Thursday, May 24, 2012

In Which I Buy Groceries And Stand Corrected.

"The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." -Old, Japanese proverb.

Taiga is one of my preferred grocery stores.  It's conveniently located, sells good quality produce at excellent prices, and has a 100 yen store in the second floor.  Food and fun shopping in the same location?  Done!

The first visit to a Japanese grocery store is super-overwhelming.  Think new smells, unrecognizable produce, a different catchy song in each department, intelligible product labels, and everyone (of course) speaking Japanese.  It's incredibly stressful when you just want to buy your kid an apple!  So let's break it down, step by step.

If you rode your bike, make sure to park it neatly!  Take care
not to bump other bikes and start a game of bicycle dominos.

Step #1: Grab a basket and a cart.  The green basket goes on top of the cart!  Only certain carts have child seats, so if you brought your kid, double-check.

What if your grocery list is bigger than your shopping basket?  As it turns out, the United States is the only country in which shoppers drive their SUVs to the nearest Super Walmart, in order to cram them them full of food.  In a Japanese grocery store, buy only what you need for a day or two.  Food will be at its most fresh and less will be wasted.  Win-win!

Step 2:  Grocery shop!

Step 3:  When you are finished, get in the checkout line.  Line your green basket up neatly on the counter when space becomes available. The cashier has a stack of red baskets by her feet. As the cashier scans each of your items, she will take them out of the old, green basket and place them in one of her new, red ones.

My basket is the closest red one.  The old basket of the patron in front
of me is the green one,and the patron's new basket is the far red one.  Please
note that the color of my unpaid basket and the color of the previous patron's
unpaid basket are different.  This will become relevant, shortly.

Step 4:  If you brought your own shopping bag, grab one of these little, laminated tags and toss it into your grocery basket.  The tag tells the clerk not to give you any plastic, grocery bags.  A couple yen will be taken off your purchase.

Give yourself a smug pat on the back for being so earth-friendly!

Step 5:  Take your newly purchased groceries to one of the little tables on the other side of the cash registers.  This is where you take them out of your red basket and put them in your shopping bag. If you want to bag your seafood or loose produce, use the small plastic bags that are on the table.

If you use the mini plastic bags, immediately deduct
previously earned earth-friendly points.

Step 6: Return your now-empty shopping basket to one of the little racks at the end of each checkout lane.  Grab your groceries and exit the store with confidence!

The wheeled racks are holding returned baskets.  Simply drop yours on top!

Now, that we've gotten that out of the way, let's have a small Japanese Culture Lesson. In Japan, there is a very specific way to do absolutely everything.  Thou Shalt: cook certain foods at certain times of the year. Wash the car every week.  Hang umbrellas outside to dry.  Go distance running in proper, distance running gear.  Go distance cycling in proper, distance cycling gear.  Line up at specific platform locations to board trains.  Stop wearing summer clothing on October 1st.  Thou Shalt Not: Talk in public on a cell phone (go hide in a corner somewhere). Mix different kinds of trash in trash cans.  Wear shoes in the house.  Go out in public wearing sloppy clothing.  One may wear a pink wig, thigh-highs, and three pairs of fake eyelashes at ten in the morning and not attract a second glance; show even the slightest bit of anger in public and watch every head snap in your direction.  

Though these rules are generally not applied to children and foreigners (children and foreigners being on the same level, cognitively speaking), these are rules I have tried to abide by.  I try really hard to be respectful in a country that isn't mine.  Plus, I absolutely love lining up for trains.  I appreciate being appropriately dressed for the occasion.  I could weep with gratitude that there is still a country in this world that bans loud, public cellphone usage.  Most of the rules are so civilized.  So it was with complete awareness- and guilt- that I began to cheat the Japanese grocery store system.  

My grocery store has two entrances.  Only one entrance has the green baskets stacked outside of it.  One day, I was running short on time and ducked in the nearest (and green basket-less) entrance.  I casually swiped a basket off the previously mentioned "returned basket rack" that stood at the end of the nearest cash register, and even more casually walked to the front of the store to proceed with my grocery shopping.  Nothing happened.  No raised eyebrows, no sidelong glances.  I was emboldened!  No one noticed my rule-breaking!  So I continued to engage in my secret, cultural rebellion of taking a grocery basket from the wrong place.  I kind of enjoyed it.  I should also mentioned that, when I began doing this, all the baskets in the grocery store were green.

(Looking back, this was a exercise in utter self-deception.  I am almost always the only non-Japanese person shopping in this grocery store.  Absolutely everyone saw me do this.  Every time. There is no hiding anything in this country, but especially not when you are the only somewhat tall, caucasian woman for half a mile, dragging along a blonde- haired, blue-eyed toddler, squinting at labels and clumsily asking where the bathroom is.)

One day, I popped in the basket-less door as usual, only to find stacks of returned RED baskets.  "Huh, they got new baskets," I briefly thought, before grabbing a red basket and continuing on with my shopping.  Take a moment now, if you will, to scroll up to the third photo from the top of this post.  Note the color of my basket (red).  Now note the used shopping basket of the shopper in front of me (green).  Now note the color of the new basket, into which the clerk is putting the purchased groceries (red).  Clearly, someone is being a incorrect customer (fortunately for this blog, this was the shopping trip on which I decided to take photos for this post).  Completely oblivious to all basket colors, I blithely paid for my groceries, bagged them up, returned my red basket to the stack of other returned red baskets, and continued on with my day.

I returned two days later, and began my usual routine of used basket-snatching.  This time, I was confronted.  

Store Clerk: "Sumimasen..." (Excuse me...)
Me: "?" (Expression of surprise and inquiry) 
Store Clerk: "somethingsomethingsomething...midori...somethingsomethingsomething...aka...
Me: Midori means green...aka means red... CLICK. 
Me:  "Hai! Gomen nasai!  Sumimasen! Gomen nasai! (Yes! Apology!  Excuse me! Apology!)

I immediately dumped my red basket back with its fellow used baskets and hustled to the front of the store to grab a green basket.  You see, this grocery store had switched to red baskets so that it could be easy to tell who had paid for their groceries and who had not.  Green for unpaid groceries, red for paid groceries. Like an idiot, I had obliviously been carrying a "paid" basket throughout the whole store and filling it with as-yet-unpaid-for items.  Which, of course, told absolutely everyone that I had cheated the system and taken my basket from the incorrect location.  

Perhaps the store employee had finally had enough of how far this foreign nail was sticking out.  In any case, I am glad he said something.  Nothing like finding out that a secret rebellion is not- and never has been- secret.
My basket is green.  No more reprimands, here!
The moral of the story?  Shop at a Japanese grocery store with confidence...just make sure to take your basket from the correct location!


-The Tofu Fox

Not all grocery stores employ the two-color basket system.  This should not concern you all that much, as you will now be taking your basket from the correct location.

Some of the more inexpensive grocery stores do not offer plastic, grocery bags at all.  In general, bringing your own tote is a good policy to have.

Disclaimer:  I do my best to make sure all my information is accurate.  However, details may change or I may just be flat-out wrong.  Please let me know if something needs a correction.  Thank-you!

1 comment:

  1. This post was epic! I am just getting caught up on everything since blogspot is not accessible in China.