I think one of the most daunting places in Japan for tourists and expats who can’t read and speak Japanese is the supermarket. I know that from my experience. The first few times I went to a supermarket I stood in the aisles staring at the products on the shelves for minutes as if that would make the unfamiliar Japanese characters understandable.
Looking at the pictures helped but only rarely and not when I was looking for something particular – like butter instead of margarine or cheese. One time I bought 2 liters of clear liquid in a PET bottle, thinking it was mineral water only to find out when I got home that I ended up with 2 liters of sake.
It didn’t help that I’m mostly a teetotaler.
Naturally, I found ways to decrease the chances of my buying things I don’t need and I’m going to share two methods I discovered and love because they work.
METHOD 1: Point-And-Shoot
For this method you first need to search for images using the search query, “(product/item) in Japan“. Take a screenshot of the images you get, go to the nearest supermarket and the aisle where the product is usually found, and match the picture!
For example, one of the things I remember searching was butter because there were so many boxes of yellow stuff and I didn’t want to take a chance so I looked it up on google and found this:
It turned out to be a good decision because I found out that there aren’t a lot of Japanese companies who make butter. I usually check the individual pictures for accuracy so this method can be tedious but it works and it helped me a lot during my first few months in Japan.
METHOD 2: Online Shopping
Yes, you can buy groceries online in Japan (and choose which day and time you can have them delivered!) and this is a method I use until now because it’s so convenient. There’s a supermarket chain in Japan called Seiyu, which has relatively cheaper prices and is owned by Walmart so they have a few products in English.
Three years ago I needed a student’s help to sign-up but I just discovered that you actually don’t need to be able to read Japanese to sign-up. It’ll take some time but the effort is worth it:
Go to https://www.the-seiyu.com and click the middle button on the upper right.
Before you can sign-up you have to check if the supermarket delivers to your area so on the next page click the yellow button.
Enter your post code (without the dash) and click the button beside it.
After typing your postcode, the form below will auto fill but you have to choose your 丁目 (chome or sections that Japanese neighborhoods are divided into). After choosing, click the green button at the bottom.
If they deliver to your area, you will see something like this:
Now you can sign-up! Click the green button at the lower right page to be redirected to the sign up page.
Agree to the terms by clicking the green button.
Fill-up the form. The first is for your e-mail address, the second is your password (your password should have alphanumeric characters and symbols), and the third is for password confirmation (retype your password). Click the blue button when you’re done.
Complete the form on the next page too. The first two are for your name (you can convert your name to katakana here), the third your birthday, the fourth your gender, the fifth your postcode, and the last your phone number.
Entering the postcode will open another form below it for your prefecture, town, address, etc. I suggest using google translate for this as the prefectures are in a drop-down list. Tick the box if you want to receive e-mails from Seiyu then click the blue button at the bottom.
Check your details on the next page and click the blue button to finish your registration. That’s it! You’re a member. If you want to buy groceries, go back to the home page and login by clicking the top right button on the page.
Click the blue button on the right.
Enter your email and password, and tick the box if you want the website to remember your login details.
Shop! To search for items and products, use google translate to translate words from English to Japanese and then copy paste the translation on the search bar.
Choose from the list (I recommend translating the website accuracy) and click the yellow button to add items to your cart.
When you’re done (shipping is free if your order is more than 5000 yen!), checkout by clicking on the green button on the top of the page.
Choose the day and time for the delivery (I love this about Japan) and click the green button.
If you’re okay with getting a substitute in case your order is not available, tick the box under the list of items in your shopping cart. If you want to change the delivery date and time, click the green button at the top of the page. If you’re happy with your order, click the green button at the bottom of the page.
After clicking the lower green button, a form will pop up. Agree to the terms by clicking the green button.
Enter your credit card details or choose to pay cash (COD) when they deliver (no additional cost!), then click either of the green buttons.
Check all the information on the next page and when you’re satisfied click the green button at the bottom of the page, and that’s it! Wait for the delivery.
I know. Both methods seem tedious but they’re tried and tested, and they really don’t require that much effort. The second method will especially take some time at the beginning but after you sign-up you can just shop online whenever you need groceries, especially when you can’t read Japanese or you’re thinking of buying heavy stuff. Have fun shopping!