Japanese Costco: A Device For Crossing Spacetime

How would someone make a device with the ability to transcend space and time? One that could close the distance between countries, and transfer memory, physical sensation? Time machines and teleporters are out of the question, but if we set our sights elsewhere, maybe we can find something good…


With just a bit of adjustment, a change of perspective, society already has this magical device. It's called "Japanese Costco". Let's define this in opposition to "American Costco," even though the shopping experiences are largely the same.

In some ways an American Costco is no more than a Liminal Space photo. While not literally a liminal space, it's a place we go through to shop and then forget about. Photos of it feel generic or modular enough, that its component parts - shelves, ceilings, freezers - can conjure up forgotten feelings and memories. Like the way an empty mall food court might make an American feel things relating to childhood or visiting malls - American Costco, too, can summon up forgotten feelings, through its mile-high racks of shipping pallets, fields of muffins and bread, tall stacks of childrens' books and bestsellers…

When an American visits an American Costco, they establish new memories tied to "the space of American Costco." That person can try to remember those memories and sensations, but to more efficiently recreate them, they should visit an American Costco.

Since Costco has stores across the world, with a roughly standard layout and operating flow, I found that, for an American, visiting a Japanese Costco is like using a device that can dredge up physical sensations and illusions that one would associate with American Costco. (If, as is likely, you're not an American living in Japan whose had this experience, you can roughly imagine the same idea by taking any store you've been to in distant countries or states. Starbucks, Wal-mart, Aldi…)

Visiting Japanese Costco

Before we dive more into the "device," I want to tell some anecdotes from the other day. Recently, I was lucky enough to (finally) visit a Japanese Costco. I've wanted to visit for the American nostalgia, but despite being in Japan for almost four years, I've never had the time to go. To be honest, I'm more of a Sam's Club guy (Costco's nearly identical competitor), as that's what I've grown up with, but both stores feel the same in my memory.

So what was Japanese Costco like? Customers have to park in a multi-floor parking complex, reminiscent of parking at American Casino Complexes or Baseball Stadiums. (The experience of parking in complexes and how they are like 'transitory cutscenes' for a casino/sports/shopping experience is an interesting topic for another time) The weekends are packed, so after parking, the entry process feels like queueing for a Disneyland ride. Some of the escalators' lines spill out into the parking garage. You ride a gentle escalator for a few minutes, gawking at giant ads for energy supplements or baking soda.

I was surprised by the crowd! On a random weekend evening, the crowd was near the level of an American Black Friday. Thanks to the truck-sized shopping carts, the pace of walking around felt like that of the slow shuffle one takes through an art gallery. With nothing to do but patiently wait in this lazy river of carts until your desired aisle pulls into view, you look all around you.

There was plenty to gawk at: SodaStreams, Godiva Chocolates, even plastic cottages meant for backyard storage, bottomless bags of dinner rolls… Korean food samples, pet food, shelves of vegetables… by sending one person out to forage for a product, the other person could continue to control the cart, allowing for efficient Costco Product Retrieval. Meanwhile, if your group looks East Asian at a Japanese Costco, it's easy to lose track of each other. Wearing a colored hat (or jacket?) may help…

Some products were the same as the USA. Taco Seasoning, coffee, dehydrated mashed potatoes. I noticed an imported, almond-and-grains-heavy, "High-protein" American cereal came in at a total 2500 yen for 1 kg. That's about $20 for a box of cereal. While surprising, import goods anywhere tend to be marked up. I think $20 for grains and crushed almonds is absurd, but maybe the price can feel justified if you're buying into a dream of another place. At least, that's how it could feel, eating onigiri while I attended middle school orchestra camp in the USA, or ordering a ramune at my local Japanese restaurant in my hometown. (A topic for another time is how the quality of Japanese food in places like Chicago are actually remarkably high - sometimes more than Japan itself. Does the process of recreating a distant dream (of food) hold some power in going beyond the original?)

Anyways. Even the experience of peeing feels American. The toilets are regular porcelain, no Toto Washlet in sight - yes, it's back to the stone age for certain lines of business there. The kitchen has an open layout, selling pizza and hot dogs. They taste fairly similar, too - the pizza having that familiar, dough-y taste, the hot dogs FINALLY tasting like beef hot dogs (not the cursed little greasy 'wieners' that plague almost every hot dog establishment in Tokyo).

They also have those hand-cranked onion dispensers and condiment push-buttons… regular fast food store soda fountains… I could go on..

But This Is Just American Costco!!

In short, there was nothing remarkable about Japanese Costco itself, it is literally a Costco transplanted from the USA. To me, though, I was having somewhat of second, bizarre/spiritual experience, layered on top of the more 'regular' experience of trying to find the soda dispenser that hadn't run out of Mountain Dew syrup, or un-losting myself around the mountains and caves of Coca-Cola and Ginger Ale.

Why? Well, part of me was in Japan, shopping. But another part of me was somewhere else - I felt, for a moment, as if I was in high school, as if outside those large doors, it wasn't leading to outer Tokyo, but instead was a parking lot in my Midwestern hometown of Vernon Hills, planted amongst a strip mall of furniture stores and sandwich shops. But this wasn't just a nostalgic longing, it was the distinct spatial sense that Vernon Hills Was There, as natural as you would expect your sink faucet to dispense water.

Costco, then, felt like somewhat of a spatiotemporal capsule. If I looked down at my hot dog, unable to see all the visual markers that we were in Tokyo, then I had the sense that it was 2007, and off at the other end of the store was the electronics sections, selling discount Wii games. I had the spatial sense of where the (nonexistent) film photo development counter should be, I wondered if my childhood car was sitting outside. Near where I sat would be a pharmacy section full of supplements and medications.

Of course, it's not like this is something unique to Costco. Structures and spaces throughout history have always borrowed from other cultures, so the "device transcending space and time" is likely very old as pre-humans finding a second cave. Like I mentioned, the recent, if not already dated, Liminal Space internet meme, is a collective acknowledgement of the way humans encrypt their memories in spaces - stores, train stations, homes, malls - until they're randomly unearthed one day when stumbling into a new place or seeing a random photo. Walking around the world is a process of creating memories, then encrypting a portion of them in the space itself, with the key also left there.

But there's something about Costco itself that is more potent than something like encountering a Kit-Kat bar at a Japanese 7-11 or seeing an empty mall. Costco is around the same degree of a Disneyland in its similarities between parks, for example, the way that the Jungle Cruise ride or other rides can be faithfully recreated from country to country.

But I would maybe put Costco at an even higher level of strangeness than Disneyland. Disneyland, after all, isn't a place we'd visit every week or month, but Costco is as regular and near-to-life as they come (at least for a Suburban-raised American like me). It's easy to visit a Japanese Costco, and the things it reminds me of are pretty everyday, regular stuff.

Trawling for American Culture in the Japanese Costco Sea

But what quality allows this "Costco Device" to function? Is it the products? The food? The flooring? I think it's the cavernous ceilings, the shelving, the way sounds echo. The way the hot dogs and pizzas are made, presented, the font of the prices. The condiments section, how you line up with your carts. How the clerk checks your ID coming in. The feeling of entering those large Costco doors, weaving your cart through the monumental shelves. Trying to distinguish a pet food aisle from the gallon-ketchup-bottle aisle. Going to the bathroom and washing your hands. Each of these 'components' acts in concert to either remind me of things, or create the large illusion of "phantom spaces" (my hometown being outside the store, etc)

Because Japanese Costco is almost the same as American Costco, the things you do feel very familiar, BUT, because you know you're not in America, it creates this psychological distance. The way my eyes move across shelves, the grey concrete, the way price tags float above expensive, large things I'll never buy - that's the same as America. The emotional disappointment of the free samples not yet being ready. If I were back in the USA and doing these things I might feel a nice sense of familiarity, but it's unlikely that I would start to think about the other times I had done these things, unless I made an effort to. Having it happen in Japan creates a weird 'focus' around the mundane act, like putting a toilet in an art gallery.

Slopping a bucket of relish onto my hot dog reminded me of going to baseball games, or watching my dad put condiments on a hot dog. Dropping onions on the aluminum countertops reminded me of doing the same as a kid, then looking for napkins to clean the mess. Looking at the kitchen reminded me of the berry sundaes I used to try at the Sam's Club in Illinois. And on and on, in a random chain of associations.

American Culture

These are all relatively mundane memories, but I think it's worth highlighting that at the same time they obviously form a kind of culture of the American Suburbs. I mean, if they didn't, why would I feel moved when doing something as ordinary as sipping Mountain Dew out of a giant styrofoam cup? Whether I like it or not, the process of driving up to a Costco, walking inside, buying a truckload of cupcakes, paying it and dumping it into my car's backseat - are inevitably a part of my cultural DNA.

Sometimes Americans say we "don't have any culture," but I feel like anything that feels mundane and normal - waking up at dawn, walking across a dewy lawn to our mailbox and groaning at junk mail - digging for keys in the middle of winter, standing outside of your car in a gigantic parking lot - being shocked at the price tag of chocolate-covered almonds in those cubic plastic Whole Foods containers - wondering what the obsession is with packing tons of fiber into every energy bar ever - those things are culture. Are they worth celebrating? Well… maybe… I don't know, but they are still culture.

(This brings me to yet another topic for writing, which is my thoughts on the question "Do you miss the USA? / What do you miss about the USA?" (to which my answers are: Yes, and Surprisingly A Lot, but not enough to want to move back soon))

Like I mentioned with the "chain of associations," I could view Japanese Costco not so much as a "spatiotemporal capsule," but perhaps as a 'cultural fishing net' - something that can, almost at random, dredge up Costco-related sensations and memories - as well as other sensations that connect to those. It's a real-life version of Wikipedia diving, or something. It's strange. I don't know. Definitely go to Costco if you ever visit Japan…


Okay… does this relate to games? The way in which seemingly 'useless' actions - walking slowly with a cart, picking up and reading a box of muffins, etc - can conjure memories - to me, speaks to the value of 'useless' actions in games. Japanese Costco was like an RPG maker game: every random object or action reminding me of something was like a game's background objects that serve up flavor text when talked to.

Sitting down, entering your file's name, being able to push barrels for no reason. It's like inspecting a nutrition facts label or returning a box of pretzels you don't want (or guiltily stashing it between stuffed animals near the checkout aisle.)

Even though some actions might be 'useless' in a game, they can certainly form the basis for future memories, which of course can act as a link in a chain to whatever else is going on in our lives at the time.

A place can feel familiar through multiple avenues - via the senses, and via various objects. And, through multiple scales - e.g. going to two Wal-Marts in the USA vs two Costcos in the USA/Japan. The 'components' of a place act together to give you this collection of memories, and if those components are present in high enough density in another part of the world, they can act to dredge up memories - even to the scale of perceiving something to be where it isn't.

Well, maybe that thought is useful for playing games, or making games. I'm not sure. Anyways, thanks for reading about Japanese Costco. I'm going to go to sleep now…