Living in Japan: Food

Like everything else in Japan, the point of food has its pluses and minuses. One minus in particular is the stark difference of foodstuffs in the food stores, foods are literally foreign. Cuts of meat you’ve never seen before, strange looking vegetables, yellow kiwis. And some foods are just completely absent!

There is nothing more dismaying than to find in your hour of need a total dearth of comfort food. This will become apparent to you on your first grocery adventure.


Things you won’t find in the Japanese foodstore:

  1. Campbell’s soup
  2. Haagen daz
  3. Cookies
  4. Freshly baked bread
  5. Whole chickens
  6. Mac ‘n’ Cheese (oh yes, you read that right)
  7. American brand potato chips

American Foods you will find:

  1. Pringles
  2. Microwaveable Pizza

Foods you will find an abundance of:

  1. Rice
  2. Fish
  3. Soy Sauce
  4. Instant Ramen
  5. Sake

Paints an interesting picture does it not?


In the Japanese tradition of miniaturization, you will be disappointed to find said tradition enthusiastically applied in the grocery. This is most apparent in the Deli, where you’ll find standard: 1 chicken breast per package, one pound of ground beef or  less per package, 2 pork chops per package, etc. This is a stark contrast compared to Super Target’s Chicken Breast 6 pack, or Costco’s 10 pack.

Japan’s chicken is not cheap either. One chicken breast typically costs 200 yen ($2.50USD) That is roughly twice the price than the USA. And where are the whole chickens you ask? Fool! Don’t be so presumptuous! If you are in a big enough supermarket, you may find two whole chickens, at a price near $20 USD each. Suddenly the $6 chickens at Costco seem very affordable!


Possibly the most unbelievable and fascinating aspect of food in Japanese society is concept of “more product for the same price” Let us illustrate and illuminate.

In Japan, bread typically comes in bags of 5 big slices. (they are twice the thickness of American bread) This bag of 5 slices will cost about $1 US. Now things get interesting, when the same company has a bag of 6 slices for the SAME price... and a bag of 7 slices... STILL for the same price. What is going on here? What’s with the free bread? Let’s continue.

This phenomena is also seen at vending machines, where you can get a Coke for 150 yen, and then a jumbo coke for the SAME 150 yen. (this jumbo coke has an extra 25%)

Confused? No kidding, any westerner is baffled by this. The psychology behind this phenomena is this: The Japanese only take what they need. If a person isn’t very thirsty, they won’t get the jumbo coke, if they only need a little bread, they’ll get the 5 pack. Whereas we in the West are ravenous and will take as much as we possibly can even if we don’t need it, especially if it means saving money and getting more.

Raw Materials

On the plus side, Japanese supermakets have many of the same ‘raw materials’ in the foodstores that we have (pasta, meat, vegetables, fruit, breads). So at the end of the day with some effort you can have the same food in Japan that you have in the US... BUT you will have to MAKE it yourself from scratch.

Import Grocery

Oh how a foreigner will breathe a heaving breath of relief when he steps into the holy realm of the “Import Grocery Store”. He will immediately feel at home and recognize everything he sets his eyes on.

A grocery store in its own right, the import store will have a dairy section, deli, grains, snacks, veggies and fruits.

This is where you will find all of your hard-to-get items:

  1. shredded coconut
  2. vanilla extract
  3. lasagna pasta
  4. parmesan cheese
  5. ranch dressing
  6. Kettle Chips
  7. sour patch kids
  8. salsa

Street Food

 You won’t always want to go to the super market every day and make your own food. The dickens with that! Enjoy a change of pace and take advantage of Japan’s superfluity of tantalizing street foods, and enjoy their affordability as well.

They range from stalls, to carts or small shops with no customer seating, however there may be a few seats and a table in front. Although you can find them anywhere they are more numerous in city centers (clustered together) and then more sparsely spread as you move out.

Some of Japan’s best eating can be found in these unsuspecting dives: Okonomiyaki, ramen, udon, takoyaki, taiyaki, yakiniku; and what’s more is the surprisingly reasonable prices. Expect to pay anywhere between $2US to $5 for a decent helping of food.

Possibly the most exciting aspect about street food are Markets where you will find scores upon scores of vendors along the street. The air is thick with savory aromas, and heckling merchants, an all in all exciting experience. And with just a few bucks you can accord quite a sampling of a wide array of delights.

Fast Food

While Japan doesn’t have all of America’s Fast food chains it has a few. Namely: KFC, Mac Donalds and Burger King (and yes worry naught, they have the $1 value menu. The 100 yen value menu to be exact). And that’s it. To cater to the native diet, Japan has a terrific amount of domestic fast food centered around Japanese comfort food classics such as:

  1. Curry Rice
  2. Rice and Beef Bowl (gyudon)
  3. Miso soup

You’ll find the average item on the menu is around $5 US.

Don’t let the fact that you can get your Mac Attack fix in Japan give you any peace of mind however. As you may feel betrayed when you partake in the menu items. The Japanese use much less MSG and the result is a rather bland tasting hamburger. Whether this is a good or bad we’ll let you be the judge.

Same product, different taste

Every foreigner experiences it. That ‘huh?’ moment when they try Oreos, Coke, Domino’s Pizza, Pringles, McDonalds, or any other American product, for the Japanese have a different pallet than that of the US. The result is a different publicly accepted ‘taste’, therefore the products are then tailored to that and taste quite different to Americans.

Generally, the Japanese versions will have: 1) less sugar, 2) less MSG, 3) less flavor in general. This will become apparent to you when you have your first Japanese Oreo and think “ok... where is the taste?”. (PS don’t think you can compensate for this by getting ‘double’ stuffed Oreos, because guess what? They don’t have them! Shucks!)

Proper Restaurants

Unless you’ve got a lot of bucks you will want to avoid eating at Japanese restaurants as you’ll invariably spend $15 US per person. Reminiscent of Pulp Fiction’s Five-Dollar Shake, is Japan’s Ten-Dollar Soup (or Ramen in this case). Case and point, a bowl of good ramen at a restaurant (not on the street) will cost you $10 US. $10 for a bowl of soup? Bloody hell! On the plus side if its any consolation it will be the most delicious bowl of soup you ever had.

Whether its Traditional Japanese, Indian, Chinese, or others, you’ll find the price range the same.

Family Restaurants

Not all restaurants cost an arm and a leg. Japan has become very interested in the ‘cheap family restaurant’ model. With imports like Denny’s and domestics like: “Royal Host” or “Saizeria”, with menu items ranging around $4-$5 USD. These restaurants specialize in foreign cuisine: Italian, French, American, Indian etc etc. And if you don’t raise your expectations too high you won’t be too disappointed. But when they serve you a hamburger patty with a side of rice and you were expecting a burger and fries, just take it as one of those “when in Rome” moments.


To conclude: Japan has nearly everything that the US has in terms of food. It just depends how much you want to pay to get it.