I'm a big fan of Japanese supermarkets. If it’s one activity that I look forward to all week, it's shopping day on Sunday. I park my beloved adopted mongrel dog, Pooch, with our neighbour, the melodious Lydia Kumarasamy, for a few hours of mutual spitting and growling at her evil black cat, Achar. And then it’s anchors ahoy for Isetan’s basement supermarket.
For a few happy hours, I wander down the brightly lit aisles, fingers trailing along the boxes, bottles, packets and assorted tubes. Picking up. Examining. Sniffing. The fruits section alone has me pinned to my tracks with their dainty melons and beautifully boxed apples. The hand-baskets start to overflow.
I've been coming here for years now and I guess one of these days, I'll finally understand just what it is that I'm actually buying. Because everything in here is labelled in Japanese. Other than the fruit and vegetables, I have no idea what we’re buying. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, there’s a special promotion and they play a very helpful video. In this way, Saffy was once saved from potential mishap after she’d bought something in the mistaken belief that they were hi-tech facial cotton pads, but on close scrutiny of the accompanying video, it transpired that she’d actually bought a powerful brand of kitchen scourer. “Well, it’s all white and fluffy looking!” she exclaimed later, delicately wiping down our oven with said scourer. “This stuff is amazing! They really should do something similar for the face!”
And since everything is written in Japanese, it means that the girls are spared the dreaded caloric count and fat details of assorted food products. Firmly subscribing to the view that what you don’t know can’t possibly be fattening, they fill baskets with assorted packets of chips, chocolate and soft drinks. As Amanda once pointed out with penetrating insight, “I personally don’t know any fat Japanese! Do you?” To which Saffy agreed that she too didn’t know any, all of which meant that if the food product was Japanese, it followed that it must also be slimming.
Meanwhile, being the hypochondriac that I am, I can usually be found in the household section, marvelling at the amazing spread of cleaning agents and chemical solvents. Endless rows of bottles, slick, streamlined tools, boxes of powders – each beautifully packaged, the only clue to their contents being a cutesy picture of a smiling doll or a porcelained skinned Japanese lady, a mop in one hand and product in the other. The instructions are in Japanese, and so too, I happily imagine, are the warning labels.
I sometimes way-lay unsuspecting Prada-clad Japanese tai-tais (how long does it take them to get dressed each day?), presenting them with a bottle of chemical solvent and a questioning look. After a few minutes of confused sign-language and very fractured conversations that involve a lot of Hai’s and Domo’s, we will establish that we are actually talking about a bottle of sesame seed mayonnaise and that we are not, as I had previously believed, in the household section, but rather the salad aisle.
“Ah, so!” Mariko-san will declare, beaming with pleasure that we’d got that sorted out. There’d be a bit of low bowing and embarrassment on my part. Later, as she’s having lunch at Les Amis, I imagine Mariko-san regaling her girlfriends about her ridiculous encounter. “I know that guy!” exclaims her best friend, Sakura-san, laughing behind her manicured hands. “Were there two women with him? They’re always buying boxes of oven scouring pads!”
“Ah, so desu-ka!” Mariko-san tinkles. “They’re so strange! I think one of them is called Sarfie. I once saw her inhale an entire packet of taro chips at the check-out counter. Can you imagine the fat? More salad, Sakura-san?”