I have found myself “adulting” more and more since Japan’s state of emergency, and I’ve realized that I take so many things for granted. For example, supermarkets. There are loads of supermarkets in Tokyo! Life, Summit, Aeon, Star, San Pei and about a hundred more. I was in my local Aeon in Tokyo squeezing avocados (as you do) and I noticed this old lady surrounded by an army of checkout staff, all bowing in unison profusely apologizing. Obviously, she had asked them if they had a particular item in stock and after the seven or so staff members couldn’t find it they all came and apologized to her. I couldn’t help but think: “that would never happen in the UK.” Here are a few other things you wouldn’t see in UK supermarkets.
Size Of Shopping Trolleys
In a UK supermarket, we typically have three sizes: A basket for those last-minute essentials like milk, eggs, a bottle of Frosty Jacks, bread, cheese. A trolley that is big enough to provide a professional couple for a weekend. And finally (my personal favorite), a trolley big enough to supply a family of six doomsday preppers for 3 months in the bunker, complete with a child seat and a hook on the back for that one bag that for some reason, can’t fit in the trolley. This is despite the trolley having no issue accommodating all the chosen products prior to checkout.
Well, in Japan you typically have one size: basket. If you struggle to carry your days worth of shopping by hand, you can put the tiny basket in the tiny trolley basket holder. If you struggle to pack your basket with enough food for your family, then your family is too large, and it is time for you to leave them and start again.
Seriously, Japanese people couldn’t panic buy if they wanted to. One multipack of toilet paper and their basket is full. I’m sure that there is a supermarket that provides bigger baskets but for the life of me, I can’t find it. I genuinely think that one of the reasons Japanese supermarkets are still bursting with food during a global crisis is because of the size of the baskets.
Dry Ice Machine
When I was about ten years old we had a TV show called Brainiac. It was hosted by Richard Hammond (or “hamster” from Top Gear for anyone living outside of the UK). It was basically a science show crossed with a “Nuts” magazine and it was great!
They would do “pub science” experiments, and they usually involved something with dry ice. So naturally, I wanted dry ice to cause havoc. Unfortunately/fortunately you can’t buy it in the UK. At least not in shops anyway. You have to order it online via a specialist, and even then it’s super expensive.
But in Japan, they give you it for free! If you buy frozen goods like… ice, for example, they will ask if you want dry ice. You say, yes of course I do, and they give you a token. Take that token to the dry ice machine next to the bagging section and put the token in. Boom, dry ice for free. It really does keep all your frozen stuff frozen all the way home!
Naturally, as soon as I got home the first thing I do is dump the whole bag in the toilet and turn my flat into Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen.
King Of The Fruit
To be honest, I have lived here for two years and I still don’t know what it’s called. I have noticed that on each fruit stand there will be a perfect version of that fruit on the top shelf. When I say perfect, I mean perfect. Larger than average size, one vibrant colour all over, not a seed out of place. Sometimes, they have their own boxes. The prices of these fruits are ridiculous!
Apparently, people give them as gifts for things like anniversaries or graduations. “Cheers grandma, but next time gimme the cash yea? I could have bought a game… and a bloody fitted kitchen for what you paid for that cantaloupe!”
We don’t have this in the UK, any variant of the standard fruit or veg is called “wonky”. But then again, there’s always a market for cheaper fruit and veg in the UK. I don’t think the UK’s most out of touch billionaire would spend £120 quid on a “perfect” melon, even if it came in a pretty box. Plus, with food banks on the rise, shops selling exclusive £20 single red apples would probably kick-off that riot that’s on the horizon.
Salesmen are taught a myriad of techniques on how to sell things to you. One of these things is how to add value to a product. Regardless of the item or its value, you treat it like its a long lost Da Vinci. Handling it with two hands, talking about it like it’s going to change your life, but most importantly, it’s about the presentation. This curry isle looks like a bookshelf!
UK supermarkets aren’t really about the presentation. They’re more like warehouses. Stuff is just stacked on shelves, prices don’t match up some of the time, there’s a random bag of carrots on the cake shelf. They’re cold, unclean, and don’t even get me started on the supermarket café. Serious question to my readers from the UK, have you ever eaten in one? Seriously? Whenever I walk past one, either the lights are off or they’re on and there is just one old guy sat there with an empty pram, counting the ceiling tiles looking like he’s wondering what the meaning of life is. I’m sure they are a front for something else.
Not all supermarkets are like this, though. Marks & Spencer and Waitrose are a cut above, but even they can’t touch a standard Japanese supermarket. Japanese supermarkets are very clean, items are where they should be at all times, and my favorite thing is the fresh food kitchens. The UK has meat, fish, and bread counters, and so does Japan, but they are so much bigger and better. In most supermarkets, the bread counter is actually a sit-in bakery!
I actually look forward to my trip to a Japanese supermarket whereas I dread having to go to a supermarket in the UK. Look at this premium banana! I’m not sure what’s so premium about it though.
Every so often a supermarket staff member will don his or her orange vest, and arm themselves with a scanner/label maker. They will wander around the bread/meat aisle scanning items, printing barcodes, and putting things that are going off that day on sale. when this happens people seem to turn into bloodthirsty wolves and will do anything to get that packet of sausages that have been sitting on the shelf for five days and are about the expire. People will flock to that guy and stand in a crowd waiting for him to scan the next item, eager to bag themselves a cheeky bargain. Japan does it a little differently.
Unless something is branded and packaged, it is made in house that day. The sushi, the croquettes, the baked goods, the deli counter, the pasta, salad, all of it is made fresh throughout the day. At around eight pm any food that was yet to be put out is re-priced in the back and is put out with discounts on them. The items that are already on the shelves are also re-priced at the same time. So instead of a giant mob of people all clambering over one another to save a few pennies, people can leisurely pick up the items they want without having to dropkick poor old Alfred. It’s so much more dignified.
Yes, even the checkout is different. there are no conveyor belts in Japanese supermarkets. You take your tiny basket to the counter. The checkout assistant scans your items and places them into another basket (sometimes a different colour to show that you have paid). Then, they will either take the money from you, or put plastic bags in your basket for packing and move you to the second checkout assistant. They will then ask you if you have a points card (you will say no because nobody does) and take payment. You will then take your basket to the bagging table and pack your bags.
I feel so awkward standing there and watching them do all the work. I much prefer the good old conveyor belt method. They scan, I bag. Its like teamwork.