two systems.

Near the nutritional information label, you will often find an allergen (アレルギー) label. These are normally written in Japanese. To save you the trouble, here are some of the most common allergens to look out for:

小麦: Wheat
卵: Eggs
えび: Shrimp
かに: Crab
乳成分: Dairy
大豆: Soy

Kosher/Halal Foods

Kosher and halal certifications do exist in Japan, but they are not widespread yet. What's worse, foods that may often appear fine can, in fact, be forbidden for certain religions. Rice for sushi, for example, is often mixed with mirin, a sweet Japanese rice wine.

The best thing to do is go online beforehand and check available guides to kosher and halal foods available at Japanese stores. Another option is the previously-mentioned Gyomu Super chain, which imports some halal products from Southeast Asia. Kaldi Coffee Farm, another supermarket chain, also has an impressive collection of imported foods, including kosher and halal products. They’re also probably the best places to find items with vegetarian and vegan certifications.

Words to watch out for:

ハラル: Halal
コシェル: Kosher
ビーガン: Vegan
ベジタリアン: Vegetarian

肉エキス: Meat extract
出汁: Fish soup stock
みりん/味醂/味淋: Mirin
ゼラチン: Gelatin
動物油: Animal oil

Useful Phrases to Know Before You Enter a Japanese Supermarket

Here are some key phrases to know when you're at a Japanese supermarket:

・Pointo kaado wo omochi desu ka? (Do you have a loyalty point card?)
*Hai = Yes, Iie = No.

・Ohashi wa hitsuyou desu ka? (Do you need chopsticks?)
*Asked when buying ready-to-eat meals, etc.

・Fukuro ni oire shimasu ka? (Do you want me to put this in a plastic bag?)
*Hai = Yes, Iie = No.
*Some stores will have plastic bags laid out before checkout, so just take as many as you need.
*From July 1st, 2020, all Japanese supermarkets will be required to charge a minimum of 1 yen for every plastic bag.

・Kurejitto kaado wa tsukaemasu ka? (Can I use a credit card?)
*As mentioned earlier in the article, not all payment lanes will accept credit cards. When in doubt, make sure to ask this question.

For more useful Japanese phrases, try reading our article on 12 important phrases to know before entering a Japanese convenience store. Although this article isn't about supermarkets, a lot of the same phrases are used, so it'll come in quite handy!

How to Save Money at a Japanese Supermarket

Grocery Shop Late at Night

Any fresh produce or ready-to-eat meals that don't get sold near the end of the day tend to get discounted, sometimes by up to 50%! While the selection will certainly be less than if you went shopping midday, you will definitely be able to save quite a bit of money by shopping late at night.

Look out for 割, the Japanese word for discount. The number in front of it will tell you the percentage the item is being discounted by. Using the above picture as an example, 2割 = 20% off.

You might also see the Japanese word for "yen" (円) followed by 割引 or just 引き. In this case, the discount is not a percentage but a specific amount in yen. For example, 20円引き = 20 yen off.

Convenience Stores vs Supermarkets

The great thing about convenience stores is that they're, well, convenient. Many of them operate 24/7, they stock a lot of your grocery store essentials, and they can be found everywhere. However, all that convenience comes at a price. Often, items sold at convenience stores will cost a fair bit more than what's stocked at supermarkets. Ice cream, drinks, and snacks, for example, normally cost a good deal less at supermarkets. Pay attention to the price differences and plan your shopping strategically!

Regular Supermarkets vs Discount Stores

For basic items like vegetables, bread, and drinks, the price differences between different supermarket chains are basically negligible for consumers. But a few places do offer amazing deals on more expensive items like meat, ready-to-eat meals, or bulk purchases. Local chains such as Hanamasa or Gyomu Super, for example, cater more to the restaurant industry and therefore can afford to really slash their prices.

Another popular discount place to get your shopping done is Don Quijote. Though it is more commonly known for its plethora of amazing souvenir options, many of its stores have a giant supermarket section that boasts a massive selection of fresh, frozen, canned, and bottled food items. You'll find anything from spices to fresh vegetables and even imported cheeses, all available at bargain prices!

Sign Up for a Point Card

Many Japanese supermarkets run membership programs where you can earn points for every purchase. These points usually cannot be exchanged for cash, but they can be used towards future purchases. In essence, they're an easy way to get free money!

The catch is that you will usually need to know Japanese to even be able to register into such programs. Other downsides include having to renew your membership every year and having your membership cancelled if you don't make a certain number of purchases in a specific time period.

All this said, if you frequently visit Japan and know a little bit of Japanese or have someone who can interpret for you, definitely take advantage of these programs!

Enjoy the Japanese Supermarket Shopping Experience!

For many people, eating out might be one of the highlights of any vacation, but it can really put a dent in their wallets. Others dread eating out while on vacation because of their dietary restrictions. Then there are people on extended vacations who, after weeks of dining outside, get bored of what restaurants have to offer.

The supermarkets of Japan provide a solution to all these people! Sure, grocery shopping in Japan might look scary at first, especially when you don’t know the language, but it’s actually easy if you reference this guide. If you muster up the courage to try, you'll find it to be a learning experience, as you'll get to see exactly what the Japanese eat in their day-to-day lives.

What are you waiting for? Print out this guide or bookmark it for your next Japanese supermarket shopping trip!

 

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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