Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My grocery store in Tokyo

Our grocery store was called Kitamura, and to get to it we could either ride bicycles or walk (we had no car, and it would have been highly impractical to have one). It was down a steep hill from our apartment building, on the main road of the neighborhood which was lined with cherry trees.

There were two halves of Kitamura: the food half, and the dry goods half. These stood across the street from one another, and both were very small - but enormous compared to the buildings around them.

The dry goods half included basically everything from toilet paper to pots and pans, clothing, hardware, etc. It also contained a bookstore section, which was where I got my Japanese cookbook. I walked in there shortly after we arrived and said (in Japanese) "I'm looking for a cookbook of Japanese food with lots of pictures." When you don't know the basics of ingredients or of cooking terminology, the pictures are very important. I ended up walking home with a little book from the "new housewife series" called "Yummy! Simple!" (oishii! kantan!) It would have been embarrassing except that it was so exceedingly helpful.

I bought this cookbook for two reasons. First, because I like Japanese food, and second because I wanted to save money.

Food is very expensive in Japan. When I was living there you could buy a box of strawberries - all precisely the same size and shape - for about $7. You could buy a monster apple about five inches in diameter for about $5. The shocker for me was that rice cost so much more there than in the US. I would buy five kilos of rice for about $25. If I'd wanted to try to cook American, the prices would have been much higher than for cooking Japanese food.

So I explored. The store had a whole case dedicated to fish and seafood, which might not seem amazing except that it took up so much shelf space relative to the total size of the store. If you wanted to buy a whole chicken (not one previously carved into cuts), you'd have to special order it, but you could easily buy a whole squid, and take it home while it stared at you out of its styrofoam dish.

By the way, the carts at this store were made to fit the size of the aisles: they were metal carts with spots to put baskets. Since the baskets were about the size of the American over-the-arm shopping baskets, the cart effectively doubled your hauling capacity. Given that you then would have to carry everything you'd bought up a very steep hill on foot (or bicycle), it made sense. You just had to go to the store more often.

You would go through the checkout lines, which were in general very quiet. Nobody in line ever started a conversation with me, and neither did the checkout staff. I, being American in my heart, I guess, started conversations with them, and they didn't seem to mind. Then you'd take your baskets to a counter and bag them yourself, all plastic bags, for the purposes of getting them home.

I love my experiences overseas because they acquaint me with different values on parameters of life that I have never considered. So for all you worldbuilders out there, give some thought to how your people get their food, what markets look like and how much of their total budget they expect to spend on food and lodging. It'll deepen the world, and be fun at the same time.