This post is part of a series about the differences in ingredients between Japan and the U.S. When I first arrived in Japan, I had a lot of trouble at times because I wasn’t used to these differences, so hopefully this information is helpful! For the full list of posts in this series, see this page.
When I moved to Japan, I packed up my remaining herbs and spices and put them in a box of stuff which I shipped to Japan. While this was helpful at the beginning, it was not necessary. I’ve heard people say that they “can’t” get certain herbs or spices in Japan, but I have not found this to be the case. I’ve never had trouble finding any dried herb or spice.
I found that they key was, just like in the U.S., it all depends on the store (and perhaps the area of the country). I live in a big city with many options for supermarkets, but not all of them have the same variety of herbs and spices. There are two larger, more expensive, “fancier” supermarkets in the area where I’ve found pretty much anything from white pepper to kaffir lime powder to tarragon. However, in my nearby supermarket, there are maybe 15 basic herbs and spices – cinnamon, ground black pepper, basil, etc.
If you need a certain herb or spice and your local store doesn’t carry it, you have several options. One is to check at a larger or more expensive grocery store (if you’re out in the country, try checking the nearest large city); another is to look for an import store (especially good for more unusual things like galangal or Indian spices). If your spices fall under a certain cuisine, you might be able to find a store that specializes (for example, I passed by a Vietnamese grocery once), or if you’re really stuck you could try going to a restaurant of the cuisine and ask the staff where they get their ingredients! These methods are going to be different for each person depending where you live. Finally, you can always buy online, where you can really find anything you want (though you’ll need to plan ahead for delivery time).
One issue with herbs and spices is the price. Japanese cooking doesn’t use a lot of herbs and spices, and so the bottles tend to be quite small. Therefore, the bottles are inexpensive, but also used up quickly. A solution to this is to look for a restaurant supply store. I came across one in Tokyo, but haven’t searched elsewhere. They sell large containers of herbs and spices for reasonable prices. Also, Costco sells a limited number of herbs and spices (like cinnamon, pepper, garlic powder, Italian seasoning) in large containers.
Fresh herbs can be more difficult to find, depending what you want. Basil and parsley are easily available fresh in supermarkets and also pretty much anywhere that sells plants. Some more expensive stores sell other fresh herbs (I’ve seen rosemary, mint, thyme, and cilantro), and some plant places sell these herbs as well. I’ve decided to stick with dried herbs, except basil and parsley, which I grow myself, so I’m not so well-versed on the subject.
One final note regarding names of herbs and spices in Japanese: about 95% of the time, the word in Japanese is just borrowed from English and written in katakana (e.g. cinnamon = シナモン, shinamon), so if you can read katakana it should be pretty simple to find (or ask for) what you want. If you can’t read katakana, get on that!