By Dev Stolz
My Japanese language ability has me functioning at about the same communicative level as a three month old infant. Sometimes, I don’t mind this. For example, I don’t have to second-hand listen to small talk about ugly pets or boring weekends, and I usually don’t understand why my students are laughing at me. However, three month old infants are hardly thriving members of society. They aren’t out carpin’ the diem. And I highly doubt that they would feel as bad about themselves as I did when I mistook fruit juice for salad dressing at the grocery store. We all know that good nutrition starts at the grocery store. If you don’t have the right ingredients, creating healthy meals is nearly impossible. The additional challenge of living in a country with a complex writing system means that if your average ALT attempted to read all of the food packaging while shopping, it would take roughly eleven years (based on my own unpublished research).
The grocery store is one of the most difficult and necessary crucibles that all JETs must face. Gone are the days when ALTs could hunt a Japanese wild boar or live off of foraged mushrooms and berries. It’s a tougher, rougher world out there. We have to adapt to Yamayo’s, Aeons and Universes…. frightening indeed.
Grocery stores in Japan are a surprise sneak attack from my old friend and nemesis, ‘’Culture Shock’’. I hadn’t given it much thought when I accepted my spot in the JET program that I would have to navigate my way around a grocery store which would essentially incapacitate me. However, I’ve read Darwin’s books about finches, and I know that it is possible for us foreigners to find healthy food in an exotic and strange land.
I’ve compiled a list of my top tips for healthy grocery shopping in Japan:
1. Perimeter ~ Inward: Supermarkets are designed by smart people. Smart people who want to feed you. Nearly every grocery store from Tokyo to Tuktoyaktuk (a real place, I assure you) follows a similar pattern. Necessities (Fruits and Veggies, Meat, Dairy and Bakery) line the perimeter of the store with packaged and non-perishables are in the center aisles. BodyBreak (Hey Canadians!) taught me to plan shopping trips accordingly. Sequentially plan your list and only venture down the aisles for what you need.
These two dorks are pretty much Canadian royalty. BodyBreak!
2. Short ingredient lists: A short ingredient list is a thing of beauty. While I may not be able to read everything on a Japanese ingredient list, I can gather a rough idea of how processed the contents are. The majority of the additives to food products aren’t really there for you. They are added to ‘’improve’’ taste, colour and the shelf-life of products. Mother nature didn’t put them there!
3. Never shop hungry: Just don’t do it.
4. Ask for help: Many people feel intimidated about asking for help in Japan. I understand this- but did you come to Asia to stare blankly at boxes of curry or to live life!? Less time spent grocery shopping means more time exploring, being a rockstar JET and living the life you want! Ask for help. While ideally it is best to to ask store employees for help, I’m not above asking old women, children and pets for help in decoding crackers from cookies.
5. Find a farmers market: Local products are the ideal. Not only do they keep your money in Aomori and help to stimulate our local economies, but they provide the most fresh and delicious food from our communities. Remember that our job entails grass-roots internationalization. This means being a visible part of our communities. Aomori is quite agricultural and has a lot to offer! Here is a link to Asaichi’s Aomori list of market information. It’s not quite comprehensive but has quite a few listings in the blue forest.
Stay sweaty, Aomori.