You’ve been in Japan for a few months or years now, and the novelty of everything is slowly wearing away. You’re growing tired of eating traditional Japanese food known as 和食 (washōku) and just want the taste of something familiar to comfort your palate. But to your disappointment, the import store nearest to you seems to only sell small amounts of your favorite foods at an exorbitant price—I’m talking the tiniest jar of peanut butter for nearly 12 US dollars. If you’ve found yourself in this situation, now is the perfect time to either order Dominos, which is good but not quite the same, or plan a trip to the nearest Costco: a warehouse style big-box chainstore famous for selling bulk items at a reasonable price. I didn’t know this until recently, but the true beauty of having a Costco membership besides all the amazing deals is that you can use your member card to shop at any store location in the world. The chain has locations in the US, Mexico, Korea, Canada, and even Japan. There are 26 store locations scattered across the main island of 本州 (Honshū) and the smaller island of 九州 (Kyūshū). So hop onto Google Maps, or your navigation app of choice, and determine which store is easiest for you to access.
Unfortunately, Costco does not have a location in Niigata Prefecture where I live. To make matters worse, the nearest store is nearly 10 hours away from me by public transport. I can’t imagine spending that much time in transit just for a shopping trip and then having to haul all my purchases back home through the crowded train stations. It seemed unlikely I’d be able to go, but the day was saved when a kind friend offered to make the three-hour drive to Toyama with me and my handy dandy member card in tow. Members are allowed to bring two guests at a time into the warehouse, so if you’re like me and don’t have a car, bribe your fellow ALTs who can drive with gas money and the promise of rare foods and good bargains.
We left early Sunday morning to maximize our shopping time and arrived just after lunch. As expected, the place was packed. Something about the start to a new week makes people back home to flock to Costco in droves, and Japan is no exception. Be prepared for extremely long lines at sample stations, the cafe, and checkout area. Overall, the process of shopping in Toyama was fairly straightforward and nearly identical to my experiences in Greenville, South Carolina. There were a few hiccups, but I’ll touch more on those in just a moment. First, I’ll give you some advice, tell you what I noticed, and go over how I prioritized my shopping list. Finally, I’ll explain some important details you should know about the store and share what I actually bought!
For starters, you should know what you need before going to the store. Costco is massive and overwhelming, so it’s easy to lose focus because of everything there is to see. Have a plan of action so you can quickly find what’s on your list and then take time to check out other deals. Go online and see what items are typically for sale and compare them to what’s available near you. If you can buy coconut oil for a good price in your town, there probably isn’t a need to include it on your Costco shopping list. Also, make sure you have plenty of insulated bags or coolers with you to hold large frozen bags of food or items that need to be kept chilled. You don’t want to spend your money only to have the food you buy go to waste on the trip home.
If you’re from the US, you’ll notice the Japanese stores are very similar to what you’re used to, and they carry many of the same items including their signature Kirkland Brand products. There are, however, special products unique to Japan you can purchase in a larger size. I couldn’t help but notice an extremely enticing variety box of Kit-Kats that I had to force myself not to buy. One thing I love about Japanese candy is all the interesting flavors such as matcha. But these treats can be found just about anywhere, so I picked up my favorite Belgian chocolate instead. Also, like elsewhere in the world, the Japan stores sell a wide variety of seasonal items during certain times of the year. For example, if you’re missing the flavor of pumpkin spice, which is extremely hard to come by, Costco will be your savior. Fall is my favorite season, and so I hoped with all my heart they would have some yummy autumn-tasting goodies. When I tried a sample of their pumpkin pie, I nearly cried tears of joy in the middle of a crowded shopping aisle. My gaijin was definitely showing.
With so many wonderful and nostalgic things to choose from, it was hard to limit myself. But as an ALT, I only make so much money. The meager funds of my wallet alone helped me prioritize the items on my wishlist. I chose products based on a few key factors, namely how badly I missed them and how easy they were to obtain either from local stores or online. If you live in Japan, then you know how hard it is to find certain things like good cheese, American style bacon, and hummus. And, as far as I know, these items can’t be shipped from Amazon. Fortunately, Costco helped me check all three of these essentials off my shopping list. I decided to hold off on other items that I knew I could purchase elsewhere if necessary.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, things weren’t entirely smooth sailing on our excursion. Be aware that the Toyama location only accepts cash payments or Mastercard. I did not know this and ended up standing cluelessly in a checkout line with a full cart while a mentally exhausted employee tried to explain that my Visa wouldn’t work. To my horror, I didn’t have enough cash in my wallet to cover the purchase. Fortunately, there is an ATM in the store, so I was able to quickly withdraw the necessary amount and pay after saying すみませんでした (sumimasendeshita, I’m sorry/excuse me) a few hundred times. While I’m not sure if this situation is unique to Toyama, it may still be a good idea to bring cash in the event they do not accept your card. Also, this advice applies to purchasing gas as well. If you do not have a Mastercard but want to fill up your tank before heading home, you’ll need to purchase a gift card inside the store because the gas pumps do not accept cash or other credit cards. Again, this may be unique to the Toyama location, but it is still better safe than sorry. We ended up having to go to a different gas station because we were unaware of this policy.
Now, without further ado, let me share what I bought:
- Pumpkin pie (definitely the best purchase of the day because of its massive size, spiced flavor, and perfectly flaky crust).
- Feta cheese.
- Chocolate and pumpkin muffins.
- Blueberry bagels.
- A very warm, high-quality, and affordable winter coat.
- Some luxurious thermal tights.
- Physician’s formula cleanser (pack of 2).
- Physician’s formula moisturizer.
- Cream cheese (for the bagels).
- Organic chocolate banana protein drink (dairy and soy free).
- Turkey jerky!
- Guylian Belgian chocolate ❤
- Trail mix
- Decorative pillow.
- Canned chicken.
- Rolled oats.
- Cheeseburger and smoothie from the cafe.
Items I wanted to buy but decided to put back:
- Tortilla chips.
- Protein powder.
Am I missing anything? What will you include on your Costco shopping list? Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments below. I hope this brief guide was helpful, and that you live closer to one of these life-saving stores than I do.