Some kinds of food in Japan are very expensive. Not everything, but certainly things like fresh fruit and vegetables and dairy products are much more expensive than at home.
Now, I want to be clear about something. This is not one of those sensationalist stories about fancy $100 melons in a fancy department store. That’s a different aspect of Japanese culture. This is the ordinary price of ordinary apples in an ordinary supermarket. If you want to eat an apple or an orange in Japan, this is how much it costs.
On the shelf directly above, you can see some more expensive “Sun Fuji” and “Jonagold” apples, about 5 euro each. These ones are individually wrapped. (The top shelf has 2 nashi pears for 7 euro, and to the right we see two peaches for 5 or 6 euro.)
So, how can this be? How can an apple cost 2 (or 5) euro? How can you spend 10 euro per pound for butter, or 10 euro per kg for oats?
Well, the first thing I discovered is that Japanese people don’t consider that fruit and vegetables are expensive here. For a Japanese person, that’s just the normal price of an apple. And if you think about it, why should they use Irish prices as a baseline? I’m sure you can buy an apple for a few cents in India or Cambodia, but we in Ireland don’t judge our prices against those.
Secondly, every apple (every item of food) is perfect. Japanese people’s standards for food quality are so exacting, that each item has to be perfect, and has to be delicious. An imperfect or mediocre apple is literally unsellable. For this reason a lot of fruit is actually grown inside bags, to protect it from insect damage.
On a related note, Japanese people tend to be very suspicious of any food produced outside Japan. This suspicion is justified to some extent, because nowhere else has the same dedication to producing perfect and delicious food. But producing food in Japan is very expensive, for various reasons.
Recently, Japan’s supermarkets have been stocking Australian beef (from Tasmania). It is very good beef, but is automatically considered inferior (and is sold at half the price) because it’s not Japanese.
So, having got over the initial shock, you are faced with a choice. Either you decide you won’t eat fruit, or you find a way to rationalise the price. And it turns out to be quite easy to rationalise.
First of all, in first-world countries, food accounts for 5 to 10% of the typical household’s income. So even if everything costs double, it may be a shock, but you just have to make adjustments elsewhere.
Secondly, you change your attitude to food—to buying it, and to eating it. In a good way.
If you buy a bag of apples for a euro in Ireland, you may or may not eat them all. Some may end up going wrinkly in the fridge. When you eat them, you don’t particularly enjoy them. It’s just an apple.
In Japan, the apple costs 2 euro (or 5). You buy an apple (1 apple, not some unthinking random number) because you really want to eat one. Not only that, but do you really want to eat a whole apple? In reality, when you eat an apple, you are pretty satiated after a few bites. So you can happily cut an apple in two and eat half each. And when you eat it, you have high expectations. You give it your attention. You think, yes, this is a delicious apple, I am enjoying it. So you are more present in the moment.
You end up buying less food, and wasting less food, and appreciating food more.
And gradually, you discover that you have adjusted your expectations of what food “should” cost. That turns out to be a meaningless concept; all that matters is what it does cost, and it’s up to you whether you choose to pay that or not.
One thing I thought was funny is that they price tomatoes by the unit, instead of by weight. This lonely (but perfect) tomato costs about 1.3 euro.
But, again, it’s a big tomato, and you may well find that half a tomato is all you really want on your plate. Again, no waste: you buy a tomato because you intend to use it that day, not a bag of tomatoes “to have in the fridge”.
Check out the individually wrapped enormous carrots (only 68 yen each, not bad). And you can buy a neatly wrapped quarter of a pumpkin, because after all you don’t really need a whole pumpkin.
Anyway, as I said at the start, not everything is super-expensive. Pasta, real Italian imported pasta, for some reason is no more expensive than it is in Ireland. Fish and shellfish are cheap, as are eggs and mushrooms. And even fruit and vegetables are a lot cheaper when they are in season. Cucumbers, aubergines (eggplants), piman peppers, and beans, for example, got (briefly) very cheap at certain times during the early summer.
Note on the word of the day:
高い takai has two related meanings: “high” and “expensive”.
This character caused me a lot of confusion when I needed to send an e-mail to a colleague, Mr Takamoto. I thought his name was simply this character 高 taka with another very common character 本 moto: 高本. But no matter what I did, Outlook would not recognise his name. I sought help from a colleague, who showed me that it was actually written with an almost identical character with the same pronunciation, like this: 髙本. Can you spot the difference? Neither could I.