Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Trip to the Grocery Store in Japan: Life isn't a Bowl of American Cherries

Supermarket Shopping Without a Cape

Brian Sipe's passing game would be strong enough that it was safe to escape to Kroger's.  Most of the Columbus, Ohio, weekend shoppers (save Cincinnati fans) would be home in front of their TVs, giving us the green light to load the wood paneled station wagon to the brim with brown paper grocery bags without the usual long-line hassles. My Mom and I would each push an over-sized cart, tag teaming down every aisle, loading up for a week or two.

You didn't need to be a superhero, or have a home-state MVP hero status to navigate the supermarkets in Ohio. Outside of the Brown's being intercepted, there were no notable obstacles - we were flanked with big carts, transported big sacks to a spacious car, and unloaded them into a roomy fridge and lofty cupboards.  Assuming Sunday football went in our favor too, coupons or not, it would feel like an all star two-for-one game day.

Though there are no live football game conflicts to contend with here, every trip to the grocery in Japan feels like a NFL level game, especially since the only helmets in play belong to the 50% of the daily shoppers commuting by bike.  The past 9 of my 19 years of full contact supermarket shopping in Japan have been by car, but the memories of the double loaded front and back bike baskets, with a sack dangling off each handle bar are not as distant in my memory as when Cleveland had a chance at a postseason berth.   Yet even with the convenience of my compact "Honda Vamos," obstacles abound - little portions to little cart, to little car to little fridge, and next to no cupboards, many more trips than our "once every weeks or two" days of yesteryear.

Food Off Stalker

"Food Off Stalker (ストッカー)"
Food Off Stalker, Shiraoka, is thousands of miles from Kroger, Columbus, in more ways than geographically.  Kroger is a named after its founder, a common American trend. Stalker?  I can only imagine, but prefer to keep the idea of where I shop for my family G-rated, so I won't take a detour done the brainstorming aisle.  Though the origin of "ストッカー"  may be a guarded secret, I am certain that I am not alone in the belief that "Food Off" is a poor naming choice for the American shopper, as it screams, "Your Day-Old Poultry Stinks!" So when I need to make a quick dash for milk and bread, I have to decide if I need to file a restraining order on the Stalker, or file a report with the Health Department on Food Off Salmonella.

The Daily Trip

My South Dakota based sister-in-law recently inquired, "What's a typical trip to the grocery store like in Japan?"  Well, a typical trip to the grocery store is exactly those two things: atypical, and, a trip. I'll do my best to trace the steps from start to finish on any given "game" day.  First, gearing up to shop doesn't include flipping through the Real Estate and Comic sections in the Sunday Dispatch to get to the coupon inserts.

Rather, Japan has a serious love affair with Point Cards.  Every store has a point card system.  Even though the stores are more draining than discounting, at least carrying the little cards to get stamped for each purchase makes you feel like you're weighted down with yen bills. Besides, you feel somewhat productive as the stores stamp a circle for every $50-ish dollars spent, leading up to an eventual dollar off your total purchase. "Food Off" likes to give "off" the impression that it offers more discounts than its competitors, as the one trendy use of English in Japan to tag "Off" onto sales indicates.  Department stores post signs when they are having end of season "Off Sales," and there is a chain store for discount and used books called, "Book Off," an 'off'-shoot of its more disturbingly named parent company, "Hard Off."

Stalker's スタンプカード (Stamp Card) is straightforward: for every $10 purchase, get 1 stamp, fill 15 slots on the card during the period between 3/1- 6/30, redeem $1 off purchase during the period from 3/1-7/29.

Not A Lot of a Parking Lot 

With limited operating hours from 10 AM to 9 PM, you may find when you approach the parking lot, if your time management skills failed you and you hit the 11 AM and 4 PM pre-meal-prep rush, it's a one car in, one car out of the lot policy.  True traditional cooks shop twice a day, while mediocre housewives squeeze in a, "I sometimes want the best for my family," heartless once a day.

Peak times remind me of the last stretch of road approaching Blossom (Cleveland) for a summer Jimmy Buffet concert, but without the double encore in an outdoor amphitheatre as a reward for your bumper to bumper efforts. Plus, the soundtrack when you enter is far from "Margaritaville," as the Carpenters are the usual muzak du jour. The exception is the five minutes before closing, when "Auld Lang Syne" through the speakers, at which time, you either scramble with your final selection and make your way to checkout, or pop open a bottle of bubbly and steal a kiss from the nearest Stock Boy, which could be where Stocker-Stalker got its name. (Incidentally, ストッカーis a homophone for both). 

The internationally recognized handicapped parking decal holds true for Japan. In addition, a newer release reflecting the "Silvering Japanese" society, not to be confused with the "Stalking Japanese" society, sets spaces aside for those able-bodied individuals who could use the boost of a few steps closer to the door. Drivers new to the roads must have a visible maple leaf sticker on their cars, while the elderly display an oak leaf.  The 思いやり(courtesy) parking for the elderly, expecting mothers, those traveling with infants - basically anyone that is called to early boarding on a flight, (except the First and Business) is probably reflecting part of nature as well. Perhaps it depicts a multi-colored four leaf clover to symbolize the luck of landing one.  All the while, my mind is more focused on spinning through the lot "stalking" out a regular spot.

Pictured at left is the standard handicap permit slot.  The spot on the right is not reserved for drinking fountain parking as the illustration suggests, rather, (おもやり)omoiyari, courtesy parking, "putting others with various needs before yourself parking." 

Paper (N)or Plastic?  

Neither. Paper is not a choice, and plastic is apparently more of an explosive option, as noted below. Arm yourself with your collection of "My Bag = マイバグ" on your errands (yes, they use this "English" expression for your personal tote), to save the environment first and foremost, but also to avoid the potential electric shock, let alone the nickel surcharge should you require a store bag as noted in the small print:

"The plastic bag is charged.  It becomes a 5 yen piece."
Or perhaps you're 'Best Off' getting the store plastic bag, providing you interpret the above warning, "The plastic bag is charged" to mean it self-ignites into currency.  I could be reading too many fairy tales, or could have just been living in Make-believe-land too long.  After all, it has been years since Cleveland sports fans have broken ground and settled in Denial.

"My Bag, My Umbrella"
Mini Go Carts

Now to grab a cart, which is one extra small size fits all, to accommodate maneuvering through more narrow aisles and larger crowds than the US Kroger Freeway system.  You can stack your cart with 2 baskets, on both the upper and lower racks *not recommended if you come by bike, keeping in mind the balancing act of a load for the wobbly commute home.  The space conservative have a slot for the umbrella to hook on (mine modeled in photo at right: properly lodged side hooks), and a safety  knob at the end so the point doesn't knock small children or run your pantie hose, unless of course that is your goal.

I have fond memories of pushing my Fisher Price shopping cart through the store shadowing my Mom. Its contents included a plastic set of a slab of steak, corn on the cob, a tomato, a bunch of red grapes and a mini bottle of catsup.  That children's toy might have been based on Japan's adult cart concept, if you trade the food contents for affordable local produce and swap the catsup for a bottle of soy sauce. I trailed her in my younger years, until I was big enough to push the Kroger cargo load cart, in tandem with the increasing appetite load and Zidonis kids' leg length loads.  She was a great sport for loading that in the back of the station wagon, and for that matter, other shoppers and employees were more than forgiving.  Over the past 8 1/2 years of my own motherhood, I've found Kroger has upgraded the ride for kids with a car-cart the size of the car I drive in Japan.  The carts for kids to push here are much more down-scaled, size-wise, per my retro 70s experience.

Kiddy cart in foreground, not your fisher price toy.  It has top and bottom basket, and usually she manages to fill it with display items that we usually return on a victory lap just before checkout. 
Unlike the Kroger experience I have when I'm on my annual State-side visits in August, there is no Starbucks kiosk to greet me upon entrance.  If feels like a sip of decadent vacation to wire up and charge the aisles.  The closest we have here is the chilled beverage aisle, which hosts ready made one cup servings of the Seattle java, yet it's not a sip and shop culture, as eating or drinking while walking is a cultural taboo. Besides, the carts reflect that rain gear storage takes priority over the leisure life beverage slot.

Ready-to-go beverages for take home only, not for buying to leisurely sip while you shop.  Carts have a slot for umbrellas, not for drinks like a movie theater seat, despite the feeling that a trip to the store is a work of fiction. 

"Oh Say Can You See" ... see these prices!

On this summer day, from the photo one would think Japan is gearing up for Independence Day, which wouldn't make sense, but at the same time, what makes sense about the concept of the Red White and Blue streaming above produce of my local Saitama Prefecture supermarket?  Pledge Allegiance to the American Cherry Campaign. The US import is usually in season faster than the preferred and pricier Japanese variety, so the Stars and Stripes send off the pride vibe to buy American, pits or not, providing the price is right.

There's no place like home, or like the home of the batch of American cherries on display.
"I'm On Top of the World" is usually the most popular Carpenters song of choice to be streaming through  my shopping experience, which is appropriate because a pair of gift melons from the north usually run about $150, which takes care of the "Wonder in Most Everything I See" refrain of the song.  The out of this world meat price myth rings cow bell true for Japan-farmed cattle, but like the more affordable American cherry import, Australian imported beef is attainable in the sense that you can eat dinner and pay rent in the same month. Yet a serving of Japan-raised beef from the south?  Add the lyric, "Steak Price Tags" to the tune of "Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down."

Price tag for HIS and HER steaks, approximately $30 for the one on the left, and $25 on the right.  At least it comes with a plastic flower displayed in the center.
My left hand in the above photo is not a result of a game where I imagine I'm approaching the out-of-reach, expensive slabs. Instead, it's a reality check on the size. Pre-cooked, they are slightly bigger than my palm, yet shorter than the length of my hand - certainly smaller than even a Japanese bread box.  On that note, what defines bread box, and what would you put in it if we really had one in the non-figurative sense?  If cooking out steaks is not an affordable option, there are more entree ideas in the sea. 

The Fresh Fish Box
Seven varieties of Holy Mackerel!
Each tub of ice water is hosting a looks-the-same-but-different variety of freshwater fish, which is not something you usually see with heads and tails in tact in land-locked Ohio State grocery stores, unless you count a picture of friendly cartoon trout on a fish stick box in the frozen food section. The fresh catch requires a tad  more maintenance than the heat-and-eat frozen dinners, and are rarely paired with tartar sauce, but at less than a dollar in season, I don't ruffle feathers.  Or fins.
Squid (いか)
Pronounced, "ika," I know many that would just say, "ick!"
Alternatively, although it's a slippery task to gut the innards from squid and octopus, the reward is that they can be served raw, grilled, deep-fried or boiled and condiment options are bountiful.  If you are learning the language, octopus (たこ)with its phonetic, sounds-like "taco" pronunciation, can be quite disappointing if you are expecting a spicy, salsa, south of the border delight. Some Midwesterners might need the tequila chaser on hand, the non slippery hand.

Cooking Support
Lucy's Advice, 5 Cents Stand
She doesn't look a lot like Lucy from the Peanuts Gang without the blue dress and saddle shoes, but you can be confident in her skills based on her Iron Chef hat, apron and sanitation mask, despite the previous evidence that the fish tubs are packed to the gills, uncovered and unwrapped.  She will help you with the "how-to" of marinating, grilling, stir-frying vs. deep-frying, including recommended side dish options.  Note the stacks of printed menus and color brochures, spelling out the proper sized plate for every different dipping sauce available. A book of rules apply to the pairing (even more than in the searing) process, but rest assured there is a Support System in place.

Bakery Basics 101: Anything between 2 slices of bread does not a sandwich make.
Wonder Bread and Super Bread Heroes

If you're low on nickels from the Cooking Support Stand, the quick "Fresh Sandwich" is a valid alternative. A sample of the special of the day ready-made sandwich: deep friend pork cutlet with teriyaki sauce on white, or mango with whipped cream on white.  There are more than 50 variations on seaweed on the shelves, but they pretty much stick to one "Wonder bread brand" sliced white variety in the bakeries, which remains the true wonder to me with my "yen" for wheat, pumpernickel or rye. Even considering the affordable $4.00 and $2.60 "fresh" specials featured in the above photo, "stale" doesn't sound much worse.

Anpanman (アンパンマン) is a popular animated picture book and cartoon for children.  His head is a bun made by Uncle Jam and he is a true bread roll super hero.  I've never met a bakery in Japan that doesn't have a version of Anpanman's sweet bean curd filled face.  He can be seen below, poised ready to give his signature An-punch or An-kick on command, in the center with the おすすめ(chef's recommendation) tag and a healthy 99 cent price tag.  If you've ever bitten into one, you'd wish the hero remained 2 dimensional the way his creator intended, in books and on screen, since 1973.  If you don't wish to bite into the too cute to eat smiling and dimpled face, take my word for it, bean cured tastes like it was baked in 1973 too.
Fluffy, white and surprise fillings usually line the supermarket bakery shelves.  Sweet bean curd filled superhero Anpanman buns (center) or salmon roe flake topped rolls with mayonnaise design (left) are standard "staples," and tend to taste like office supplies too. 
ABCs of Shopping, without Knowing the ABCs

Though there is not a slice of whole wheat grain for miles and miles, if you want a taste of home, don't try looking for the blaring Stars and Stripes-like clues anymore.  Plan on digging deep in the aisles, and learning to read, because the next chapter of shopping for your life will turn into a guessing game that can send you straight for the spittoon.

By now you're thinking, okay, I've given the sushi and Japanese noodle fare a cultural shot, but it's time to prepare a comfort food stash to fight potential bouts of loneliness and cravings for home. The last time you were learning to read, you were most likely brown bagging a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with your buddies. Let the guessing games begin.  Of the following 7 containers, 5 are fermented with fish stock and garnished with wet seaweed, while the remaining 2 are ground with peanuts and go best with blueberry or strawberry jam.

Peanut butter (ピーナッツバター) flanking the top (middle) row, far left and right.  Center top and bottom 3 are miso (味噌) soup paste.  You want nothing to do with the latter combined with jam.   

Chunky peanut butter donning the red cap, smooth in blue.  Unfortunately, one slight slip of the knife into the wrong tub and you wonder if anything in life could actually be smooth again. Nothing "Jiffy" or "Skippy" about it: one fast move and you could make a serious mistake by applying miso soup paste to your fluffy bean curd bakery bread roll.  Miso paste and purple sweet bean curd a PB (ピーナッツバター) and J does not make.  If you're "fed" up with the challenges surrounding the American sandwich plan, you can go for the Japanese answer to the American sandwich, the (おにぎり) onigiri, or rice ball.

Ironically, the perfect rice "ball" is a triangle.  I used a mold for the first few years to master the shape.  I got that down after a decade. Next step, on to taste, since one could say mine tastes like mold.
The posters at the top display various rice balls wrapped in seaweed, with popular fillings such as pickled plum (umeboshi) or salmon.  It's the picnic or the "brown bag," lunch on the go staple in this country.  They taste better than the description lends, that is they don't taste like staples, unless you accidentally bite into the umeboshi pit.

Grocery Literacy Level 2

If you graduated from reading the difference between peanut butter (ピーナッツバター) and miso (味噌), then you can advance to the subtleties of deciphering the linguistic differences between sugar and salt.  One look at those words in parenthesis next to their English equivalents, you can sense that in the case terms such as, "peanut butter" in Japanese, borrowed words and phrases employ the phonetic alphabet katakana in Japanese and it stands out a little more then words written in kanji or Japanese hiragana.
Left to Right: 塩(salt)、砂糖(sugar)
Pictured on left are 2 bags found on any home pantry shelf.  But do the "letters" on the bags do anything to reveal the mystery powered contents? Hint: The intended use of the bag pictured on the far left is for the rims of your margarita glass, while the contents of the bag on the right is for adding by the spoonful to your coffee mug.  Mix those up and you might as well have eaten Octopus Tacos and a Miso Paste and Jelly Sandwich.

Flour, the Garden Party

Life's answers don't come in a simple box of Bisquick. At least in the flour department, the pictures illustrated on the bags give a clue to the recommended use, assuming that you are somewhat familiar with the Japanese cartoon drawing style, or common menu items.  Even at this level of multiple choice, you would need to read a little more than just "what kind of flour" you're buying since all other required ingredients would take some literacy, and I won't even go into the detailed language and symbols inscribed on all kitchen appliances and gadgets here.  Providing you are not too discouraged to cook and eat, I'll introduce a sample of just the 7 varieties that squeezed into the view of my camera lens from the shelf.

Advanced beginner: who knew there could be so many spins on a bag of flour?  Only 7 fit in my camera lens view.

Starting from the far left, suggested uses for each bag reads: octopus balls (which I realize should be my headline over flour), followed by pancake mix in pink, okonomiyaki (a Japanese style pancake-omelet-meets-pizza, grilled with "ingredients to your liking"), mid-level-strength for breading or frying, then on to the thinner variety (best for tempura); next up, heavy deep frying for spicy fried chicken in purple, and finally, what could have saved me all this space, bringing up the tail end with no picture on the bag, the All Purpose Flour in red. Hang in there, we'll break for coffee next and I promise we will hit the liquor section soon.

The coffee aisle doesn't really leave you with a linguistic puzzle, as the bags of beans are often written in both English or Japanese.  "Special blend, mocha, kilimanjaro" are commonly available, but never in decaf.  I haven't seen decaf available in a local store or restaurant since my 1994 landing, forcing me to venture to out to international marts when I need to tone the wires down, though that jacks the prices up, creating a need to get money "wired" from home.  

In coffee shops and restaurants, there are rarely-to-never any "free refills," as coffee in Japan is an experience or ritual rather than a habit, or addiction. 
The barista said it took 6 years in training to learn this...
...took me 6 minutes to sip it.
I'm pictured at left, smiling, perhaps because it's before the bill, but also out of respect for the artisan who prepared this chef-d'oeuvre in front of me at the counter.

Yes, like everything else in the service industry, presentation is key when it comes to coffee, which may or may not be related to the reason why one of the largest selling brands in Japan is Key Coffee.  The close up of my coffee masterpiece is at the top right, and you can see it's clearly not an image of Anpanman's hat, but modeled after a Miyazaki film heroine. They take great pride in their "service" so hitting the big bucks in pricing is justified.  Besides, the Melba toast was "free," although, like the drink, not refilled (nor was Melba a heroine).  If you're just in the market for a quick fix, then go on the price tag and social class cheap by opting for Stalker's bargain basement (despite the fact that there are no basements in Japan) blends, American or European.  I have no shame.

The American yellow label is customary as it is a "weaker" color to the "robust" brown on the European blend.  Both recommend serving with cream, which hints to how the Japanese feel about foreign brews.
As the generic American and European blends recommend serving with "cream," you can be sure entertaining additives are nearby. American, European or Special Blend, I've never met a native English speaker in Japan that hasn't enjoyed his or her own version of being asked if they would like "a little creep" with their coffee.  Even if bribed with the elusive concept of refills, I will turn down the offer in every case: The number one seller of creamer in Japan is called Creap, taking center stage below among his rivals.

Bad coffee is best when served with bad cream, "Coffee Fresh, Creap, Creamy Powder" are top picks.  
Coffee talk triggers thoughts of breakfast. When I was a kid, breakfast translated into Cap'n Crunch on school days, and on vacation, the even more sugared version, Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch.  Rest assured there is no Miso flavored Cap'n Crunch here, so the mix up as illustrated in operation PB and J thankfully is not an issue.  Along the same lines, kids' cereals the way I remember them, of any variety, aren't an issue here either.  The selection includes limited variations on a small handful of Kellogg's imports - the Corn Flake,  the Rice Puff, the Wheat Flake and, for one kick of pizazz, the Granola Cluster.  From the golden triangle (unfortunately not Golden Grahams) of the 3 grocery stores on my regular-stop radar, the picture that follows boasts the largest cereal selection. That's as good as the breakfast cereal "Life (Hey Mikey!)" in Japan gets.

A friend of mine sent a care-package a couple of years ago, hooking our daughter on Lucky Charms.  Now she even sees the omoiyari courtesy parking spot symbol as the Green Clover.  Yet there is no sign of Lucky the Leprechaun in our cereal "aisle" (more like quarter of one side of an aisle) as the choices are not the mile long walk lined with his colorful friends in Apple Jack, Fruit Loop or Trix Make Believe Land.

Kellogg's corner market in the tiny cereal corner.
Tony the Tiger Family Size
Box sizes are clearly smaller than their State-side counterparts, but that is in line with everything else.  If the photo at left doesn't convince you of the scaled down size of cereal selection, focus on the photo at right.  My left hand, previously modeled with a steak serving, is not even poised at full-flex on a family size box of Frosted Flakes. To parallel, milk and juice cartons only come in a one size fits all quart size.

Even more fun is slashed when you consider, the "menu" ideas on the side panels of the boxes - while American kids enjoy games and quizzes, the labels here feature snack menu ideas, using Corn Flakes as a top layer on crackers with mayonnaise.  Since cereal hasn't really caught on as a morning meal, it's more commonly pushed as a walk on the wild side layer of crunch in a fruit - yogurt sundae, or a high end coffee shop dessert combined with ice cream. Perhaps that doesn't matter to the Japanese, as, the "it's not just for breakfast anymore," orange juice campaign slogan would ring more like, "it's never been for breakfast but it is available as a 'snack' to go with your $9 cup of Key Coffee."

The more common use of cereal: the Corn Flake layer of fruit parfait.
I imagine they feel the need for a coffee break snack like the above if they start their day with the traditional Japanese breakfast, which centers around a bowl of Rice as opposed to a bowl of Rice Krispies, featuring grilled fish, fermented beans, miso soup, pickled plum and dried seaweed.  We've tapped on the fish, miso, umeboshi and seaweed already, but the fermented bean (納豆) options are more plentiful than the cereal varieties.

納豆:Fermented beans is one way to start your day.

More spins on umeboshi than on Corn Flakes 
Photographic evidence above proves that the cereal aisle has 4-5 shelves of "cereal," yet there are 6-7 shelves of pickled plums and fermented beans.  It could be a deal they have with the coffee shops, since with a start of the day already, literally "rotten," who wouldn't foot the $15 bill for a corn flake shake?

"A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter"

My generation can recite the above line from a classic Sesame Street short where a Mom sends her preschooler to the store with the above list, to be a responsible "big girl" and remember the 3 items.  In the era, the container of milk was an assumed quart of milk, which in the States, I believe is still available on the shelves for nostalgia's sake.  In Japan, the quart, known here as 1000ml, is the one size fits all.  It does fit all, assuming you buy no less than 3 at a time.

Small, medium and large all equal 32 fluid ounces (1000ml)  in every "case."
Kids in my hometown fulfilled the educational ritual of graduating from "Safety Town," where we mastered the rules of the road and honed our turn signal skills for riding a bike.  The highlight of the program was the grand finale craft of  making a traffic light from a half gallon sized carton of milk.  No wonder nobody signals on their bikes here (and they also break Japan's "no riding with umbrella law" on a daily basis) - with no half gallon, Safety Town's cardinal Red-Yellow-Green lesson doesn't make the syllabus.  

Is the reason why milk and juice boxes are so small a marketing tactic?  After all, the smaller sizes keep you going back daily, which is appropriate since you only can average 3 measly (not to be confused with muesli) breakfasts out of the Family Size box of Flakes anyway. My $25 beef is that clearly the engineers have worked it out, since their hard liqueur sake containers flank the shelves in larger than 1000ml (quart) sized cartons.  Next time I put salt in my American coffee, maybe I'll just throw caution to the wind and pour sake over my cereal.  Perhaps how that's the Cap'n got his title after all.

This is the more than a kick than your vitamin D fortified aisle, raising suspicion that the larger than quart sized technology does exist, just not for dairy. 
Homebrewing flask sales:  DIY fruit sake
"There is a season, turn turn."  Though the Byrds are a little too hip-indie-folk for Japan's grocery soundtracks, store and merchandise decor celebrate and market the changes. Beer cans change with each season. Kirin, Asahi and Sapporo rival in sales, but they find peace in beautifying lager labels and nature-loving graphic cans.  They feature fall leaves, turning to snow capped mountains, clearing the way for cherry blossom designs, and finally fireworks for the hot festival months.

Summer doesn't only electrify and light up on beer, but it also takes over for the home fruit sake brew: jar and store your own blend, if you prefer the jugs to the cartons. I can't pretend that I've done this, but something about using fresh plums and fermenting them in jars in the kitchen-floor-hatches seems like a waste of cooking energy and storage resources. For me, those 2 floor cupboards represent the closest I will get to having a basement or pantry.  Mine are packed with boxes of microwave popcorn in bulk from Costco Japan. I spend enough resources to make the 3 hour, $26 dollar toll round trip to get the kernels in there to think about making room for jugs of ume-shu plum wine anyway.

Buy One, Get something that has nothing to do with anything, Free!

If jarring your own liquor sounds like too much labor, there is no lack of come-ons to purchase imported wine.  It is a rice wine country, so I enjoy the winning end of the Let "Freebies"Ring that come with the Red, White and Rose.  It's often like the kids' toy basket at a Family Restaurant, you just never know what trinket the markets are going to tack on.  I have a hair scrungie from a bottle of Malbec and a Pokemon key chain from a bottle of Chardonnay, to name just a couple of my carnival like take-aways. 

Cabernet on ice?
Chicken salad sandwich:
Hold the mayo, double the whisky
The Shiraz (left, yellow label) comes with a chocolate dressed up as a gold coin.  Management must be capitalizing on the said health benefits of the flavonoids in dark chocolate combined with the resveratrol in red wine.  Alternatively, they could be giving themselves a gold coin and 4 star review on their Australian import ability. 

Furthermore, in restaurants in Japan, wine by the glass of any color is served more than chilled, whether you like it or not. The mini ice cube tray prize on the Cabernet perhaps is taking the concept a few degrees, Fahrenheit or centigrade, a bit too far for my (now frozen) pallet.

Bar Snacks Beyond Beer Nuts

If the cashier doesn't accept chocolate coins for steak, and you are eating on a budget, go for the jug of whisky that comes with a can of chicken (above right), even sandwiching them between a couple of Ritz crackers if the previously debuted mango cream wonder bread special from the bakery doesn't strike your fancy (below).  

Suntory's Old: A New way to dress up your Ritz
Needless to say, now that we've found ourselves in the happy hour prep-section of the supermarket, naturally we "stumble" upon beer snacks.  Not a familiar jar of Planter's salted peanuts in sight, but plenty of spicy, pickled, or jerkied squid, shrimp, sea urchin, beef or eel, in order to whet, or dry the appetite.

"Pass the...well, just pass, please."

Moving away from the over 21 crowd pleasing theme (well, the drinking age is 20 in Japan), there are plenty of family friendly snacks to add to the bill, and no shortage of cute add-ons to attract the under 10 crowd. When you have an 8 year old assistant pushing her own mini cart in your shadow, it's hard to ignore the abundance family-friendly snacks, as logos come to life.  I should note that the "kawaii" (cute) culture in Japan is not reserved solely for the little ones, as Hello Kitty and Disney gear is also marketed to every bracket of society from homemaker to businessperson. You have to admit, the snack rack below would just be as sad and lonely as a plain ol' Keebler Cookie promo.  The red teddy (not that kind of adult market) photo bomb makes the sale:

All ages in Japan love the cute themes throughout - this teddy bear surprise is an example of what makes it into the bottom basket of my daughter's kiddy cart.
I spent a great deal of our shopping trip among the other AWOL kids in Kroger's crowding around the sample trays.  We pros knew the best picks were usually centered in the deli section, where you could feast on a rolled up slice of turkey, or cubed cheese chunks on crackers from the dwindling "take one, please" basket.  They do the same thing here, except there isn't a deli, there are no Triscuits, no fresh cheese rounds to cube on the market, nor any turkey to be caught in Japanese cuisine.

Instead,  in the spirit of mimicking Asian street market fare, (yet far from State Fair fare), they do set up little tent-like stands, with regional or seasonal themes.  Utsunomiya (宇都宮) City is famous for their (餃子) gyoza, or "pot stickers" (pictured below).  Serving ideas and selected sauces are featured, and disposable chopsticks and samples flourish.  The difference between Stalker and Kroger is that if you taste, the cultural norm is to purchase a pack to go.  I say that's a dissimilarity, maybe because when I made an all you can eat meal out of samples when I was 9, I wasn't carrying a wallet; however, it is likely my Mom was tracing my bread crumb path and picking up after me with her charge card in the end.

Pot sticker tasting corner: Chef pictured in red shirt, meticulously tending to his display.
The housewares aisle might not look like the tailgate or home party supplier of Midwestern America, where you usually can pick up plastic forks, spoons and paper plates. But if you are taking happy hour supplies and appetizers to share with house guests, you need more than simple cutlery (well disposable chopsticks are simple cutlery here, pictured in the above sample by the 100s) for them to enjoy their visit. Guests remove their street shoes in the entrance and expect indoor footwear to be offered even before that first welcome drink. A selection of guest slippers fills the what could have been an extended cereal aisle in a full range of prices, colors and styles.  I admit this is an absolute last minute purchase must.

Guest slippers are one step fancier than family style, so live it up, and enjoy your pickled squid appetizer. 
If the lines at checkout are long, you're out of luck as far as browsing the tabloid headlines or latest cover of People magazine to catch up on the most recent celebrity marriage, "bump" sighting, divorce, or mug shot.  There is a magazine and book section, but not near the registers, which is not a problem considered cash-based Japan has no check-writers holding up the line, and customers are lightening quick at putting exact change with their point cards in the money tray. Although I don't get to catch up on the latest Red Carpet scandal, I bring myself back to my geographical reality abroad by pursuing and quickly skipping the Japan whacky game show TV guide and sports mags (read: national soccer highlights) and check out with my mini cart, double baskets loaded.

If the cooking consultant doesn't troubleshoot all of your homesickness, consider yourself having saved 5 cents from Lucy's advice stand and transfer those funds into the toll road fund and embark on the trip to Costco Japan. Brands and varieties are still limitied, and heavy on the Asian fare, but the bonus is that you can at least get that box of Frosted Flakes in a size that you can put both hands on.  Costco carts are also American sized, but the crowds are Japanese sized in number, so be warned if you are trying to capture that US experience: the following picture is worth a thousand minutes in line for a 100% all pork hot dog.

There's no place like home.  Or a Who concert.
No, Costco Japan isn't exactly Kroger's with my Mom.  But I do go a couple times a year to get "gamey" turkey and other fixings to tease my senses with her homemade holiday meals.  On a regular basis, I stick to the new reality that I've made home.  I imagine I'm sitting with my star-shaped ice cubes, chilling the champagne, in my final wait for the "May Auld Acquaintances be Forgot" chorus to chime through at Stalker, or, while I'm dreaming, a Big Cleveland win.  I don't know which will come first, but I have my semi affordable bowl of American cherries to comfort me in the meantime.  And for the most part?  My tongue in cheek delivery aside, grocery shopping in Japan really isn't the pits after all.  Finally, Auld Lang Syne" blares its last verse, signaling loud and clear in my native language to wrap up my purchases along with my reflections into "my bag."  I'll take the cue, and "CLOSE NOW."