Let’s be honest, the food is half the reason one travels abroad. This fact certainly played a part in my decision to study abroad in Tokyo. Eating out all the time is just not a realistic plan of action though. I’m a poor college student, on a strict budget.
One great thing that Japan does have that I sincerely wish the US did have (or at least college campuses), is a convenience store (or conbini) on practically every corner. These are not like the convenience stores in America. For one thing, they’re smaller. For another, they sell almost everything. At least it feels that way to a newcomer. The best part about convenience stores, in my humble opinion, is that you can buy lunch there for really cheap. Just today, I bought a bowl of rice, chicken, and a hard boiled egg for roughly $3.50. What I struggled with at first when buying meals, was talking with the cashier. Having rapid-fire Japanese words thrown at me, makes me anxious since I don’t know any Japanese. Thankfully, most cash registers state the amount you have to pay, so I just have to look at that instead of deciphering the numbers that the cashier had said. As for everything else they say, I just nod and smile (which works 90% of the time).
Food at the convenience store is great but it did not feel super healthy. There was serious lack of vegetables. That meant it was time for me to brave the supermarket. My trip to the supermarket was a great learning experience. Here’s what I learned:
Most signs are in Japanese. Not only that, but almost all the packaging is in Japanese as well. This meant walking through the entire store in order to familiarize myself with where everything was located. I had to figure out what I was picking out through pictures or by typing in the characters into my phone (which did not have a huge success rate on my part).
For everything I recognized, there were maybe three other things that I saw that I did not recognize. I’m in a whole new country and they have items that are not found in the US. I had two choices: avoid everything unrecognizable or try new food. Depending on the week, I ranged from adventurous to downright stuck in the old. Don’t let the unfamiliarity deter you. Accept that what you are getting may end up being really horrible. It’s a risk to take on the off chance that it turns into your new favorite food.
When you can’t find something, ask. If you’re like me and don’t know how, grab your phone, bring up a picture of what you want, and point. It’s really that simple.
You bag your own groceries. You pay an actual cashier but you bag your own groceries. Speaking from the point of view of someone who’s been a cashier, I have to say that’s an ingenious idea (I hated bagging items).
All in all, food shopping is not the worst experience in the world as long as you’re prepared for things to go wrong.