Groceries: On & Off Base, Yokosuka, Japan

January 2019

This is my experience grocery shopping in Yokosuka, on the naval base but also at grocers around town. It’s possible that the off base stores cater to Americans, based on their location in relation to the base, and the number of US soldiers and shipyard workers.

Let me just start with this picture. This is a row in a grocery store aisle devoted entirely to various varieties of mushrooms. I’ve never seen a grocery store with so many kinds and some are types I’ve never heard of before. This is a little thing but I was pretty impressed! This isn’t even all of them… this is just the majority.

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I know this goes without saying but sushi is so popular and people everywhere seem to love it. I have to admit, I was a little afraid of the sushi here and it took me a full two weeks to try any of it. I just bought one of the variety packs from the store but haven’t tried it at a sushi restaurant yet. The tuna was the first one I tried, and enjoyed that, which was no surprise because I always like the tuna. Eel was a new one for me and that was an interesting texture but it did have a good sauce on it. I don’t know what the sauce was but it was obviously something soy sauce based, but it reminded me of a BBQ sauce. There was also salmon roe, the little orange balls… I couldn’t do it. Those freak me out a little too much.

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Before coming to Japan, I’d never had the opportunity to shop at a commissary but I’ve always heard people talk about how cheap and awesome it is. We aren’t allowed to shop at the one in Bremerton because it’s for active duty & retired military personel & their families only, but we are able to shop at the one here on this base & I was looking forward to seeing what the hype was about but it was somewhat of a disappointment. I have no intention of shopping for produce there, because we’d heard that it isn’t very fresh, and some of Rob’s co-workers had complained about it going bad quickly. Most of the brands I was able to find were brands I choose not to buy. There are also some brands I can’t find anywhere off base for the things Rob likes, such as certain cereals. I can’t go to the commissary without Rob so it’s pretty inconvenient for me to get those select things, but it also makes me really glad that I prefer the local grocery stores anyway!

I knew the commissary wouldn’t sell as many organic products as what I can find back home, but I was still surprised at how few organic items they offer. The only things I came across on base were organic milk and butter, both from Organic Valley, who I actually do like. Grocers in Japan sell some dairy but it isn’t part of the traditional Japanese diet so you don’t find many traditional recipes that require it. That doesn’t mean no one is eating it because they definitely are… just not as much as Americans or Europeans. They sell butter but I’m not familiar with any of the brands, and they have a very limited selection of cheeses. I see a lot of Gouda and other white cheeses around, but I’ve seen hardly any cheddar. The only burgers I’ve seen with cheddar were in pictures in front of McDonalds but I don’t think that’s even real cheese…? Eggs are popular and it seems like they’re in at least half the dishes I see, maybe more. Yogurt is also popular and they actually sell American brands like Dannon.

Maybe the commissary back home is better than this one and that’s why people tell me it’s awesome?

I’ve done most of my food shopping at Aeon, which is a four story mall that’s only about a 10 minute walk from our hotel room, with a grocery store on the second floor. As far as prices go, they’re affordable and give the commissary a run for it’s money on some items, although I was surprised at the cost of rice, which is a bit more expensive than I would have guessed.

The grocery stores here aren’t mixed with all kinds of different food sections like back home, where you can find an full Asian section, or a full Italian section or a Mexican section, or a variety of pretty much whatever your heart desires. You can find just a little of everything. Rob better learn to love Asian food! A lot of the stuff I can find at any grocery store back home is considered “exotic” here and can be tough to come by. This is going to seem crazy but I cannot find chicken broth and I’ve searched extensively, multiple times. I’ve found onion broth and mushroom broth, but chicken broth has been impossible which is so strange! I’m sure I’m just not doing a good job of my search.

It’s common to find a corner where they sell all kinds of precooked foods you can grab quickly, on the go. They offer things like yakitori, tempura shrimp, fried sweet potatoes, fried fish, and much more, & some of it’s really good. Sometimes I just bite the bullet and buy something even though I don’t know what it is and sometimes, it works out really well. I bought something called a korroke (I had to look up what it was after I ate it), and it was just a thin layer of breaded potato and cheese. I think these little food corners must be their versions of a deli. They even have their own versions of potato salad and pasta salad, but mostly various options of tempura. I tried several of these over the first few days because they’re so good, especially that shrimp tempura, but I’ve forced myself to cut back on the fried food.

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Sushi really is a pretty dish and it’s always given a nice presentation. My sushi dish from the grocery store took a little bit of a beating on the way home and I don’t suppose these are all that different from what you can buy back home these days, since sushi is so popular but it’s still cool because I’m in Japan!

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Certain vegetables that aren’t as common in the US are very popular here. It’s interesting to walk around the produce department and find leafy greens that I’ve never seen before or varieties of mushrooms that are unfamiliar to me. Everyone here seems to love leeks! When I buy leeks back home, sometimes cashiers have to ask me what they are but I see them in everyone’s carts here.

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The majority of the produce I’ve seen is sold in plastic wrap or plastic containers, and I haven’t seen anyone with reusable grocery bags. It didn’t occur to me to bring my own reusable grocery bags, assuming I could just buy a couple while I was here but I haven’t seen any being sold in stores either. I don’t even generally use produce bags so I’m not used to this anymore!

I did a little reading about this because I was stunned by the amount of plastic I saw. According to Kyodo News, “Japan is responsible for the largest amount of plastic waste per capita, followed by the United States.” (However, I will say that I also read a lot about the efforts being made to fix this… so hopefully this will be better soon.)

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It’s been challenging to find organic food off base too. I looked it up and have read from several sources that organic food isn’t sold here the way it is in some other countries, but that this is gradually changing. I’ve also read that organic foods are crazy expensive here but I haven’t seen much to be able to compare. One of the only things I’ve seen that’s organic is bamboo, (the majority of all bamboo in the world is organic), some mushrooms and eggs. I’m sure there’s more and I just can’t read it! One thing I do like is that you can find a lot of local produce and, in some cases I’ve seen, the stores will offer a brief description of where the product comes from. Local and fresh is good.

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These little oranges are the size of cherry tomatoes.

Seafood is popular and because there’s water everywhere, there’s an abundance of it and it’s affordable and it is, without a doubt, the freshest seafood I’ve ever seen. Some of these fish are so fresh, they aren’t even dead yet. Everywhere you go, you can find just about any seafood you can imagine. One thing you still have to check for is farm raised fish because I have come across labels that specify farm raised salmon and such. The place with the most awesome seafood selection is the Yokosuka Port Market, which is more of an indoor seafood farmers market than a grocery store. This place inspired me to download a foreign language translator app on my phone because nothing was in English and I needed to know what I was looking at! They have one corner that has your little deli full of tempura and sandwiches, one corner of produce, one little spot with some souvenirs, but the entire rest of the building is seafood. It’s the grocery store the furthest from me but I think it’s really awesome, and as you can probably tell by the name, it’s right on the water. This one really does offer fresh and local

Japan is known for it’s healthy people and their diet of seafood and vegetables, and I see a lot of people who’s carts of primarily filled with these goods. I imagine portion control also plays a part plus a lot of the people here people walk and ride bikes. There are plenty of seafood stands and produce stands. Realistically, however, the grocery stores I’ve been in don’t differ much from ours in the amount of processed food I see. There are jarred, canned and boxed foods filling up a decent percentage of the aisles. I’ve seen a lot of different versions of Cup Noodles, ramens & other other packaged noodle varieties, boxed curry, etc. I think what was once a country of people that followed a healthy diet has become a place where the younger generations like a lot of the convenient options are branching out beyond the traditional diet their elders followed. That’s just my guess.

As the cashier rings up your food, they will have a basket on each side of them. They’ll pick an item up from your basket, scan it and then set it in the basket on the other side. Then, after they’ve completed ringing you up, they hand you the number of bags they think you’ll need and you’ll carry your things to a separate table to bag them yourself, except at the commissary where they have baggers but also a sign that says baggers only live off customer tips. Interesting.

Price wise, grocery products are fair. If you compare them to the prices I’m used to, some things are a little more, some things are a little less, but mostly, your options are just different! The “exotic” options, such as taco seasoning, cost more but if you stick with the Japanese food, it’s fairly cheap.

There are A LOT of bakeries around here, some in store and some on their own. When you go to these bakeries, its interesting because nothing is kept under a heat lamp or in the fridge. I came across one bakery that sold little tiny cooked pizzas, and another that sold sausages wrapped in some kind of bread, and was surprised to see that they were just left sitting on the counter, at room temperature. It seems to be common though because I see it all over the place. We’ve purchased several things from these bakeries and every single item was delicious. They’re very popular and you’re constantly stepping around people to get to what you want and to try to stay out of their way, and there’s almost always a line.

The grocery stores also have the bakeries that sell your birthday cakes and all that. Sometimes you might come across an unpleasant surprise with the baked goods (I read an article in which a person thought they were buying strawberry filled donuts but it turned out to be red bean paste) but generally speaking, sweets seem to be popular around here. I’ve seen several gelato places that are always busy, and even more bakeries selling a variety of chocolates and cakes, among other options. There are several Mister Donut locations, a handful of French bakeries and lots of desserts sold in stores. I’ve heard people say that sweets aren’t popular here but that is a huge misconception! Grocery stores still have candy aisles, although the only familiar candies I’ve seen are Snickers and Kit Kats. Kit Kats are very popular and come in so many different flavors, from traditional to peach to sweet potato to wasabi and so much more! Where I’m used to seeing chocolate combined with caramel, peanut butter or peppermint, strawberry & matcha are the preferred chocolate accompaniment out here! You can find chocolate and strawberry candy and desserts everywhere you go. In fact, strawberry flavored anything is well liked here, and some of it is pretty good. Matcha is really where it’s at here. I’ve seen dessert buffets devoted entirely to matcha flavored goods, candy stores have sections for it, and matcha ice cream is a well loved treat.

Baked goods aren’t the only thing that sit out at room temperature. I see it with all kinds of food, including cooked meats. I was surprised by this also but no one seems to get sick from it, including us. I guess it’s just the way it’s done here.

Rob’s friends have recommended that we buy produce at some of the produce stands they have throughout the city, telling us that those people’s produce are fresh and locally grown. I’m curious to know more about this, because Japan’s weather is like ours, and yet these people are able to sell strawberries in January?? Oranges too? Maybe they have a green house or something because in my experiences, this weather doesn’t allow for things like strawberries to grow.

For the most part, this trip has been easy to adjust to and I think our culture shock has been minimal. I hear its common for these trips to be extended beyond there original end date and I would be totally fine if we ended up here for another couple weeks or so. I say that now but I might feel differently when May rolls around and I know Rob feels differently than I do. I look at it like another couple of weeks to explore this country but I think Rob misses of simplicity of being able to understand what he hears and reads. For me, grocery shopping was definitely the most difficult adjustment. It’s a slow process for me because I can’t identify much so I’m constantly using my iTranslate app, even for some of the produce. The first time or two I tried to buy groceries was so overwhelming and discouraging, and I couldn’t even go in with a plan or list because I didn’t know what I would be able to find. After I got frustrated with this, I went to the store and walked down every aisle, getting a feel for what they sell, what familiar options I could find, what aisles things were on, what kinds of meats they sold, what kind of bread was available (fun fact: we haven’t been able to find any bread that isn’t white), and so on, spending a couple of hours wandering through the store. I admit that this made me appreciate the commissary at first, and still does at times like when I can’t find any chicken broth, but I’ve figured out how to utilize the grocery stores near us. I plan to make thing that aren’t Asian because I know Rob can only handle so much of one type of food but I’m also going to make a point to make some things while I have access to the food and I feel like it would be criminal not to cook and try the restaurants for the local cuisine. The cashier and I can’t fully understand one another and I definitely still can’t say much in Japanese, but I’ve figured out the system so that when they’re referencing something or asking me something simple, I can usually figure it out now. I’ve seen several other Americans shopping in there so I’m sure they’re used to this.

When you pay, they have you place your card on a little plastic tray and then they will pick it up and they’ll do the same thing when returning your card to you. Other times, they’ll skip the plastic tray but they always use both hands to give you your receipt and card. It’s just a little thing but interesting.