Of all things great about America: grilled meat, Hollywood, shopping malls, Applebees, and credit cards, currently there is nothing I’m more thankful for than wholesale warehouse stores. Really, there are hardly any places outside the country full of such familiarity. For months I have longed for something more than the Walgreen’s style drug stores or the Home Depot home improvement imitations you can find in Japan. Especially now because I have an allowance in my budget, I’ve yearned to walk down the sheen fluorescent floors and red aisles of a Target. In Japan there are some 45,000 convenience stores (colloquially called conbini), but really none are quite as convenient as the Target (or even Walmart) of America. And it’s funny. Back home I tried to avoid going to such stores, focusing on buying more local and sustainable goods. Here in the land of plastic packages and default organic, I’m not even sure if those values are applicable. Some things I buy already have such a neutral environmental impact compared to American counterparts that I’ve completely lost my awareness of an items impact. (The same is almost as true with my vegetarian values, but I still refrain from cooking with meat.)
The real discovery here are the roots of my American lifestyle. With half a year here I still can’t shed some of the living habits I’ve taken for granted. Probably the first example I noticed was in going out. I’ve finally been to a couple of bars in Japan, but that lifestyle is hardly livable. Where before I’d go on a weekly basis with friends, to meet friends, or to hang with the coolest bartender on earth, now I can only venture out once a full moon (if even) for fear of burning a hole through my wallet. Then came the lack of an oven and the realization that I’d be without my favorite midnight pastime of making chocolate-chip cookies. And with that of course came all the other complicated dietary choices I’d have to make. The void of cookies, any type of cereal, the smoothies, the soy chorizo from Trader Joe’s, canned beans, macaroni noodles, blocks of cheese and creamy peanut butter. For the past couple of months I’ve been bouncing around a couple of supermarkets: picking up olive oil and ketchup at one; the bulk of my groceries come from another on my way to school; finally the sketchiest one miles away from my apartment has the cheapest ice cream and frozen fruits. Apart from the lack of any insulation (a condition which my thermostat growing up already trained me well for), I think the shuffling around for errands and groceries was the last straw. I was(am) finally homesick. Or at least, in this sense, culture sick.
That’s how it came to be that after the first paycheck of the year I was literally begging anyone with a car to take me to Costco. Perhaps you’ll be surprised to find out that there are Costcos in Japan. I was pretty shocked back in the fall when I learned it. There are a mess of McDonalds, Seven Elevens, even a few Ikeas, but never would I expect Costco. Even Walmart operates under a subsidiary in this country. Whatever the reason, it existed, and I’d been trying to go for months. So desperately I was getting ready to bribe people, offering to pay not only the way, but also for the first jar of peanut butter, or box of mac and cheese. Luckily, Carmelo took pity on my dismal soul and offered to take me.
See, the biggest problem is the closest Costco is a bit over a two hour drive north in “Historic Kanazawa” (my grandma clipped an article from the Star Tribune around this time so you may have actually read about it in the travel section, but I can’t find a link on the website). On a good day its actually a pretty pleasant drive, but being that Costco alone takes a couple hours to tackle and the whole drive can be around five hours there and back you really have to devote an entire day to it.
So early Saturday morning I went to his apartment and a couple “are you ready?”s later he, his girlfriend Eri, and I jumped in the car to make the trip. As I said, it’s really not a bad trip to make. You pass through multiple cities, valleys, alongside mountain ranges, and a number of love hotels. It went buy quick with the good company and before I knew it were wound up the ramp to Costco’s parking.
I should mention that it’s been more than a few years since I’ve been in any sort of Costco or Sam Club. In college I would really only stop through the Sam Club liquor store because it was incredibly cheap to buy handles there and you don’t need a membership. Before then I think I was still in Junior High when I went, and really the only reason I remember for going was to buy bulk toilet paper. Never had I gone without supervision–not to mention we had just gotten paid. I pulled a couple of ￥10,000 bills from an envelope I’d used to send money home, and then took out a couple extra just in case. After all, this was a rare instance, and I didn’t want to get caught without enough cash to pay for whatever peanut butter came my way.
We walked toward the entrance with a bounce in our step. I was clutching a pocket notebook with a list of everything I was hoping to find when a worker pulled the oversized cart in my direction and we heading down one of those sweet escalators that are made especially for excess. As we slowly descended towards the trove of imported goods I made snarky observations of those returning towards the surface. “Who goes to Costco to buy only muffins and laundry detergent?” I said incredulously looking at the almost empty carts. Waste of a trip.
As soon as we entered I made the decision to go down every single aisle. I live for the deal, the obscurities, the things I didn’t realize I needed until I realized I needed them. We started with the electronics, the tableware, the luggage. I stopped first for a LED rope light which I tagged for later, continuing the search for some ambiance to my room other than the fluorescent light. Next came hair dryers, batteries, wind shield wipers. I added a pair of running gloves, and then a bulkier pair of winter gloves to the cart. We went down the liquor aisle. I took a bottle of Kaluha, Vodka, Gin, Rum into the cart, made it to the end of the aisle and then put them all back. If I was gonna suffer through the winter then I guess I’d have to do it sober. We crossed past the wine, though, where Carmelo and I both decided to pick up bottles of wine (red and white) for the next time Yukie invited us to dinner. Next was fruits and produce. Not too punny if I say I went bananas for the bananas, but it’s so hard to find a practical fruit in this country. The grapes are often the size of strawberries, while the apples are like grapefruit, watermelons can be found in cubes, and don’t even try to differentiate the variety of oranges they produce. About all of the above goes true for bananas, so I definitely picked up a couple bunches of green ones to last a while.
Then we turned a corner, I was partially distracted by a man demonstrating a blender with a set of empty cups beside him, when it came into view. The Peanut Butter. I could’ve ran into it easily because it was more like a physical wall of Skippy advertisements.
The jars came wrapped in sets of two, all crunchy. I took a pair, then another, and two more, and one more for Gavin, and then another because, hey, it’s peanut butter and I wouldn’t know how long it’d be until I’d return. We could’ve (and probably should’ve) left then, and my trip would’ve been accomplished, but we had hardly even hit half the shelves, and now we hit a stride. I’m kind of surprised at how packed it became around this time of the day, too. I didn’t expect Costco to be such a destination, but all types of Japanese folk and even some foreigners were perusing or stuffing themselves between the aisles.
I picked up biodegradable laundry soap, and biodegradable dish soap. Another mark in my notepad to pick up cheese by the end of it all. The jars of pasta sauce almost equaled jars of peanut butter. I considered a stack of canned diced tomatoes, but stuck only to the canned corn. Spices went in, sea salt, pepper, a bag of chia seeds, Nutella, triple-bound-bulk bottles of Heinz ketchup, salad dressing, soy sauce, katsudon sauce, and four liters of Kirkland olive oil. Bags of raisins turned out to be one of the best and cheapest options for salad toppings and late night snacks. We wrapped up around health and beauty, but I was disappointed they didn’t have the right type of razor heads that I use. “Hold on, I’m gonna go through the candy and snack aisles” so cleverly stacked in the middle of the warehouse before the registers. Eri came over with a huge box of Nature Valley bars in her arms, and I found the second most prized item on my list: chips and salsa. Apart from chocolate-chip cookies the single best non-meal meal I can survive on are chips and salsa. Granted, that’s mostly because of my grandma’s unbeatable homemade salsa stored in mason jars I would hoard away from my mother at any given chance last year. But still, at any given point from at least the past five years it would be considered a staple in my diet. Except now–trying as hard as I could to stay in view of my budget–I faced the dilemma of figuring out the ratio of bags of chips to salsa jars over the amount of time it would take to return to Costco. I picked up a box of 40 bags of microwaveable popcorn for hardly 25 cents a bag, figuring it was worth it even though I’ve yet to have a microwave.
By the time I got into line, Carmelo and Eri had already checked out, and I frantically waved for them to notice me because I was using Carmelo’s member card. I made it without a hitch and was grateful to see that the number I’d calculated and the number that appeared on the register were exactly the same. In Japan, perhaps by law, every item will have its cost in small font and then the actual cost with tax as the main price so it’s easy to make sure your stay within whatever limit your spending.
We celebrated out success by ditching our carts like cars outside a California diner, and getting in line for the classic American grill food they had serving. I opted for a combo slice of pizza and hot dog, almost going overboard with a churro and sundae. The eating space was packed but I snagged an open bench table with an older woman who’d completely passed out at the end of it. Along with the casual leaving of carts along the eating area it hit me as a classic display of Japanese safety, that a woman could just fall asleep anywhere and feel OK about it. Although, when Carmelo and Eri joined the table she popped her head up with a bit of dismay.
There was almost no better way to top off the day feeling so content than to eat so downright American made food with a Mexican in Japan. Carmelo and Eri smiled wide, completing the menu with a churro, smoothie, sundae, and bulgogi bake. Well, at least there was a good moment.
There was hardly anything to make us feel better, but there was certainly enough to make us feel worse. As I took another bite out of my hot dog I heard from the end of the table the type of sound that can only make you think, thank god I didn’t get it on my shoes. Eri reacted instantly covering her eyes into Carmelo’s shoulder, while I saw his jaw slump open and the brightness in his eyes burst to a look of total dissatisfaction. I flashed a look to the lady now slumped over the end of the table with a younger woman patting her back. It didn’t take much to figure out that the reason she’d passed out was now splattered over the floor.
“Man, I just can’t get that out of my head,” Carmelo said as he tried to take another bite from his bulgogi bake. “I was having such a good time, too.”
We scuttled like crabs across the table to the furthest open spot, but the mood was already crushed. As I bit into my pizza I was grateful for having missed all the action, but Carmelo was clearly traumatized. Even the churro couldn’t fix the sweetness of the mood.
The drive back was also affected with cloudier skies and tension worrying if my bags of tortilla chips would make it through this stuffed car ride. By the time we made it close to home, after a couple of pit stops, the strength in our accomplishment was back. However, unpacking all the food in my entryway proved to ask the biggest question: “where am I going to put all this?”
After some creativity it all fit. I cracked open the bag of chips, poured out some salsa, and felt good about not wondering (at least for a couple more months) where the staples in my diet would come from.