Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Food Chain... Shopping at a Sapporo Supermarket

7th August, 2010 - Well, this is the third and final in my sequence of eating and shopping in a typical Sapporo shopping centre. Here we step where only about a million people a day dare to step. Inside a Sapporo Supermarket. Now to be honest I've not spent a lot of time in supermarkets outside Hokkaido, so I don't know if there's many differences. As you might expect, differences are pretty obvious when you compare with  a typical Aussie supermarket. Yes - prices in yen is a bit of an obvious one.  But also, the big obvious one is to see the extent to which seafood replaces red-meats.

It's when you see huge freezer section after section filled with all manner of seafood delights that you appreciate just how dependent Japan is on the ocean for it's food.

And the range is quite impressive too... we're not talking fish, squid, prawns, lobster and maybe baby octopii... but a whole range of different beasties - many of which I've never seen before. Certainly not here in Australia. One of the more unusual things you find are Ascidians, or known as hoya (ホヤ) in Japanese - these are more colloquially known as sea-squirts.

Of course, there's not just whole fish for sale... you can even buy them disassembled! I have to admit not the most attractive (or appetizing) to my eyes, but still, to a country that lives of fish stock, you can't go passed some yummy fish-bits.

And it's not only seafood that you can buy - I mean, an entire isle of free-made sushi packs - and pretty cheap too! I can't actually recall us ever buying pre-made supermarket sushi, but it's definitely a convenient lunchtime or quick dinner option.

I guess this is the part of the post where I say that it's actually - despite general belief - quite cheap to eat in  Japan. In fact, T-chan was quite amazed when she first came to Australia as to how expensive food shopping was here. That's only got worse here of late with the huge spike in fruit and veg prices after the spate of disasters in Australia.

Here's a wider look at just a small part of fresh-seafood section...  It's huge, and just goes on and on.

The other area that tends to be bigger is the dairy food section - at least here in Sapporo. Milk is prevalent here, and I have to say it's delicious... one of the reasons why Hokkaido soft-serve ice-cream is loved by many. And for a city that has so much snow in winter, it's amazing how much ice-cream is consumed.

And strangely enough, the red-meat section is quite a good distance away from this seafood section (actually it's with the veg - but I'm not sure if you can read anything into that or not). I know Aussie beef is seen as a bit of a cheap-meat in Japan. Comparatively so at least. Here's some good Aussie Beef... 780 yen per 400 grams (or about 25 AUD per kg)
This price is not that far from the price we pay here in Australia for a good scotch fillet steak in the supermarket... and you'd pay about 15AUD per kg for the same "sizzle" thinly sliced meat. Although Aussie shops tend to look for leaner beef in these health conscious times. So red-meat is definitely not cheap in Japan.

Now this is where we do a return to stereo-type. Fresh seasonal fruit is where a lot of people get the impression of it being ridiculously priced in Japan. For example, a box of 6 peaches comes to a cheap 1980yen - or 25AUD. That's a little on the pricey side, even if they are individually wrapped and boxed.

Watermelons were not that bad... 1580yen each (or just under 20 AUD).

Ok - this is more expensive...3980yen (50AUD) melons... at least their local Hokkaido produce (though for that price, I might have wanted them to have been flown in from somewhere a bit exotic).

But by the time we get to cantaloupes (or rockmelons as they're known in Australia), you start getting a little pricey...at about 5,800yen (72.50AUD). That's starting to get a little pricey indeed. 

And these are just ordinary supermarket prices. You can spend much more than that... such as shown here for 42,000yen (525AUD) or the record for two Yubari melons that went for 2.5 million yen (just over 31,000AUD) for the first pair of the season. Now why is it that the Japanese are willing to pay this much for fruit? The odd thing is that in Japan, people don't pay that sort of money for fruit to eat for themselves. No - they buy expensive fruits as gifts for family, friends or associates. And there's nothing that says I love you than buying your beloved a pair of $30,000 melons!

Interesting but almost unrelated fact:
Yubari is a small city of about 12-13,000 people to the east of Sapporo - but out in the middle of no-where. It is now famous for at least two things - it's ultra-expensive melons, and it's monumental debt. It certainly needs all the help it can get, as the city (an ex mining town) went into complete bankruptcy in 2007 under extreme debt incurred from national government borrowing to build up the city. Like many places in Japan during the late 80's and early 90's, they thought that lending vast monies from the government to build subsidised amusement parks (and other attractions) would inspire local industry. Instead, it progressively impoverished much of the Japan's rural areas that had succumbed to the loans.

Actually Yubari is sort of well know for a third thing... having the youngest mayor, Naomichi Suzuki aged only 30 years of age. Having fallen into bankruptcy, the city of Yubari was the centre of considerable remedial action by the central government. Suzuki was part of that Tokyo-led government intervention for two years, when he decided he'd try his luck at politics. He won the mayoral position in April 2011 - the youngest mayor in Japan in the most financially struggling municipality with the most expensive melons. Interesting combo.

So - whilst in the West we see mega-expensive fruits for sale in Japan and wonder at the meaning of it all, there is a sort of sense to it... but that doesn't mean that the Western media don't go crazy every time they see these high prices. It's always good to reinforce a stereotype after all - and the one which shows Japan as being mega-expensive is a good one. On the whole, my experience is that there are many fresh vegetables that are cheaper in Japan - and seafood is a no-brainer. You just have to be wise in shopping, and avoid the trophy fruit abd vegetables.

Now melons aren't the only form of gift-giving, and I think that I will end here. The perfect gift for all occasions.  A beer pack. I'll just put my order in for a slab of Sapporo Draft shall I? Now, what's the occasion? Well, it is after 6pm somewhere... isn't it (ok... I don't mean to sound like a complete slosh here).

My final advice... when travelling to Japan, don't be afraid to venture into a supermarket. It may not be the first thing that you'll think of when you're planning your holiday. But it tells you a lot about the common things, and the points of difference between two places.

PS - it was most probably a bit silly me taking so many photos in the supermarket... and I'm surprised I wasn't told not to. Still, I'm glad that I could show a bit of what it's like to shop like a normal person rather than as a tourist.


  1. Lots of fresh seafood and all looks really good and fresh. I love checking out the supermarkets in Japan and walking down the aisles looking at all the great food and ingredients :)

  2. Nice posting!
    Yes, the selection of fish is amazing...I come from another small island (Britain) and our fish is expensive, small selection...why? Is it all exported or something?
    I don't know!
    The melons and peaches are really for expensive presents - ordinary folk jut buy one peach or a slice of melon....I got FOUR slightly damaged peaches for Y200 yesterday!!
    Going to Oz in Sept and gonna eat and eat and eat....

  3. Thanks Oyome-san; much appreciated coming from both another islander (then again, Australia's an island country too). I have to say that in Adelaide, there's a little bit of seafood around, but nowhere near the quantity or quality.

    I was not really a seafood eater before meeting my wife. It's difficult to imagine staying in Hokkaido for any length of time without becoming one.

    I know it's a strange idea having so much produce out there specifically to give to other people. I know there's still 'normal' fruit to buy... but it must be a little deflating. BTW - any suggestions on where to buy good fruit from orchards/growers?

    From memory you were heading to Queensland for your trip to Oz. What's your itinerary like? Good time to come... but then again, any time's a good time.

  4. I love this post!, Loveto learn more and more about japaese culture!, continue posting!

  5. Thank you Erica... appreciated. I would like to believe that I have something to say about Japanese culture, but I suspect that you could read 1000 bloggers experiences and still not come close to knowing the fullness of it. Thankfully.

    Still, I hope that my little experience at least helps connect people to a slightly different perspective of Japan that I hope is more right than wrong. The great thing is that we all come at an understanding of Japan from many different paths.

  6. Some fruits in Japan are just insanely expensive... Looks really fresh though.

  7. Hi, I just arrived in Sapporo and I am completely lost. Can you point out a few supermarkets with the closest metro station? I am buying at convenience stores and prices are extremely high. Lots of thanks

  8. Anonymous - hope you are having fun in Sapporo. Now I would like to help, but I would need a little more information (a name would be nice for starters).

    Where are you staying? What are you looking for (do you want to cook food, or buy cheaper pre-made food). Convenience stores are actually pretty good value if you don't want to cook.... look for a Lawson conbini for reasonable value.

    Groceries can be often found in the basement of department stores.... however, Sapporo doesn't have much in the way of supermarkets in the city. If you want good supermarkets, then you will most probably need to get out of the city... at least out of the heart of the city.

    Now unfortunately, saying "the closest metro station" doesn't really help. We would need to know what subway or trainline is closest to you.

    One option is catching the train to Soen station (on the Hasamu line - first stop out of Sapporo) - there you can find an Aeon department store right next to the station, and I'm sure there's a supermarket there.

    If you need more info - send me a Kontactr email (click on the button on the right).