The little woman has given me a very short list of things she wants me to go buy at the grocery store. We don’t have anything else to do so I thought you might like to take a walk with me and check it out. I have three things I must buy: Osembei, cooking sake, and Mirin.
About $7.50 for a half a gallon. That’ll do.
The Osembei are rice crackers. My wife loves those.
The cooking sake is for cooking. Well, duh. You might think that statement is a bit ridiculous, but trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I remember when I was a university student and a friend and I were desperate for a drink. We had zero money so we decided to walk five miles to his mom’s house and raid the liquor cabinet. Bad idea. She was a follower of Islam and didn’t drink. Doh! — You’d think her son might know that! So my pal and I downed an entire bottle of cooking sake we found in the kitchen. After about 15 minutes I knew I felt a different man: I had a headache and was sick. So don’t drink cooking sake. In fact, I think that all Japanese sake should be avoided at all times — drinking that stuff makes me go crazy — but cooking sake is especially dangerous. Take my advice and stick to beer.
Next on the list is Mirin. Don’t even ask me what Mirin is. I have no idea what it’s made of. It’s something that’s used in Japanese food like Teriyaki. And my wife told me to buy it… End of story.
Right. We have our shopping list. Let’s go.
There are two big grocery stores around where I live. Incredibly one is called, “Fuji Super” and the other is called, “OK Store.”
Fuji is super. OK is just okay.
Fuji Super is for the high-brow crowd. They have all sorts of international food and cheese — stuff like that. OK Store is more local type of food: Seaweed and tentacles. And OK Store is a few yen (cents) cheaper for basic foodstuffs. While Fuji Super is really nice and sparkling clean and all — and they give you free vinyl grocery bags — I usually shop at OK Store because I know where everything is. OK Store charges 6 yen per grocery bag. But since I always use a backpack, I don’t need a grocery bag. My excuse is I’m eco-friendly. The fact of the matter is that I’m a cheap-skate and I don’t wanna cough up 6 cents for a bag.
The service counter
Because, as responsible adults, it is our duty to shop and price compare and save money anyway we can. Either way, Fuji Super and OK Store are right next to each other, so we’ll stop at Fuji Super first. Neither store has a parking lot — well, not like they do in America. They have a parking lot to park bicycles — that’s it. They even have a valet guy there to help old folks bash their bikes into others when they park. Fuji Super has lots of space and is not nearly as crowded as OK Store. If I’m ever in a rush — which is hardly ever — I shop at Fuji Super.
I mentioned in an article a while back that Japanese stores pride themselves on service. Well, that’s true for even grocery stores. Fuji Super has a service counter that always has five or six people standing around just ready to pounce on anyone who looks like they are even thinking about asking a question. Since we are here, I price compare cooking sake. I ask a girl where the sake is. She looks at me weird. Oh! She doesn’t work here. Never mind. I ask the girl at the service counter where the cooking sake is. Mistake. Now I have three people wanting to help me and one girl wanting to walk me to the sake section.
“No thank you.” I reply, “Just window shopping.”
Forget that. I’m not going to pay a few extra yen just for a nice store, good service and a free vinyl bag! We head on out to OK Store.
From what I hear, OK Store will move a few blocks away and into a brand new building early next year. They’ve been in the same old building now since I can remember. The current building looks a bit trodden upon — but I like that earthy feel. OK Store is a bit cheaper and old — the aisles are narrow. This place gets like a zoo past 4:00, so we can’t dilly-dally and have got to get out of here as soon as possible. Since I’m a “OK regular” I know where everything is already — excepting the Mirin. Since I don’t know exactly what Mirin is, I don’t know where it is. Is it near the sake or the cooking oil? Well, I’m at the grocery store, so you know I’m warm. We’ll look around and find it. While we’re here, we’d better compare prices.
Stuff (clockwise from top left): About $1.50 for a head of cabbage, $1.50 for 3 carrots, $1.70 for a head of lettuce — a dollar cheaper than last year, tentacles, $6.00 for a steak that’s about 6 1/2″ across and less than 3/8″ wide — we don’t eat steak, $4.30 for a pack of frozen blueberries — 5 bucks for frozen strawberries, sounds about right. Don’t forget that this is the cheap place.
More stuff (clockwise from top left): $1.20 for one white radish (that’s cheap), $1.95 for three dinky red peppers, three little fishies, $6.00 for pre-sliced raw fish, $15.00 for a cooked chicken, fish-world, $5.00 for 12 fresh strawberries (not bad)…
Interesting, eh? Well, now that we have our stuff, let’s head for the cash register…
My God! Look at the line! I told you not to dilly-dally. It’s not like you’ve never seen a vegetable before, right? What are you doing? Now half of the town is standing in line at the check out counter. I can’t take you anywhere. I don’t know about you, but I’m not too interested in standing in line for 20 minutes to buy three things — one of which I don’t even know exactly what it is.
So it’s back to Fuji Super. We’re in luck! They have everything we wanted — and we get a free vinyl grocery bag! After paying, we try not to look suspicious as we pack the booty into our back-pack and we’re off!
But don’t look now — Fuji Super is handing out free booze! Isn’t this place great? We stop by and drink several cups of red and white wine (this helps to defray the higher costs of shopping at Fuji Super). The cute girl keeps giving us samples as you act like you might want to buy some, but I don’t drink wine — makes me crazy. Of course, I’m a beer drinker — but when the booze is on the house, why not? We chat with the nice girl and wish her a merry what-ever-day-it-is-today and head out of the door.
In Japan, they hand out free cigarettes and free booze all the time.
And so a successful ten-minute trip down to the grocery store takes two and a half hours and we return home with alcohol on our breath. The wife doesn’t look too happy, but she can’t complain… I explain that it’s your fault that I’m late and, after all, we did price compare.
Later on, we’ll go for a beer run together — that will be easier — the liquor store ain’t a 30-second walk from my apartment. And I always know where everything is.
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has worked as an independent writer, producer, and personality in the mass media for nearly 30 years.