The first time I went to the supermarket, I went with Saho (fluent Japanese), the next time with Ben (some Japanese). Then I was Ready To Go It Alone. I’ve found most Japanese people don’t speak English (why should they?), which makes finding your way around a bit tricky. But actually, finding stuff in the supermarket was weirdly easy, though I didn't know that at the time. Before leaving, I’d got my list and asked Saho to write down the Japanese characters for what I needed. Then, I reasoned, all I needed was to find a staff member and point to the Japanese words.
I arrived, started to put my plan into action. Top of the list: limes. (No, not for mojitos, though that's not a bad idea. Actually, I haven't had a mojito since leaving England. But sparkling sake, now that's another thing entirely... ). Anyway, I pointed the the Japanese character on my shopping list. “Ah, lim-er” (you’ll have to do your own Japanese accent), the helpful lady said. We found the limes.
Next: coriander. “Ah, coriand-er”. OK. Fish sauce was “feesh sauce-er”, jam was “jam-er”, blueberries were “blueberreee” a washing-up sponge was “spongee”. I was asking for products that would have originally come from overseas, and they all had English names. Easy. Meanwhile, bread was “pan”, from the French and pronounced like the French, with a barely-sounded nasal “n”. (The “er” that you hear when Japanese people say English words is because Japanese words never end in a consonant sound, so they add a final vowel. I suspect the French “n” sounds enough like a vowel not to count.)
The checkout was more challenging. You line up with your basket and an operator scans your purchases, but then you pay at a self-service machine at the end of the counter. There were several buttons to press to make the transaction, and the instructions were in Japanese. I had to find a passing shopper to push the buttons for me. Stupid foreigner.
Finally, as an example of how the most normal day-to-day experiences can be just slightly different in different countries, at Japanese supermarkets (well at that chain at least) you carry your purchases in the basket away from the till and bag them at a different counter. As a way to speed up the process at the till, that’s quite clever.