After living in a different country for many years, you adapt to the local lifestyle and tend to forget the things that surprised you in the first place. The last time I went to my home country, France, I experienced several reverse culture shocks, one of them just by going to my local supermarket.
When I travel to a new country, I always make sure to look at the local supermarkets. The kinds of products, the sizes, the packaging, the way the staff is working, all these seemingly insignificant things speak volumes regarding the local culture. Spending 15 minutes in a local supermarket will tell you a lot about what the local people eat, how they live, and what they value.
Here are some of the few things that were culture shocks to me when I started living in Japan.
・Shopping carts are a lot tinier. In Japan, supermarket shopping carts look like in the picture above: they fit at best two baskets. In France, you can also use such baskets if you have only a few things to buy, but most people will use huge supermarket carts. It reflects the local way of consuming groceries: people habitually buy many things once per week in France. In Japan, it is still customary for the typical housewife to go and buy groceries every day. The idea is to cook with the freshest products possible and get the best deals every day.
I remember one time, I was packing my weekly groceries in many bags when an older Japanese man I had never seen in my life came to me, obviously concerned, and asked me, “Are you REALLY going home with ALL of these? Are you okay?”
・The aisles are about half the size of the ones in France, like in the picture above. Buildings and rooms are smaller in general, and it is also true for supermarkets. It is especially true in Tokyo, but even in more regional areas, the shopping aisles are not as wide as they would be back home.
・There are very few canned products. It is probably also linked to the custom of cooking with fresh products, but the canned goods section in Japan is tiny and is mostly fish products. There are many canned goods in France: all sorts of vegetables and fully cooked meals.
When people started panic buying in the early eras of COVID-19, French people packed a lot of pasta and canned goods, while in Japan, people bought instant noodles instead (there are a lot of them, in many sorts). At my local supermarket, I was surprised to see most of the aisles empty but not the canned goods section. It was then that I realized it was not the first thing to come to the minds of local people when thinking about food that keeps. The cans did disappear later, though, like the other products.
・The rice shopping. Of course, Japanese cooking is entirely different, so you will find aisles dedicated to everyday products you will not find at home: many sorts of soy sauce, miso, or seaweed, for example. But even to this day, I am still amused by the rice bag shelves. In France, rice is sold in boxes of 1 kilogram at best. In Japan, I usually buy my rice in plastic bags of 5 kilograms, and I store their contents in a storage box specially made for that. There are many rice varieties coming from different areas of Japan, and each home usually has its preference. Do not expect to see rice coming from other countries such as Vietnam or Thailand.
・The yogurt and dessert aisle. It reflects the difference in food culture between France and Japan the best. It is customary to end each meal with a dessert, a fruit, or some yogurt in France. Consequently, the dessert aisle in France is gigantic. There are so many sorts of creams and desserts you would probably be amazed (to understand what I mean, I recommend a quick look at this excellent article: The Exceptionalism of the French Yogurt Aisle). To this day, I have gotten used to the smaller portions, but the absence of chocolate yogurts in the Japanese aisles still saddens me.
・Packing your stuff. In France, you usually put your products on a kind of conveyor belt, the staff scans them, and you must pack them in your bags once they arrive on the other side. In Japan, most of the time, the staff will take the products from your basket and put them in another basket. After paying, you take your basket to an area where you can take your time to put your groceries in your bags. I prefer this system a lot. In France, I felt I had to hurry up as if I were doing a game of Tetris. Another difference: in Japan, the staff is standing up, but in France, they are sitting down, which usually amazes my Japanese friends.
These are just a few things that surprised me when I started living in Japan. I could also have talked about the surprisingly good quality of supermarket sushi, or, as a typically arrogant French woman, could have complained about the local bread. Instead, I would leave some of the remaining details to you: what has surprised you the most in Japanese supermarkets? Please share your impressions in the comments below!