How to Find Cheap(er) Groceries in Japan
Monday, August 22, 2022
Tips and Tricks for Saving Money on Food
Food prices in Japan are on the rise with the yen hitting a 20-year low and steady inflation since late 2021. The inflation rate for food prices in April, May, and June of 2022 was 4%,4.1%, and 3.7% respectively. Kyodo News reported that the prices of over 10,000 food items in Japan will increase by an average of 13% this year. The weak yen, the war in Ukraine, and the supply chain issue have all influenced the rise in food prices in 2022.
While some might feel cornered into resorting to fast food, combini, and cup noodle life, don’t despair, there are ways to shop smartly and more cost-effectively. Of course, this takes a bit more time and effort but it can also be taken as an opportunity to learn more about the neighborhood you live in and discover new food items that you never knew you always wanted.
Here is Izanau’s guide to finding cheaper groceries in Japan.
1) Find a Local Market (市場 ichiba)
Before the rise of supermarkets all towns in Japan once had an ichiba, where most daily shopping took place. Ichibas are usually open aired shopping streets with stores that are specialized i.e. fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, rice, and so on.
Unfortunately, ichibas are harder to find in city centers or densely populated commercial areas but are still quite common in residential areas all across Japan. Ichiba’s tend to be covered open-air streets that are a one-stop shop for all your household needs. You can also find coffee shops, izakayas, and stalls selling ready-made food (osōzai). The ichibas that have survived decades of change are an interesting amalgam of old and new. With 100-year-old handmade tofu stores right next to a modern coffee roastery. There is much to discover in your local ichiba and specialized vegetable, fruit, meat, and seafood vendors tend to have good seasonal deals on fresh food.
2) Find Discounted Items in Yor Local Supermarket
All supermarkets discount items that have passed their prime or that they need to sell quickly. Always look for discount stickers on items in your local supermarket.
There are two main ways to find these discounted items:
The Discount Rack
Supermarkets keep a discount rack for fruits and vegetables that needs to be consumed or prepared (cooked, pickled, etc) within one to two days. Often this produce is sold for half the regular price which makes the items much more affordable and great for meal prepping.
Perishable items like meat, seafood, and cooked food (osōzai) go on sale several times a day. Supermarkets have a set window in which they need to sell items so they put fresh foods on sale when the sell-by window gets near. Target opening time, late afternoon or after 6 PM and you will see many items put on sale in their respective refrigerator sections. This is a great way to get raw meat or seafood as well as precooked foods for dinner or lunch the next day.
3) Supermarket Loyalty
This may seem counterintuitive, but if you have access to a supermarket that is generally not too expensive it is beneficial to always shop at the same place because supermarkets award customer loyalty in two ways.
A. Chirashi (チラシ)
A chirashi is a flyer that supermarkets issue every week featuring deals or sales. Chirashis are usually kept near the entrance of the store or can be found online. Often deals are only offered for a day which incentivizes shoppers to visit the store more frequently.
All major supermarkets have a loyalty program. Some give you extra points on specific days of the week, others incentivize using designated credit cards to get more points but an old fashion plastic point card is sometimes the easiest way to go. When you have accumulated enough points you will get a coupon printed on the end of your receipt that can be used the next time you go shopping.
The takeaway is that the more you frequent your local supermarket the more deals and discounts you will be able to benefit from.
4) Find the Nearest Gyōmu Super
Gyōmu Super (業務スーパー) is a supermarket chain that literally means “supermarket for businesses.” The chain initially targeted small restaurant owners by selling larger quantities at discounted rates.
Over the years they have grown to have stores all over the country and are still frequented by small restaurant owners but now anyone can shop at Gyōmu Super. Their strategy of selling in volume makes their overall prices much more affordable than regular supermarkets.
Here is their link to locate the nearest Gyōmu Super to you. (Japanese only)
5) Buy Directly From Farmers
A great thing about Japan is that no matter where you live, there is probably a farm about an hour’s drive away. Many farmers take advantage of this fact and bring their produce directly to cities to sell to consumers.
By circumventing JA (Japan Agriculture), the national food monopoly, they are able to keep prices affordable and the added bonus is that the food is extra fresh!
Ask neighbors, friends, or colleagues if there is an area where local farmers sell their produce. They are often found in highly trafficked areas like near stations, post offices, or in front of shopping complexes.
6) Shop Online
When it comes to household times or packaged foods, massive online retailers like Rakuten and Amazon always have competitive prices and frequently have huge sales so always keep an eye out for these deals. There are also plenty of other online shopping sites that have become more popular in response to the pandemic, below is a short list of websites that are worth exploring.
Pro tip: Discount websites are not always the cheapest option. They do offer great deals but not all across the board, so be sure to price compare to ensure that you are in fact getting the best price.
- Rakuten Seiyo
They also have a “monthly deals” category called 月間お買得 (gekkan okaidoku) that features discounted items for a whole month.
It is free to register and other benefits include free shipping for purchases of more than 5500 yen, and you can also collect Rakuten Points that can be used across all Rakuten services.
- さんきん (Sankin)
This is the online store for Osaka’s central market. Most central markets are not open to the public but Osaka’s central market sells items direct to consumers online. Another great thing about this website is that they carry fresh food items that are uncommon in normal grocery stores.
They have sales on days where the date contains the number 3 in addition to having frequent 20% off deals, in addition, every Tuesday they update the specials of the week.
- はじっこ使うよ。訳あり屋 (Hajikko Tsukauyo. Wakeariya)
This website sells so-called “substandard” food items; essentially, they are items that are slightly imperfect (e.g. packaging is slightly damaged, or the shapes of the food isn’t perfectly uniform). These imperfections do not affect the flavor or quality of the food in any way but from a brand perspective, they cannot be sold at full price.
Kauche is an app that has a similar concept to Groupon. Items are sold at discounted prices but there is a catch, there is a set number of people who need to purchase the item before it is sold. The app allows you to invite friends or create a group in order to meet the terms to buy the item.
The app sells everything from food to cosmetics, household items, and electronics. But just be aware that even though Kauche, in general, offers better deals than most other online shopping sites but everything isn’t always cheaper. For example, there Rakuten or Amazon is having a big sale the prices are comparable, or even cheaper because of the scale at which they operate. But Kauche offers new sales and deals on a daily basis so you are likely to find a good deal if you check the app regularly.
Final Tip: Shop seasonally!
Cucumbers are cheaper in the summer and mushrooms are cheaper in the fall. Know the seasons and buy produce when it is abundant, this will always help you save a bit on groceries.
About the Author
I've been in Japan so long that I say my heart is Japanese. And still this country impresses me from time to time. In those moments I think, "That's why I love living in Japan."