My Love Affair with Costco, Part 1: Japan

Several years ago, my wife, Meryl, and I traveled to Japan for a month.  Using a Japan RailPass (JR Pass), we planned an experience from one end of the island to the other.   

The Japan Railways network

Having made the decision to travel independently, we followed a suggestion on to choose four cities, each for 3-6 days, in order to have enough time in each city to feel the immersion into the Japanese culture.   Although the JR Pass itself must be purchased before arriving in Japan, the selection of your particular itinerary and your seat reservations are made in Japan at any of the convenient Japan Rail offices.  These are located in all the major cities as well as in the train stations.

The train stations are very clean despite the tremendous crowds.
A typical JR office within the train station

Many of the employees speak English well enough to help you finalize your plans, and you are freely allowed to make changes along the way.

The first thing that you notice when you enter a Japanese train is that they are comfortable and spotlessly clean. 

The trains are spotlessly clean

I have never seen such immaculate bathrooms on public transportation anywhere else in the world.  You actually witness the attendants cleaning these restrooms frequently during the trip! 

The bathrooms on the train are large and accessible, and are cleaned frequently during the trip.

The personnel were very friendly and on most of the major high-speed shinkansen (bullet train) routes, spoke English sufficiently to be helpful.  When the attendants and conductors pass through the individual train cars, they bow politely upon leaving.  Could you ever imagine American flight attendants and pilots bowing? 

A shinkansen train, known in the West as the bullet train. Average speeds are about 250 mph.

The food offerings from the mobile carts were fresh and delicious, and not expensive.  You pay easily with credit and debit cards.  In most of the train stations, you can also buy everything from snacks and drinks to elaborate take-out meals before boarding the trains.

Since we were concerned that there wouldn’t be enough space in coach for our luggage above our seats or in between the seats, we opted for the first-class car, a surcharge of about 30%.  When we visited the coach cars, we saw that there may have been less legroom, but realized that there were reserved areas in the front and back of every car to store luggage.  In retrospect, since Japanese people in general are exceedingly honest, this might have been a suitable option.

My wife still says that Japan is the safest country we have ever visited.  In fact, whenever we would stand for even a minute with a “where are we?” look on our faces, multiple people would come up to us and offer assistance.  There were times that they even took us to the wrong places, but they were so nice about it that you couldn’t be upset.  It was all part of the gracious welcome that we felt all over the country.   

We chose our hotels mainly by their proximity to the rail station so that it would be convenient to walk directly to them.  In a few places, however, it was necessary to take a taxi to or from the station.  Upon arriving in Kanazawa, our second destination, our taxi driver took our suitcases too quickly and insisted on trying to put both large pieces in his trunk.  He had to slam the trunk a few times to close it.  In the process, he knocked off one of the wheels but we didn’t notice it until we were leaving our next hotel. While it might have been usable, it would have been inconvenient since we still had two more weeks left on our trip and most of the time, we didn’t require any assistance with our suitcases. 

At one point, we inquired in our hotel about getting it fixed but it might have taken more than a week for the wheel to arrive.  We figured that it would be easier to buy a replacement at our next destination, Hiroshima. As if our prayers were being answered, as we were entered the city, I noticed the familiar Costco sign adjacent to the Mazda Zoom Zoom stadium, home of the Hiroshima Carp baseball team. 

It was a surprise to see the familiar Costco sign as we entered Hiroshima on the shinkansen.
The Mazda Zoom Zoom stadium, home of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp baseball team

As devoted lovers of all things Costco, we decided to make a field trip to our first foreign warehouse.  This was a slight variation on our usual habit of visiting a supermarket whenever we arrive at a new city.  We feel that it is an interesting way of appreciating the culture of a city by seeing what people eat. 

Taking a public bus to the Costco was an easy feat thanks to Google Maps, which gave details of the route we had to take, including the transfer.  When we arrived at the warehouse, we  felt right at home even though almost all the customers were Japanese. The signs were all in the familiar Costco font with English translations. 

At the Hiroshima Costco

They had many of the same products as in the US warehouses such as rotisserie chickens and the optical department, but with an emphasis on Japanese items.  For instance, there were many more varieties of fresh fish and a much larger sushi display.  The food court even included the Costco American-style hot dog and soda special.    

At the Food Court at the Hiroshima Costco

Since we were looking to replace our broken luggage, we were thrilled when we found the exact same Ricardo suitcase at a price which was only about $20 more than in the US.  An employee explained that most of the items, although made in China, had been re-exported back to Asia where they were sold in the Japanese stores.

We’re not the typical American tourists who get excited when we see a McDonalds or Starbucks everywhere we travel.  In fact, we avoid them except possibly when we need their Western-style bathrooms or Wi-Fi.  But for some reason, I get a certain thrill visiting Costcos in foreign countries.  In the Japanese store, I was happy to find exactly what we needed, at a very fair price. 

When we returned home, we realized that our travel insurance policy covered this type of accidental luggage breakage, so we were able to  file for reimbursement for the entire cost.  Even if we hadn’t, it would have been worth it just for the experience.  It was as if we had successfully completed a Costco pilgrimage, the first of many to come. 

Next time I will take you on our adventure to another foreign Costco warehouse.

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