There is little more essential than understanding how to navigate your nearest grocery store. As an international student, knowing how to buy groceries and prepare food for yourself will not only help you save money, but can also help alleviate the occasional bout of homesickness if you can find the ingredients with which to cook food reminiscent of your home country.

Regardless of which country you might be in, grocery stores can always be daunting because of the overwhelming options available – this especially so to a new student in a foreign country. Entering a Japanese grocery store for the first time might bring about additional layers of difficulty however, in terms of the language barrier (if you, like me, are unable to read or speak much Japanese), and also in terms of the new varieties of food available.

Example of a grocery store in Japan. Photo by author.

But much like the drive that prompted you to seek out a new country in the first place, the right attitude to have towards this is just to try, try, and try again. Soon you will find the things that work for you, and those that don’t. Here are some of my favorite parts of grocery shopping in Japan:

The Fresh Baked Goods Section

Baked goods section in the grocery store. Photo by author.

Having studied in California, I was used to having a wide variety of different types of breads in the bread aisle section. For example, anything from rye bread to five-grain bread to whole wheat bread to the usual white bread. In the groceries stores around where I am in Japan however, there is a dominance of white bread, cut thickly sliced. This of course is fantastic toasted and slathered with butter or cheese or any spread of your choice. However, if you ever crave some variation in your bread or baked goods choices, one option is to check if your local grocery store has a fresh baked goods section – just follow the smell. These sections are usually located in the corner of the grocery store, and offer selections that include doughnuts, croissants, and pizza slices amongst others.

Discounts! Sales! Clearances!

As a student on a student budget, I am constantly aware of the prices of the things I buy. Consequently, us students have become experts at spotting discounts and clearance sections. A common discount offered in grocery stores is the late-night discount, during which prices of perishable food items such as sashimi platters, bento boxes, and onigiris (rice balls) are reduced by as much as 50% about an hour before the store closes. Just keep an eye out for the eye-catching red and white stickers that are pasted on the food items. In this case, learning some basic Kanji will greatly ease your shopping experience. For example, ‘30円引’ would mean a discount of 30円.

Example of discounted food items. Look out for the red stickers! Photo by author.

Another example of deals you might find is the clearance section. Depending on the grocery store, the section might be specific to a certain type of foods, for example, a section specifically for bread. At this section you can find food items that are slightly blemished, or are about to expire, and are therefore priced slightly cheaper. As with anything you do however, take care to make decisions smartly, and use your senses to check if the food item is actually safe and worth buying before proceeding with the purchase.

Clearance section for fresh fruits and vegetables! Photo by author.

Time-saving Takeout Boxes

Perhaps my favorite part of Japanese grocery stores is the amazingly wide variety of prepared meals offered.

Pre-cooked food at a grocery store in Japan. Photo by author.

For the times when you simply do not have the time to cook, or in case of laziness, these bento boxes are lifesavers. Some grocery stores even have a small sitting area equipped with microwaves and ovens to let you heat your bento box up and eat it immediately. They comprise a variety of cuisines, from Chinese to Japanese to Italian, and are usually cheap enough that buying the occasional box is not a huge burden on your finances. Sometimes, especially in the late night, these boxes are also discounted, which might mean that they can be cheaper than buying ingredients and preparing your own meal!

Pre-cooked and pre-packaged foods. Photo by author.

Featured image is of a food aisle in a grocery store in Japan. Photo by author.