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Food shopping in Japan: cellophane and bows

Convenience stores are everywhere.

I recently came back from a two-week trip to Japan, my first visit to the island nation. And I must say, I was totally impressed with the things I saw, not the least of which was the care and attention the Japanese pay to food.

The culture in Japan is completely different from North America. Streets are spotless, thanks in part to an almost universal ban on littering and smoking on the streets (although there are smoking areas throughout major cities).

Politeness is revered. People are almost always greeted with a bow. The shops, particularly the department stores, are overstaffed with friendly sales clerks, who patiently wait while you browse and only respond when you express an interest in something or have a question.

Food is obviously important to the Japanese. In big cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, there are restaurants every 30 feet or so on many streets.

Vending machines are everywhere. In several restaurants, patrons actually order food by vending machine. In these eateries, a vending machine near the front door lists all the dishes you might wish to order.

You put in your money, push a few buttons and out comes a piece of paper with your order on it. That slip is then handed to a hostess who delivers it to the chef. It’s a curious, but efficient, way to dine and is certainly an interesting process for a Canadian like myself.

My wife and I were privileged to be invited to a traditional Japanese celebratory dinner at a fine restaurant in Kyoto. The meal was 12 courses, each one beautifully presented in its own attractive bowl or on separate plates.

Every meal in Japan starts with the presentation of a towel to wipe your hands. It’s considered rude to wipe your mouth or face. Tradition plays a major role in the eating habits of Japanese. (I learned never to stick my chopsticks upright in my rice because it resembles the incense burned at holy temples.)

Supermarkets in Japan are also interesting. About 90% of all products, including most fruit and vegetables, are displayed in cellophane packages.

Looking down the aisles of a supermarket, you see almost nothing but cello packages. Meals-to-go are quite popular, also refrigerated in cello packages.

But convenience stores appear to be where Japanese buy many of their foods. C-stores are everywhere, with 7-Eleven the largest such chain in the country. Almost every corner has a 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson or one of the dozens of other convenience stores found on the island.

Being an island, Japan has always been a nation of seafood eaters. A surprising amount of it (to foreigners like me) is eaten raw.

In recent years, though, beef has become more popular. Hamburger restaurants have sprung up in all the big cities. These include McDonald’s, of course, and a number of local outlets.

Fast-food restaurants seem to be frequented mostly by the young, and I suspect treated with some disdain by older Japanese.

Slightly more familiar to western eyes are the dozens of department stores in Japan, each with a massive food area on the lower floor, and restaurants on the upper floors.

These food floors usually have a small supermarket and dozens of boutiques selling everything from wonderful baked goods, to massive selections of international wines, to exotic coffees, to sweet baked goods, candies, drinks and chocolates.

Customers are also treated to fully displayed meat counters complete with butchers. Bento boxes are common, providing inexpensive, quick meals for busy Japanese (and hungry tourists).

Another thing I found impressive was the care paid by sales clerks. Even the smallest purchase was carefully and attractively wrapped before being placed in an equally attractive bag.

Every time we bought a single-serve yogurt, we were offered a spoon and paper towel, and my wife was particularly impressed with her purchase of a small pad of notepaper (about $1.50). It was exquisitely wrapped in fine paper and when it was handed back to her, it was accompanied by the usual bows of appreciation.

In one way, Japan provided a culture shock. But in other ways, it was terribly impressive and charming. I bow to that.

George Condon is Canadian Grocer's consulting editor.

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