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 first came to Japan, I was horrified at the price of butter. Butter is sold in blocks of 200g (almost 1/2 lb), 100g (about 1/4 lb), and also in small packs of individually wrapped “pats” of butter. The best value is always the larger blocks, but in the past 2.5 years I’ve seen the price for 200g range from about 375 to 500 yen. In U.S. dollars this works out to $8.50 to $11 a pound. Therefore, I have not done a lot of cooking with butter in Japan! I usually use margarine (more on this below), or mix butter and margarine.
A bit more on butter: it is sold in salted or unsalted types. Unsalted is always more expensive for some reason, and is not always available. Some “fancy” butters are also available. For example, I have recently been seeing something that I think is “cultured butter”, which has a more tangy yogurt-like taste. In Japan, Hokkaidou (the northernmost island) is famous for high-quality dairy, so most butter sold in my area seems to be produced there. Another important note on butter is that Japan regularly experiences “butter shortages”, and supermarkets often limit the amount of butter that each customer can buy, or run out of butter and have no supply for a day or two.
A good option for spreading on toast, etc., is “butter spread“, which is a soft product made from soy, corn, etc., with “butter flavor”. This is cheaper than dairy butter. There are many, many varieties of butter spread sold everywhere. There are even a few flavored ones, with garlic or something like that.
Margarine is also available in stick form. I discovered something called ケーキ用マーガリン (keeki-you maagarin) or “margarine for cakes”. This can be used in baking, and is what I have used the majority of the time. I’m used to it now, and it’s not bad at all. Of course, butter will taste better, but if you plan to do a lot of baking, it is a good choice (unless you have a large budget for groceries). One important difference is that the margarine stays softer than butter even when cold. This means that it’s easier to mix into doughs, but also that if you chill a cookie dough, it will NOT get as hard as a cookie dough made with butter. This means that roll-out cookies are going to be softer and more difficult to work with. You can add a little extra flour to help make up for it, or chill the dough in the freezer instead of fridge to get it colder.
Vegetable shortening is not as common in Japan as in the U.S., and more expensive as well. However, if you look around you can definitely find it (usually with the baking supplies or cake-decorating stuff). The most common brands are about the same price as butter (around $10/lb), but I found one brand that is sold at about half that price in grocery stores, and you can also buy a larger tub (about 500g, a little over a pound) at import stores at a similar price.
Several oils are commonly sold in stores: canola oil, vegetable oil (called サラダオイル, sarada oiru or salad oil in Japan), olive oil (both light and extra virgin), and sesame oil, or ごま油 (gomaabura). Vegetable/canola oils are sold in large jugs for pretty cheap prices, usually about 300 yen per liter (around $3 a quart). Olive oil is more expensive, of course, but not excessive – prices are similar to what I saw in the U.S., if memory serves. I’m Italian, so I always have extra virgin olive oil in the house, but when my bottle starts getting low I start looking around for a sale or a good price, and can usually find a decent deal. Sesame oil is more expensive than canola oil, but probably cheaper than in the U.S. It is often located in the Chinese food aisle.
Other oils can be found, but not in the regular grocery store. If you check out fancy grocery stores or import stores, you can find many different oils, ranging from avocado oil to walnut oil. As expected, they are small bottles for high prices, and availability varies depending on the store. My advice on these would be to plan ahead and either buy online or hunt around at different import stores to make sure you can find them – don’t plan on making a recipe using one of these oils assuming you can get it easily.