As in most other areas, the packaged foods business in Japan operates according to its own concepts of how things should be. It’s evidenced in the banks of vending machines that adorn most any streetscape and provide convenient, 24 hour access to drinks, mostly, other consumables and a few more interesting products. It underpins the delivery strategy of 7-11 and its convenience store competitors, to which fleets of small vans deliver freshly prepared meals and snacks to city outlets several times a day, guaranteeing customers fresh take-out food. It’s in the packaging design on store shelves, exemplified by tubs of yoghurt that contain a folding plastic spoon concealed within the lid or onigiri with origami-like peel-away wrapping that separates the nori shell from the rice to maintain its crispness. And it’s expressed in the service, of, for instance, depato food hall staff, who add dry ice to your purchase of yoghurt or ice cream so that it won’t spoil before you get it home.
Visitors to Japan marvel at the basement food halls of the country’s depato, where the presentation and sale of food is elevated to an art form. The Japanese family grocery shopping, however, is generally done at the supermarket, a concept that has of course taken hold here, as in every other developed nation. While a couple of big international chains, US based Costco and Germany’s Metro have opened successful Japanese branches, the local vendors are a force to be reckoned with. Suburban branches of Jusco, Ito-yokado and Dai-ei proliferate, their large car parks and well-stocked aisles full of customers; some branches incorporate specialty bakeries, drug stores or florists; most have additional floors that stock clothing, variety goods and homewares and furnishings. To the foreigner, they are exotic gastronomic spaces, with their impressive seafood sections and comprehensive pre-cooked bento and take-home meals areas, their aisles of bottled beers, liquor, teas and soft drinks and their international grocery displays.
While the supermarkets make for great shopping and offer variety, freshness and value, a more concentrated food shopping experience can be had at one of the boutique food emporiums that thrive in the city centers.
It began as a fruit store in Aoyama in 1910, became Japan’s first self-service checkout style supermarket in 1953 and remains a desirable destination for those in search of good local produce or quality international flavors. There are a number of branches in and beyond Tokyo and not far from the intersection of Aoyama dori and Omotesando, is the company’s Kinokuniya International branch, hidden in the basement of the Ao Building. From Spanish jamon and French cheeses to Dr Peppers and Coke in traditional glass bottles, this store should satisfy those searching for international comfort food.
Precce Food Market stores are operated by the Tokyu group. The flagship store is the Premium Food Market, a spacious 24-hour supermarket in the Galleria basement level of Roppongi’s Tokyo Midtown complex. This stylish store offers quality produce, including natural and gourmet foods. It stocks fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, seafood and meats, deli items such as European cheeses and hams, and also has liquor and bakery goods.
Meidi-ya is another boutique supermarket chain with a long history – it began in 1885 – and with a number of branches, including in Roppongi, Shinjuku and the Marunouchi Building, but the elegant Hiroo store feels like a food boutique and perfectly suits the upmarket residential neighborhood that houses various embassies. Located on the ground level of the area’s landmark Hiroo Plaza, the store sells good seasonal produce; quality domestic and imported foods are to be found here as is a deli, bakery and well stocked wine section.
Dean & Deluca
This, of course, is the renowned New York grocer, but it feels so right in Tokyo. The company has a number of fine food stores and cafes around Tokyo. In the basement Plaza of the Tokyo Midtown complex is a Dean & Deluca Cafe and a smart boutique grocery and winery is in the Galleria right near the Precce supermarket. More compact than the other stores mentioned, it stocks a selection of quality deli items: cheeses, hams, packaged comestibles, wines, sweets and so on. The cafe offers typical cafe fare: sandwiches, quiches, pastries and other desserts. It also serves decent espresso coffee.