There's something SUPER about these Okinawa markets
“I usually go on base, but sometimes I come here to buy fruits and vegetables,” said Laura Torres, a military spouse and a native of North Carolina, as she and her kids checked out the local produce at Hamby Town. “They are fresher and cheaper.”
Hamby Town, part of the SAN-A supermarket chain on Okinawa and is just a 10-minute drive from Camp Foster, is packed on any given day with locals, people from the U.S. military community, and tourist groups. To be accurate, this place falls somewhere in between a supermarket and shopping mall. Although you can purchase anything from clothes, books and accessories to insurance, if you look at the number of people checking out the vegetables or trying to pick out a meal in the deli section, you would note that food is the most popular attraction.
“We have many American customers at this store, especially on the weekends,” said General Manager Mitsuo Sunagawa, as he showed me around the store with Manager Seiji Arakaki, who is in charge of its food section.
If you ask Okinawans a good place to buy groceries or deli food, SAN-A stores would be at the top of the list. SAN-A, which means triple A in Japanese, is one of the most successful companies on the island. Since it has been so successful, some of the company’s 174 stores have evolved into big shopping malls, dealing in high-end products.
But the name SAN-A still reminds folks of the casual mood that is specific to local supermarkets. Hamby Town gives off a relaxing vibe and is a great introduction to Okinawan supermarkets for those new to the island.
Popular food items
It is not just fruits and vegetables that American customers are looking for at Hamby Town.
“Herbs and mushrooms sell way better to customers from the U.S. military than locals,” said Arakaki. “Chicken breast, chicken tenderloin, ground beef are especially popular among U.S. customers. Salmon sashimi, sushi rolls sell a lot, too.”
Some American customers buy all kinds of food at this store. , just like Don from Camp Foster, who said, “We shop for all types of food here,” said Don from Camp Foster. “We make our own bento during the weekdays.”
“A big difference you see between regular Japanese supermarkets and those in Okinawa is the fact that the supermarkets here offer more options for certain food such as dried Shiitake mushroom, kelp, dried bonito flakes,” said Arakaki, explaining that such foods are used primarily for making broth. “Okinawans use these dried foods to make broth a lot more than people in the mainland.”
If you are looking for a healthy ingredients with rich taste, you should try Okinawan soup. And if you want to make it yourself, Hamby Town offers everything you need to be a broth devotee.
It’s not just traditional cuisine that local supermarkets cater to. Like any other supermarket on the island, Hamby Town offers a variety of SPAM and corned beef. Although these foods were imported to Okinawa as “American food,” it is safe to say that they are now part of the local cuisine because they are mostly consumed by locals.
From time to time, a particular type or brand of food will become popular overnight and suddenly start flying off the shelves. Most likely it is triggered by a Japanese TV show dishing out healthy eating tips or discussing new diet methods.
For example, a few years back, nattou (fermented soy beans) was all the rage at stores on Okinawa after a certain TV show reported that it is good for diet. In another case, coconut oil was out of stock at many supermarkets after a TV report commented on its health benefits.
Some of these “booms” were initiated in the U.S. So probably you have an idea of what it’s like. As I walked through Hamby Town, I noticed that there wasn’t any rice oil on the shelves.
Sure enough, it’s because it’s one of the hottest “healthy” foods at this moment.
“We have many tourists from mainland Japan who buy sweets and packed food for souvenirs,” said Sunagawa, explaining that reasonable prices and variety at SAN-A stores is attractive to tourists.“ Some supermarkets may try to focus on selling its own brand, but SAN-A tries to introduce and sell more national brands in an effort to bring in more options for customers.”
I found a young man from MCAS Futenma picking up sweets.
“I have been here a few times. I am picking up souvenirs, random things, to bring back home,” he said. “I looked at another mall, but there was not much variety. So I went to more places to see more variety. There are better options here.”
Whether you’re looking for fresh tomatoes and bananas, or exotic chocolate to bring back to your country, Hamby Town is a good place to stop by. Once you experience this place, you’ll be back.
Hamby Town (SAN-A store)
Open: 9 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Location: 1-2-3 Kitamae, Chatan, Nakagami, Okinawa, Japan 904-0117
Website: www.san-a.co.jp/ (Japanese)
For more information: call 098-936-9100 (Japanese)