Costco Items That Every Foreigner in Japan Needs

So you’ve moved to Japan from the USA, or maybe you’re just here for an extended period. Chances are there’s a few things your going to miss from home. While big cities offer about anything you might need (for a price), dwellers of the countryside like me might be out of luck, or forced to compromise during those rare moments we’re feeling nostalgic.

Costco Toyama

Fortunately we have that giant American wholesale warehouse we all know and love, Costco, with stored spread throughout central and southern Japan.

Naturally when I have the chance to visit my nearest location (Toyama) there are a few “must have” items which go into my cart regularly.

Real Cheese
One thing I’ve noticed is a lot of processed cheese in Japan. If you do find the good stuff, it’s not cheap! Bricks of real cheddar and jack cheese can be had from Costco. I always buy a couple bricks and put some in the refrigerator and cut the remainder into pieces or grate and freeze. Freezing it whole does ruin the texture a bit (gets crumbly) but still great for cooking and keeps indefinitely, or at least until the next Costco Trip. Costco puts all the expensive cheese together in the busiest part of the store, while hiding their affordable Kirkland Signature cheese in the refrigeration isle.

Oats & Cereal
Cereal is expensive in Japan, and you certainly won’t find any that you loved as a kid. You can buy a huge amount of steel cut oats at a great price for making oatmeal (or porridge as my UK counterparts would say). This is especially great when you have kids and want to occasionally offer a healthy alternative to rice, pasta, or bread. They also carry a few common cereals for us old-kids like Honey Nut Cheerios.

Wheat PastaOrganic / Wheat Pasta
We like to give our kids healthy options whenever possible. While pasta is readily available throughout Japan it’s kind of rare that i see all wheat or grain versions of pasta, which I feel is a better option than…. just flour/water/egg of regular pasta. Costco has it.

Baked Beans
If you’re looking for beans in Japan – I hope you like desert. Sweet red bean filling is the most common place I find beans in Japan, and while it’s not bad (once you acquire the taste) it can seem very strange to what Americans and British folks think of as beans. I personally prefer a spicey ranch style pinquito beans from my home town, baked beans is still a comfortable reminder of home.

Pork Ribs
I love Japanese style BBQ, I of course have my grill out on the back porch ready for the summer. But there’s no argument that it’s a completely different style than the US. Once in a while, I’ve got to get a taste of that old home town style BBQ and in the absence of a Tri-tip, pork ribs are a great next best option. You can get a full rack at Costco at a relatively affordable price, where as at countryside supermarkets you may see a few small ribs in a pack on occasion – if that.

Taco Seasoning
I know what you home master-chef’s will say, “I use my own seasoning for taco’s”. Yes, I get that. But when you live in Japan, Mexican food seasonings are either non-existant or expensive. For quick meals, Costco has a huge container of taco seasoning that will probably last you a year. You can kick it up a notch with your own seasonings to get your taco’s in the right happy place.

Fresh / Frozen Pizza
Costco’s giant “ready to bake” pizzas are nearly identical to those in the US (with the exception of the seafood pizza). In fact, most Japanese kitchens probably lack the size of oven required to cook it! This means most people probably cook it in sections (I’m guessing). One alternative is their 3-pack of frozen pizzas which are also quite tasty, and at about $5/per pizza quite a good deal. Add your own toppings to make it something special.

Bakery and BreadDinner Rolls / French Bread
I’m an American and this pretty much certifies my love for white bread. What’s great (once again) is that bread keeps rather well in the freezer. Costco’s bakery cranks out favorites that are identical to the US version, and make you feel right at home.

Ritz Crackers
I admit this one is something of a personal favorite that I was craving last time. Japanese crackers are great, but something completely different. If you miss the buttery, salty (can’t be good for you) snack that I was craving, they have them. Top them with some cheese or…

Peanut Butter
I’m listing this one because they have it, and Peanut Butter is rarely ever seen by me at the grocery. If I do see it, it’s a tiny container. Here’s my beef with you Costco, you only carry the sweet full-of-sugar PB’s like JIF. How about a nice natural one, 100% peanuts only? I guess my Trader Joes jar will have to last a little longer.

Tequila / Wine / Beer
Tequila! Oh how I’ve missed you. I never see tequila in supermarkets, and only one option when in most liquor markets. Costco has a couple options, and the Kirkland Signature is quite drinkable and very affordable. I got spoilt on wine in California, as many of the wines imported to, or made in Japan taste watered-down to me. Costco’s cheapest (bottled) red wine is usually imported as well, but you can tell that they’ve taken the time to select a decently drinkable one. Imported beers are always pricey – but at least they have some to pick from.

English Books
If you happen to have kids like me, raising them in Japan – English books might need to be ordered online unless you get lucky at a second hand store, or live in a big city. Costco has a ton of children’s books (and adult ones) in English at your expected new book price.

Avocados
I thought Avocado’s were expensive in the US, then I moved to Japan. Wow! Costco carries avocado’s by the bag, still not cheap, but maybe better than many supermarkets and always large in size.

BONUS ITEMS:

The oven roasted chicken at around $6 is a steal, especially considering most people don’t usually buy whole-chickens (or have big enough oven to roast it for that matter). It’s obvious why it’s strategically placed at the back of the store. And you know I can’t go without mentioning the all-beef hotdog from the food counter. It comes with a drink, AND it’s under $2? Shut up and take my money. Don’t tell me how it’s made, just leave me alone and let me eat my dog. Maybe i’ll get one for the road too.

What’s your craving from back home? Whether Costco or not – leave us a comment below and tell us what you’re missing.

Is (BLANK) better in Japan or in the US?

I’ve got a small list of items here. Some I miss terribly from the US, while others are SO much better here in Japan. Am I qualified to say which is “better” after only 1 year in Japan? Absolutely not! But based on my completely biased opinion – I’m going to pass some generalized judgement judgement!

Some of these are obvious, while a few  might surprise you! Disagree with me? Have one to add? Let me know in the comments below.

Hamburgers:

This is a tough one for me, as I live in the city with perhaps the best hamburger in Japan. But this list is a general one – not about exceptions, or specialties. I’ve got to admit it – I miss a fresh, inexpensive In & Out burger from time to time. There are great burgers in Japan – but i’ve got to give the nod to the good ol’ USA on this one. But Japan reigns supreme on what they call a Hambagu ( ハンバーグ ) or hamburger-steak which they’ve made into something special of their own.

Various Sweet Peppers

Fresh Vegetables:

Does it matter? Hell yes! In Japan all the vegetables are sourced from local farms – even better, I’m surrounded by farms with their own stands. Sometime’s it’s a bit more expensive than the US depending on what is in season/time of year, but a wise shopper learns the ropes rather quickly. Still a fraction of what those overpriced healthy supermarkets in the US cost.

Bread:

This is a tough one guys – very close. I’m an American, so you know I’m basically required to love me some bread. And being a sandwich lover, the varieties of wheat, rye, sourdough that you find in the US is something I’d gotten used to. But I said this was going to be a generalized judgement. In which case, the Japanese soft white fluffy bread is delightful. And there are tiny amazing bakeries everywhere. Europe is probably the world leader, but in this contest – the slight edge here goes to Japan! They even cut the crusts off sandwiches. Shut up and take my money!

Ethnic Food:

I might be opening up a can of worms here. I really love the Japanese take on Italian and Chinese food (neither of which bear much resemblance to the US variation). But when I’m talking about the availability and enjoyability of Thai, Indian, Mexican, and other ethnic food options – you just can’t beat the biggest melting-pot-of-a-country, the US of A.

Early Childcare / PreSchool:

I know what your saying, that’s not food. I didn’t say this was all about food did I? In Los Angeles I paid between $600-1000 per month for day care and then preschool. In Japan it’s mostly subsidized coming in at around a couple hundred dollars a month, and honestly – amazing. Very high ratio of teachers to students, very interactive and social environment. I have to give a round of applause to Japan here. A major influence on my move.

Freeways

This one is a bit tricky, as the freeways in Japan are most definitely not free (I guess we all pay somehow, in any country). But the freeways are maintained, clean, and pretty much always have plenty of workers to make repairs where needed. But the cost of driving even just a couple hours away can really add up with tolls! It’s a bit of a toss up here – but if we’re including the word “free” then I believe the edge must go to the USA here (horrible LA freeways exempt from this win).

Playgrounds

You know, like the ones at the park that your kids go crazy on. I was surprised to see so many of them here in Japan, built from wood and steel and concrete like it was done in the US – say 30+ years ago. The US is safety focused, lots of plastic and soft landing pads. So far the US has the advantage here – safety is important. But where Japan takes the cake is by letting kids be kids, and not worrying as much about lawsuits – frees them up to make some rather wild playgrounds by comparison. I often find myself playing alongside my kids, reliving some youth.

Takayama BeerBeer

This is a tough one, i’ve only been here a year, and I’m tasting them as fast as a can folks! Japan has a budding microbrewery industry, and theres a site with some great info here. But just the sheer size of the US, and the advantage of being focused on it longer with more affordable brews – gives the US an edge. I may change my mind with time. So check back!

Beef

I’d like to reserve the right to remain silent… but I won’t. This one is too tough. Growing up with Santa Maria style tri-tip as part of my diet, with beef as my national staple – and then moving to Japan and enjoying Hida Beef : possibly the best beef in the world. US beef is more affordable, and you can get a nice steak any day of the week at a reasonable price. Hida beef IS the standard here, although costly, but something that every human should experience. This one is too tough folks. I love them both. Japanese Wagyu is superior, but is it an exception? or just a very high standard? What’s your opinion? Comment below.

Shirakaba Family Land 白樺 ファミリーランド

A spontaneous weekend family road-trip took place. We recently made it to an amusement park in Nagano, called Shirakaba Family Land 白樺 ファミリーランド. I imagine most Americans are familiar with Nagano due to the winter Olympics of 1998 being held there, and yes as expected there was plenty of mountains and water which would facilitate such an event.

Getting to Family Land from Takayama took a few hours, although I recommend paying the toll roads to get there faster. Skipping the last toll road and trusting our GPS took us up some wild mountain road to get there which had me a bit white-knuckled at times. So i’m going to go ahead and recommend taking the standard highway route on this trip.

Family Land was perfect for ages 3-8 or so I would say, although the whole family had fun and even our 1 year old went on some rides. I would have to say that Japanese amusement parks, or at least this one in the off season (ski season over) was very laid back. Definitely the most stress-free amusement park I’ve ever been to. The number of people wasn’t overwhelming, and the atmosphere relaxed.

Some of the rides they had:

– Elephant ride (similar to Dumbo at Disney)
– A smaller Roller Coaster (still too big for my kids)
– Go Carts
– A beautiful mini-golf putt-putt area
– Zip Lines
– ATV riding
– A canoe water raft ride
– Multiple bounce-house type areas
– Merry-go round
– Large adult-size trampoline area
– Swan boats on a lake filled with fish
…you get the idea!

Plenty to keep little ones busy, but not overwhelming either.

TIPS:

  • You can either pay “per ride” or get an “all day pass”. We opted for 1 day pass and figured the other parent could go per-ride, as one of us would often be watching the baby. In retrospect it was far from strict, and we could have just paid per-ride. I mean how many rides can you fit into a day with two little ones anyway?
  • Attractions were spread out into a few different areas, so there was quite a bit of walking. I’d recommend a stroller, baby backpack, water, sunscreen, hats.
  • The food area we ordered from was nothing spectacular, mostly fried food and took a long time. It’s probably a good opportunity to pack lunches for the family and bring them with you.
  • We stayed affordably in a nearby hotel for one night, which included all you can eat (and drink!) dinner and breakfast, which really makes for a great start & end to the day.
  • I should also mention that the area contains several other places which can be visited including multiple farms, a ski resort, a brewery, etc. You could stay multiple days and find plenty to do.

While I didn’t make it to the brewery, I was able to track down a few of the local Shirakaba beers in our hotel, and managed to end my evening with one in the cool mountain air. Delightful! Adding it to my list of Japanese beers I’ve enjoyed.

Shirakaba Beer Review

Malty, thick but satisfying. Kind of like a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast with a bit of sugar. Surprisingly easy to drink, could easily have 2 or 3 in a row. Not hoppy at all. Slightly sweet aroma like ripened apple skins, but subtle. It’s what I want from a craft beer, a special and complex taste that I can sip and enjoy. It’s my last beer of the night, and perfectly timed.
More Beverages>>

BEER  ビール お酒 飲み物

So yeah, BEER… and all the other great drinks in Japan.
Enjoying the amazing cuisine and beverages is definitely a huge part of my visits. On my last trip I attempted to try a different beer or drink every day. I especially enjoyed the local Hida Takayama brew, which is definitely something special. I have no doubt that after moving there (2 weeks from now) entirely new worlds of flavor will open up to me.

With the popularity of craft beer growing in japan, and Japanese whisky winning “Best in the World” status, it seems as if Japan is making great strides beyond the commonly known ‘sake’ in the U.S.

One of my favorite sipping drinks is Shōchū () which is typically made from sweet potatoes (the good stuff) or barley. To my tastes, it is typically a bit dryer than Nihonshu (what Americans call sake) with mellow herbal flavors and aromas.  Truth be told, the smell of Shochu reminds me of Japan – wherever I’m at. But this beverage will be the subject of a future blog post all its own!

Here are a few tasty beverages that were part of memorable moments;

Hida Beef ひだぎゅう 飛騨牛

So I was born in a small town in California, widely known for it’s famous BBQ. Specifically tri-tip. We’re talking big cuts of meat, slowly cooked over the hot coals of Red Oak wood, typically on an adjustable BBQ pit. Those flavors are burned into my brain, and there is nothing like it!

Japanese BBQ on the other hand, is a whole other story. Completely different and yet amazingly delicious.
In my experience, it’s generally small pieces/slices of beef, cooked rather quickly over charcoal – taken off quickly, sometimes while still a little rare, and enjoyed with salt and pepper or various dipping sauces.

IMG_9594

But one kind of beef stands apart from any other I’ve tried. Hidagyu (or Hida Beef) is beautifully marbled with streaks of fat that simply liquefy upon cooking, making a tender slice of meat – that will essentially melt in your mouth. Many Americans are familiar with Kobe beef, or at least the name. Hida beef might be the best kept secret for carnivores visiting Japan.

FACT CHECK: If you see Kobe beef in the US, it’s probably not real Kobe beef. That’s right, Kobe beef is from Hyogo prefecture, where no slaughterhouses are approved for export by the USDA.  So what is it then? Probably the same breed of cow, raised here in the US under completely different circumstances. Like comparing apples and oranges really. So when you see Kobe beef in the US – be highly skeptical.

IMG_0088

But back to Hida Beef; Hidagyu is still a relatively well kept secret in the US.
Hida cows are all descended from the same original group of black cows, through a strict breeding process, and farmers achieve this especially tender, ultra-marbled beef through various methods. From very low-stress living conditions, to some more famous methods of massaging cows with sake, or feeding the cows beer, and other such methods. Regardless, there is a very high standard and be certified as “Hidagyu” and must be a specific firmness and texture to be considered.

But BBQ is really only one style for cooking this delicacy. You might also see it in Sukiyaki, or even as a grilled steak (although i personally find it best enjoyed in small amounts, complimented by an ice-cold beer).

What it all comes down to:  Visit Gifu Prefecture. Eat the best beef of your life.

Check out my “Shrine to Hida Beef” here: https://westcoasttofareast.com/the-hida-beef-shrine/