For newcomers to Japan with little Japanese speaking ability and no expertise in preparing Japanese dishes, tackling the local supermarket can prove a daunting task. A few books that I still refer to regularly are:
A Guide to Food Buying in Japan by Carolyn Grouse
This had been out of print for a few years, but is happily available again with the newest edition being from 2003. I'm only familiar with the 1987 ed, but find it a very useful guide.
A Dictionary of Japanese Food: Ingredients & Culture by Richard Hosking
A great dictionary specific to food. The food is listed in romaji but also includes the kanji, so you can figure what the mystery package in the fish-aisle actually contains.
100 Recipes from Japanese Cooking (Kodansha Bilingual Books)
I love bilingual cook-books. Just browse through in English, pick out a recipe, then take the book with you to the supermarket. If you're not sure what the ingredient is in English, show the Japanese word to one of the clerks, who can point you in the right direction.
Though there is no better teacher than experience, these books will also provide some basic knowledge needed to navigate the supermarket.
However fabulous these books are, tough, sometimes, whether you're new to Japan, or a long-term resident, you get cravings for something a little different. Maybe it's comfort food from “home”, or something a little spicier than typical Japanese fare such as Thai curry. Unless you live in Tokyo (or, “The Big Toe” as a colleague has dubbed it), these non-Japanese ingredients can be tough to find. Years ago, getting specialty food and ingredients would have required a (fairly expensive) trip to Tokyo or another big city. Now, though, getting such items is just a few clicks away. And the choices are even wider if you can read and navigate the web a little in Japanese.
Some top websites for foreign food, delivered right to your door, are:
The Foreign Buyer's Club (http://www.fbcusa.com/eng/)
In English. You can get most anything “from home” here, from Alpen granola bars in The Deli section to Diet Snapple in The General Store. I've never used them since they generally take too long to deliver (sometimes up to a month) and I'm all about immediate gratification, but I know many people who have shopped here and who have been satisfied with the service.
The Flying Pig (http://www.theflyingpig.com)
In English. One of my personal favourites for finding some specialty items, The Flying Pig is a Costco shop-and-deliver service. Though their prices have been creeping (and sometimes leaping) up over the years, I still frequently order things like bagels and cream cheese, cans of black beans in bulk, and large sacks of Basmati rice. Delivery is usually within five days.
Now, of course, if you've got a little Japanese language ability, you have more choice – the world is your escargot!
For Thai food (a particular favourite of ours):
Allied Thai (http://www.allied-thai.co.jp/)
Japanese only. Good, wide selection of curry pastes, coconut milk, and chili peppers. I used to shop here exclusively for my Thai ingredients, but recently found a new source:
Isara Store (http://www.isarastore.com/)
Japanese only. Not as wide a selection of curry pastes as Allied Thai, but the prices are, somehow, much cheaper for some items (such as the 400g tub of curry paste). Delivery only took two days, and included a lovely, handwritten thank-you note for placing my order.
My most useful tool for buying anything I want in Japan is www.yahoo.co.jp;
In the search engine, using my Japanese (IME) input, I simply type ショッピング (shopping), and then the name of whatever I'm looking for. I get lots of hits, and usually find a shop selling my desired item.