If you were to come to my small countryside town in Japan, the first thing to notice would be the grocery store. It is the biggest building in the town, and basically serves as the town’s central sense of wellbeing. The words “heiwado” stretch across the billboard, ( meaning peace in Japanese ) and a symbol of a dove lies above it.
Inside is what you might expect: produce and price-tags; fluorescent lighting and canned goods; bowing clerks and delicious bentos. But not everything here is what you would expect. There are outdated 90’s CD players placed throughout the store that play incredibly cheesy tunes to accompany your shopping experience. The music playing is often heiwado’s own commercial tune, which you can check out here.
Why CD players? Also, why play this song?”, I often wonder.
Walking through the aisles you’ll notice that it can be extremely difficult to find ingredients you’re familiar with, particularly canned goods which are riddled in indecipherable kanji. For fruit lovers, you’ll have to spend a good portion of your pay check to maintain your sweet tooth cause fruit is largely considered a dessert here. Apples go for an average of 200 yen per unit, grapes, 600 yen per bundle, and a simple watermelon can be as high 800 yen.
Mexican food lovers might also be out of luck. They unfortunately don’t sell tortillas, taco shells, canned beans, or jarred Japalenos. You can find them at international food stores, but they are often rare and equally overpriced. Say goodbye to your beloved taco night and say hello to TAKO-yaki night (octopus balls!).
Throughout the store you’ll find there are still many comfort foods such as cereal, cookies, snacks; but everything will naturally be a different brand. This is certainly part of the fun though, as experimenting with these different snacks can keep you entertained for weeks.
Something unique about Japanese stores in general is that clerks will say, “itterashai”, which means “welcome”; but for many foreigners as myself it may sound strange. As for me, I still feel strange being told “welcome” when walking into a store. I’m more accustomed to people saying, “hello”, or “how’s your day going”, than “welcome”. What do you say back to welcome? You’re actually not supposed to say anything back..
This isn’t always the case, but in smaller towns such as the one I live in, people will give you “looks” because (quite frankly) you are a rare sight. My first time in the grocery store, i saw kids staring at me with wide eyes. The first thing people notice about me is probably my height, then my skin color, then my eyes if they happen to be close. It can be a little unnerving at first; but eventually you get used to being a walking novelty. But do keep in mind that eye contact in Japan means they are welcoming you; on the other side of the coin whenever someone averts their eyes away, it likely means they are trying to create distance between the two of you.
After you have collected all your off-brand cereal, overpriced fruit, and curious snacks, you’ll go to the register with your basket (aka no cart). The cashier will announce any discounts to you out loud to ensure fairness in price. After you pay, the cashier will put your basket onto another counter where YOU will have to bag the items yourself. And then you’ll go on your merry way.
The biggest difference to me, then, between American grocery shopping and Japanese grocery shopping is the customer service. Many people in Japan feel the customer service is satisfying because they use high culture customs such as speaking in keigo to you (honorific speech), and bowing when they greet you. However, from an outside perspective it can feel a little impersonal. It feels as if the clerk is doing everything they can to distance themselves from the customer. Shouting numbers, bowing, and going through a script of formality takes all the comfort out of customer service for this foreigner.
However, please keep in mind it’s not to say that any of this is good or bad, but just different. I’ve learned a lot about my own culture since being here for two years. Things as small as shopping are interesting to me, both in America and Japan, precisely because I know a different way of being in the world.
So while shopping in Japan can be very different and sometimes difficult, it can also certainly be interesting if you pay close attention. My first time shopping here, I discovered so much about the land including its culture, economy, and even trading. Obviously when we uproot and move to a new place, even the mundane things can inspire a sense of wonder. But I also think if we take a closer look at the things around us in daily life, ( wherever we may be ) a similar wonder can be found.
All we have to do, is …