I went shopping today at both Tokiwa and You Me Town. Tokiwa was having their “Wednesday market” wherein certain kinds of meat and vegetables are marked waaay down (such as a half kilo of chicken breast being marked from 340 down to 200 yen). …that’s when I realized. Except for the occasional familiar brand name (Skippy, Heinz, Coke) that jumped out at me, most of the food I was looking at was marked completely in Japanese characters. So a lot of times, if I didn’t KNOW what something was just looking at it, I had to go through and read every character I recognized to piece together what I was looking at.

So. I decided to make a quick guide to food in Japan. God knows I could have used one before I got here…!

1. Where to Go

Japanese people love good food. And you can find food pretty much anywhere you go in Japan. For APU students, the Co-Op shops in both AP House 1 and the Student Union Building will be your absolute best friends. Though they do not offer any sort of variety, they offer the basics. And many times their prices are lower than those of You Me Town and Tokiwa.

…But you can’t buy fresh meat or vegetables at the Co-op. They do sell some fruit, apples and bananas, and occasionally I’ve seen carrots or potatoes, but those sell out so quickly that you hardly have a chance. So, head to the ugly mustard-yellow building in front of the Beppu Tower Mae bus stop and take the escalator to the basement. It’s best to go on a Wednesday as this is when there are many sales, but remember that it will be bustling with people and that you need to get there early to get the best deals.

2. Okay… I’m here. Now what?

I would recommend learning the names of foods before you go and a few basic kanji, for milk and meat and chicken, but it’s not entirely necessary if know katakana and are a really good player of guessing games. To help you out, though, here are some absolute essentials you can buy in Japanese stores all over the place:

MILK

You may not think that milk would be so hard to shop for, but you would be wrong. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stood indecisively in front of the shelf, staring at all of those evil little pictures and wondering why I can’t seem to find ANYTHING resembling skim milk (I finally looked it up online and at laaast, I have my skim milk). Here is a typical Japanese shelf with milk:

So many kanji, so little time. So okay. I won’t try and teach you all the kanji you see here. Rest assured, this is all milk (they’ll always separate milk from soy and lactose-free alternatives, so don’t worry about that). However. Be careful. Some of it is zero fat but 100% milk (not QUITE skim milk), some’s full-fat, some’s half. The way I finally beat the system was that I began to look at nutrition facts. LEARN THE KANJI FOR PROTEIN, FAT, AND IRON. They will help you IMMENSELY while shopping. Looking at each container in turn, I found the one without fat, and that was the skim milk.

BREAD

The only thing I have to say about bread in Japan is, it’s much different from the stuff sold in America. For one thing, it’s sweeter. Japanese people see anything with flour in it (even pancakes) as dessert and so like to add sugar to their breads. Is it extremely distracting? No. But here is the most popular brand of bread in Beppu:

A quick note on this bread. It comes in four-, five-, and six-slice varieties. Depending on the thickness of the slice. So the thicker you like your bread, the smaller loaf size you should buy.

RICE

If you’re like me, at APU, you’re on a budget. You don’t want to spend 5400 yen on a rice cooker, especially since that rice takes so bloody long to cook. And you have to eat rice because… you’re in Japan. So what to do?

Luckily, Japan has the answer and it’s BRILLIANT. Here, look:

There are fifteen million brands of this stuff in every store you go to. But it’s all basically the same thing. It’s microwavable rice packets.You will be living off of these while in Japan. They’re cheap, fast, and delicious. The rice itself cooks up steaming hot and tasting exactly like it just came out of a rice cooker–only, this takes just two minutes and has no annoying cleanup afterwards. I honestly have no clue why we don’t sell these in America. Easier than minute rice and much better tasting as well.

You can find these in the “lazy college student” aisle in every grocery. It’s marked by long rows of instant ramen and (surprise) our next essential food.

INSTANT CURRY MIX

Japanese curry is nothing like Indian curry. It’s sweet, has a tiny hint of spiciness, and comes in about sixty different flavors. Have a look:

There will be at LEAST twenty types of curry in the Lazy College Students aisle. Most likely there will be close to forty different types. In general, blue is mild, green is medium, and red is hot–though some companies switch the blue and green, there’s really no difference between them. Red is always hot. You’ll want to eat this while in Japan–a few potatoes, carrots, some meat, and this makes a large meal for four or five people and it’s perfect for a crowd. I like the tofu/squash one, myself, but my friends assure me that the beef is superior (suuuure). Since in Japan, eating together is considered to be essential to any friendship, you’ll be wanting to make a pot of this and invite your friends.

SOY SAUCE

Okay, so you may be thinking, “How could I possibly screw up buying soy sauce?!” But trust me. Japan has a nasty habit of putting all of their brown sauces on one shelf: including soy, teriyaki, yakitori, udon sauce, fish sauce, and god knows what else. So this is just to clarify. These are the most popular brands of soy sauce in Japan:

Green cap means lower sodium. All of these except for the one on the far left are soy sauce (the one on the far left is udon soup sauce, which has a soy flavor but is NOT soy sauce). Be careful! If it’s a small bottle that says “Shouyu” in hiragana on it, it’s probably a concentrate. Meaning that you use a lot less than you would normally. I’d buy the concentrate if I were you, only because it can be found in most dollar stores.

So, you now have the basics for surviving in Japan. Other staple foods (eggs, vegetables, meats) are fairly easy to find without a guide, as Japan is fond of clear plastic wrap. Just learn what the cuts of meat you’re going to buy actually look like before you go. Oh. And there’s sixteen million brands of tofu, but they’re all basically the same. So if you’re like me and practically living off of it (that, and peanut butter. Nom.), make sure that you learn the kanji for textures. I’d post them here but it’s three AM and I am. Going. To. Bed.

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