Anmona Handique Mahanta
Whenever it is to a new place or a new town, the first thing that always makes me comfortable is getting myself acquainted with the food market around the much stranger place. Yes, familiar food products always make me feel at home and I feel that is one of the best ways to connect to a place because it is said that a happy tummy makes the heart happy! So, through this column today, I would like to share my first time solo experience in a mini Japanese Supermarket and would also like to give a gist of the common things that one can find in a Japanese Supermarket or any random departmental stores in Japan that are one of a kind.
It was just my seventh day in Japan, 2019 - the pre-corona days and it was a bright sunny Friday. After having a hefty lunch mainly with the leftovers from the previous night, I checked the refrigerator and there was nothing for the night. I thought I'd ask my husband to get some stuff from the nearest departmental store when he is on his way back home but then again I wanted to give him a surprise by cooking something special for a Friday dinner. And then I decided to go all alone to the departmental store or can say, the mini Japanese supermarket near our place. The store was just 7 minutes away from our home, which was at a walking distance and was attached to our nearby station, usually crowded at the peak hours of the day. As I stepped out from our house, I couldn’t stop admiring the extraordinarily neat and tidy streets, flocked with cute little Japanese houses. The blooming colourful petals in the gardens of the neighbouring areas girdled by the freshness in the air and the tranquil atmosphere just stole my heart as I walked through the typical Japanese residential lanes.
Not that I haven’t visited the store earlier , for I remember it was just two days before, I accompanied my husband for a short stint while he arrived from the office and we got to buy something. It was dark by then and almost the closing hour of the store was nearing and as such I couldn’t get the hang of the market. Being completely naive to the new place, that day I just blindly followed him and enjoyed a random quick stroll in the store. It was not like the typical supermarkets that are much huge and overwhelming but it had a limited set of items that was sufficient enough for day to day shopping of food stuffs and a convenient marketplace for the residents of the area or for any passer-by.
But now, I was all the way out for a solo adventure. Complete unfamiliarity with the local language and with a few Japanese taught by my husband, I was just trying to make myself comfortable among the Japanese crowd. I observed things slowly and one at a time as I had sufficient time to look around for the day. What amazed me was the discipline and super cleanliness of the market place. People did their shopping with such pin drop silence, and randomly mere whispers were heard only if you try to pay attention to their abrupt conversations. The staffs of the store greets you with ‘Irashhaimase’, meaning ‘Welcome‘ in Japanese with a humble bow, the moment they see you fishing for your thing or whenever they cross you . From different kinds of fruits and vegetables, meat and fish to essential groceries, needful stationery items, confectionery and dairy products , the departmental store had it all. And something was really nice to see that it also had a mini fresh flower section where many indoor plant pots were also kept for sale.
There were almost three to four payment counters in the store. However, that varies depending on the size of the supermarket. From young people to oldies were seen on duty as a clerk at the counters and their pace while clearing the accounts were incredibly similar. Can say, as quick as a flash. And from this, I would say, if you stand in the queue to get your bills done, just be familiar with the coins and notes, make it quick rather than being an odd one out. The clerks at the counters will always ask two questions once you are to check-out. First is, ‘ if you hold a point card? ’- which you answer in Yes (Hai) or No (Nai) in Japanese and the second one is , ‘do you want a packet to load your stuff?’, which you again answer in the same way. However, if you answer ‘Yes’, to the latter one, you may also be asked about the size of the packet you prefer to buy. And this says, you should at least know a little Japanese when you are shopping in a Japanese supermarket.
Fish in packets
Every item, say, meat or fish( mostly sea-fish) were all hygienically and beautifully packed, as if they were a packet of sweets boxes. As I approached the vegetable section, what I first looked for was lemons and coriander and thankfully I found them. Of course , they were weirdly priced as compared to the prices of my home country and especially what hurt the most was the availability of a few strands of coriander in a small packet charged with a price that cost over 100 yen. But no doubt, when it comes to the quality of the products, they are just pure and fresh. Apart from these, what I found was a row of bamboo shoot packets, taro (Kosu), white ash gourd (Komora), stacks of different varieties of spinach, lablab beans (Urohi), radish, zucchini, stacks of cabbages, dried fish packets and a few packets of green chillies. Although the prices of white ash gourds, taro and other vegetables like carrots, potatoes, brinjal, onions, cabbages were reasonably priced , prices of bamboo shoots varied where some were very expensive. In fact, vegetables that are usually considered as exotic in Japan such as beans and lady’s finger were also very highly priced compared to the quantity sold.
Okra (Lady’ Finger) in packets
Later, while visiting other Japanese supermarkets, what I found the most common were cabbages and radish. These two vegetables are never short of in the markets and the reason behind it is their constant use of these items in making pickles and in salads. Fruits were very expensive compared to the vegetables. Out of all the fruits the cheapest were bananas and oranges, avocados and sometimes apples are affordable but that is very rare. Melons were sold plenty but if you look at their soaring prices, it always looks better from far. Then I saw stacks of egg trays that are finely placed one upon another labelled under different categories from M size to L size to LL size. They come with expiry dates and sometimes are expensive, sometimes affordable.
In the dairy section, different kinds of milk were sold from low fat to zero fat milk, packed in paper cans, handy and convenient to use. I mean, when you take them home, you don’t have to use scissors to open the packet, with just bare hands following the signs in the packet you can use it. For the first time coming to Japan, I saw this unique style of unfolding something or when it comes to opening something, it's just easy and handy. Apart from the milk cans, it had a variety of yogurt of different flavours, small to big containers, different kinds of pro-biotics that also came with different flavours. There were Bento boxes usually sold for lunch or dinner sets. Cheese, bacon and sausages, different flavoured vegetables and fruit juices were also seen in huge quantities. There was a bakery unit like all other supermarkets does with different buns and breads and yummy looking cakes, a frozen food items section that also had different flavoured ice creams. Out of all these, there was another section that had Japanese rice stacks, local pickles, Japanese groceries and other local food products. Addition to this, as I mentioned earlier, it also had an essential stock of stationery and household items from detergents to dish washing soaps, normal bath soaps, Japanese incense sticks, toiletries, wet tissues and different kinds of tissue paper boxes, different sanitary napkins, diapers and so on.
Well, after going through the finely packed hygiene corners , I loaded my basket with a packet of bananas, one lemon, some potatoes, spinach leaves, coriander and a few grams of chicken meat. The moment I checked out after paying my bills, I was followed with a long greeting of ‘Arigatou Gozaimashita (meaning Thank you for visiting)’ with a humble bow and a smile. I remembered the lines taught by my husband when the store clerk at the cash counter asked me if I would need a packet or if I had a point card. And in one go I just replied ‘Nai desu ’(means no). Once I stepped out from the store, I just relieved a happy sigh that I did it and it all went well! Indeed , it makes one feel so nervous when you can’t speak the language of the place and above that you are new but again want to try something new. And till today, I would say, I am still learning the Japanese language! Pheww!
So, that was my first time solo experience in a mini Japanese Supermarket. In this, I would like to share that in Japan, it is Aeon - the largest supermarket retail chain. The rest one can find departmental stores or mini supermarkets like the one I visited. Now, after the pandemic rise, these supermarkets like any other public places are all well-equipped with sanitizers at the exit and entrance of the supermarkets and most cash-counters have automated self-check outs. In fact, I also got to know that just two-three hours before the closing hours of the market, some items like vegetables , fish, fruits, usually bananas, Bento boxes are sold at 10-20% discounts.
Hence, Japanese Supermarkets are just super clean hygiene markets and the items sold are more or less which depends on the size of the markets. For instance, large supermarkets like Aeon have more variety and huge quantities where you can find the products. These supermarkets have well-equipped, neat and tidy washrooms with high-tech facilities, even convenient for mothers as washrooms are equipped with baby chairs. In fact, the shopping carts have the facility of babysitting.
[ To see the inside of the spectacular Japanese Supermarkets,
please watch my Youtube channel Anmona Handique ]
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