Weekly Shopping in Rural Japan

When I taught English in Japan, I lived in the countryside. My little town of 10,000, which was formerly five tiny towns, sprawled out over a two-hour drive through the mountains. The nearest city to me was an hour’s drive from my apartment, or a thirty-minute drive from the edge of town.

As I don’t particularly care for driving, especially in anything remotely like a city, I did most of my shopping locally.  I braved the city when I absolutely had to, and even then I had to need an item desperately before I ventured out. Tennis shoes were one such item, and I bought two pairs to be safe. So was a printer. I believe I was already in town when I bought both of those. No special trip required. I never did work up enough desire for longer curtains, so mine remained six inches too short for the door leading out to my balcony.

Most other items I could purchase in town. Fruits, vegetables, meats; shampoos and other hygiene products; pencils and paper; bubble wrap and other packing supplies; a heater; a laundry “tree” to hang my clothes on to dry; kitchen utensils and supplies; bug spray; a broom; hand warmers. If I had wanted to garden, to fix up my home, or buy some clothing (not that it would have fit me), I could have done that fairly well in my town.

Except for one or two, which were chain stores, all of the shops were small and, as far as I’m aware, locally run. I never stopped to ask, so don’t take my word for it, but that was how it appeared to me.

At first I had been too nervous and uncertain to venture into the larger parts of town to shop, despite teaching in those areas. I stuck to the two tiny stores on my street. One was hardly as big as my dining room, and it had a few food items (I remember buying microwavable bowls of rice) and some clothing and shampoos. The woman who ran the store talked with me both times I was there, even though we had to use dictionaries and gestures to communicate.

The other nearby store was more of a small market run by the grandfather of a student of mine. They had produce, fish, meats, chips and snacks, cereal, some canned goods, and basic kitchen supplies. The grandfather would always give me a service item (called “sah-bee-su” in Japanese). Service items are small items that are given to patrons for free, like a “thank you for shopping here” item.  Sometimes I received an orange, but many times he gave me a small can of coffee, warm in the winter and cold in the summer.  Service items typically come from smaller shops, in my experience, and it’s best to accept them even if, like me, you don’t care for oranges or cold coffee.

After a few months, my shopping routine broadened then cemented itself.  If I needed something quickly or was too lazy to get in the car and drive ten to twenty minutes, I stopped by the grandfather’s store. Otherwise, I grocery shopped after work, since it was on my way home. Depending on which part of town I was coming from or what I needed, I stopped at a few different stores. They all carried roughly the same items–primarily food, with some other items like plates, laundry detergent, shampoo, and paper. However, I knew that the coffee I liked was at a certain store, or that another shop had the ice cream I liked.

My favorite ice cream: Sweet potato-shaped outside waffle, ice cream, and mashed sweet potato. Trust me–it’s the best!

My favorite part about these stores was the food cooked in-house. They sold all sorts of dishes! Yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer), fried fish, tempura vegetables, chirashi (rice with egg, ham, and other assorted yummies), potato salad, macaroni salad, green beans, and a variety of salads, just to name a few off the top of my head. I found dishes I would kill to know how to make. (I tried replicating one side dish, and it turned out okay but still not the same. Check out the image below for said side dish.)  I learned which place made the better macaroni salad, which ones wouldn’t have the chicken miso katsu I wanted, and to snag the salad I loved whenever I saw it in stock. I only wish I had started purchasing these meals sooner. They were delicious, fresh, and inexpensive. I took them home for dinner, saved them for weekend meals, and had them for lunch occasionally.

Look at the deliciousness! Look at it!


One other fun bit about food-buying was that a yakitori vendor set up his stall outside one of the stores in town once a month, plus another time on the other side of town once a month. I’ve heard that he sold the chicken skewers for slightly more than they were worth, but they were fresh off the grill and delicious, so I didn’t mind shelling out ¥500 (about $5 USD at the time) for a set of five skewers.

Overall, I was perfectly pleased with the variety and quality of items I could buy in my small town. Not only did it save me many a trip into the cities, but it made me feel more connected with the areas I taught in. I met my students’ families. My students saw me buying ice cream and pasta. I got to talk with townsfolk I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered. On top of that, I felt like I was giving back to the town, especially when I knew I was buying from a mom-and-pop store.

Now I’ve made myself hungry for the in-house food I mentioned. Great. When’s my next trip to Japan, guys?


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