I had to cut the image of our Costco receipt (click this image for a bigger one) into three pieces to get Blogger to display it properly. This was after putting it together in Photoshop as one nifty-looking long strip that I'd hoped to run down the side of the post. Unfortunately, that yielded a minuscule image as Blogger restricts the vertical length of an image.
My husband made his tri-monthly trip to Costco today to load up on cheap and imported items. There are quite a few treats that you rarely find in local markets in Japan such as large quantities of seedless green grapes for a very low price.
We've been shopping at Costco since the first one opened in Makuhari in December of 2000. At first, we rented a small van and split the cost with my former boss for trips to Costco. This allowed us to buy without concern for how much we could physically carry. This was both fun and somewhat tiring, particularly for my former boss who arranged for rental, drove the van, filled it up with gas, then returned the van. He was an incredible sport for going through all the hassle.
I don't have an international drivers license nor does my husband so we've never driven in Japan but it's not the most enjoyable experience. There are a lot of tolls that you have to stop and pay at along the way and traffic can be rather bad at times, particularly if you drive through the more crowded areas like Shinjuku. Going in the summer is also very hot and uncomfortable, particularly in a van where the air conditioning isn't going to really permeate the back seating area very well.
The fun part of going to Costco this way was that this was as close to a road trip as we can get in Japan. I'd usually bake something to eat on the way there (as breakfast) and we'd talk amongst ourselves during the trip. There was usually a good bit of making fun of my boss's flatmate who was relatively quiet and tended to mumble when he did speak. Unfortunately, doing this added more time to the trip as well as about $35 apiece in expenses. Because public transportation is so good in Japan, it takes about an hour and 15 minutes by train and costs about $9 in train fare as compared to an hour and 45 minutes by van depending on how the traffic treated us.
The other problem was that my former boss didn't have the time or desire to go as often as we did so my husband started going alone. He learned that Costco in Japan will ship items to your home via a commercial delivery service for about $4 a box. Since we usually need only 2 boxes after my husband carries home the fresh food in a huge hiker's backpack, the cost of doing it this way is quite a bit cheaper than the van method.
The trip isn't for the easily fatigued or infirm. Because of my health issues, I generally only go with my husband once a year. We have to transfer trains twice and when we get to the station either walk about 15 minutes, or take a bus or a cab to the store. While this walk isn't too bad on the way there with an empty pack, it can be a real hassle with a pack stuffed to the brim with heavy items and shopping-weary feet. Buses arrive rather infrequently though so it's often faster to walk back than to wait for a bus and put up with the cramped shoulders.
The Japanese Costco shopping experience is roughly similar to the one you may have in the U.S. except for the food court area. When I shopped at Costco in the States, the food court was never packed to the brim and rarely populated almost entirely by women and children (at least on weekdays). In Japan, it's usually very crowded and quite noisy (depending on the time of day) and kids are usually running all over the place. I'm old enough not to remember what it was like to be a kid but I hope I didn't engage in as much random shrieking as I tend to hear around kids these days. If I did, I apologize to my mother and any other adults around me at the time for subjecting them to that.
You also see quite a few Japanese people managing to stuff in the large serving size food Costco sells without much difficulty despite the common protestation that the American portions are just too big. The students I've recommended go to Costco comment on how big the pizza and sandwiches are. When I tell them my husband and I generally buy one chicken bake and split it because it's too huge for one of us to consume, they act like it's a notion that would never have occurred to them. I guess that living in a culture with small portion sizes doesn't exactly inspire you to think about splitting your meals.
My husband bought a great quantity of items so he wouldn't have to return for a long time. The receipt pictured above looks far longer than it should because multiple items are rung up individually.
For the curious who can't read Japanese (and for my future reference should I ever be curious about what I used to buy at Costco Japan when I've finally gone home and forgotten how to read Japanese), the list is as follows (today's exchange rate being $1=118 yen):
Membership renewal fee ¥4,200, steak ¥2,452, sirloin steak ¥3,918, 2 bakery Swiss cake rolls (one chocolate, one strawberry) ¥998, 24 Gladware plastic storage containers ¥1,698 - ¥350 in store coupon, Kirkland paper towels ¥1,938, toasted coconut ¥648, 1 kg. New Zealand cream cheese ¥738, olive oil shampoo ¥1.098, 500 grams asparagus ¥418, Chilean green seedless grapes ¥988, Caesar salad dressing (1 liter) ¥498, Danish Havarti cheese ¥858, whole chicken ¥1,167, whole chicken ¥1,174, Ivory body wash ¥998, coffee filters ¥348, vanilla essence (473 ml.) ¥1,168, garlic bits ¥1,188, lavender body soap ¥898, pine nuts ¥2,187, mini pan chocola (small croissant-style rolls with chocolate chunks) ¥827, 3 packages of American bacon ¥798 each, Ivory dish washing liquid ¥958, Sunmaid raisins ¥757, 5 packages of Starbucks Espresso Roast ¥1,578 each, Albacore tuna in water ¥1,418 (8 cans), hot and spicy peanuts ¥878, Spanish olives ¥998 (2 large jars), 2 containers of cashews ¥1,748, 20 eggs free with store coupon.
This list is somewhat unusual because we almost never buy anything from the bakery. The Swiss cake roll was an extremely rare indulgence. In fact, I believe it's the first time we ever bought any sort of cake from the Costco bakery. The lavender body soap was purchased by accident because my husband didn't know what I wanted and after calling to verify that I didn't want it, he forgot to put it back.
You'll notice the word "delivery" is stamped on the receipt in English. The items are delivered the next day in monstrously huge boxes which are generally padded with smaller folded-up boxes. By the time you dispense with all the cardboard, it looks like you may have just moved into the apartment based on the number of boxes. Costco is very good about wrapping up liquid and glass containers though they tend to go overboard. Plastic shampoo bottles are wrapped in about 50 layers of plastic wrap which you have to remove with a box cutter (being very careful not to rupture the bottle). Glass jars are wrapped at least twice around in bubble wrap such that they appear to be in a bubbly cocoon.
Even with the expenses involved, you can easily save enough on key items to make it worthwhile. For us, savings on the coffee alone pays for the travel expenses and shipping with room to spare. If you're a short timer in Japan, it's probably not worth bothering to go to one of the few Costcos here but, if you've been here more than 2 years, it's well worth a trip.