Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Ahh, the commissary... my take on shopping for groceries in Iwakuni

A couple of weeks ago I heard from four different people who recently moved to MCAS Iwakuni, or are getting ready to move here. All four said they found my blog helpful since there was limited information about life on base. This was a huge compliment for me and one of the reasons I started blogging about my adventures. I couldn't find much relevant info about life on base, either. But there are other reasons I blog: 2) to keep family and friends informed about what we're doing (and to keep my parents off my back when it comes to pictures and news "of the boys"), 3) to have an outlet for all the things in my mind that I find entertaining about life here, after all, if you are choosing to read this, you are now my captive audience, bwah-ha-ha-ha! 4) to keep my journalism and writing skills honed, and 5) to irritate the spouse when I write about him, especially when he does brilliant things like ignore vehicle dashboard alert lights. I think reason 5 is my favorite...

One of the four people requested more information about the commissary on base. Did it have a certain dog food? Well, I don't know, but here is the dog food aisle:

Hmmm... and it's kind of a trick question. The commissary might have those products currently, but you never know if that will be the case next week, next month or next year. And, as much as people like to complain about the commissary, it is not necessarily the fault of the Iwakuni commissary.

So, with these misconceptions in mind, I have created some things to help you along the way when you realize you will soon be shopping at the MCAS Iwakuni commissary:

1) This is all going to change in 90 days.

Really. It will. Things seem to run in 90-day cycles here aboard MCAS Iwakuni. I have no idea why or if that is really the case. It could just be my imagination. But, there is a lot of construction and growth on this base right now, and our commissary will be more than doubling in size sometime in the next four years. All of this info will probably change. I'm sorry, but hopefully another blogger will monitor it once my time here is done.

2) Like any good government entity, bureaucracy rules.

I am going to say this simply and with the idea of not being too boring: There are about 14 layers of bureaucracy that your milk and tomatoes go through to get on the shelves here. You have the suppliers, the U.S. government, the Japanese government, the military/Department of Defense, MCAS Iwakuni requirements, transportation and distribution people and companies. There are A LOT of policies, requirements, procedures and red tape. Somebody might get their panties in a bunch and throw a wrench in to the whole thing. And don't get me started on stuff that happens when there is some kind of multi-day Asian holiday. It's like the food world as we know it comes to a halt. The key thing I want you to remember is that the employees at the commissary are just a cog in the huge machine, so unless you can prove it was THAT PARTICULAR PERSON'S WRENCH THAT GOT THROWN, STOP YELLING AT THEM. Actually, you shouldn't be yelling at them at all... and yes, you know who you are. I saw you and you're embarrassing yourself, not to mention that you're rude and unkind.

No, of course, bureaucracy is not OK. In a perfect world, I would be at the helm, making stuff more efficient and effective. I have a lot of ideas for this. People who tried to misuse the system would be sent to Antarctica with a coat and a fishing pole so we didn't have rewrite the guidelines and punish everyone for the actions of a few. But the world is not perfect, no one listens to me and everyone involved in the bureaucracy wants their cut of the financial pie. OK, OK, no more soapbox... well, maybe one more thing....

3) Like anything else, the commissary is what you make of it.

Yes, there are issues, like running out of orange juice, but you just learn to like apple juice as a back up, or "become a hoarder," as one of my fellow Iwakuni residents said.

We had some milk shortages a year ago. I keep a frozen half gallon of milk in my freezer just in case. Six months ago, cottage cheese was hard to find, so I buy three at a time (I eat it daily) and go to the store for more after I eat the first two. Last Fall, there was a marshmallow shortage, so my Mom sent me some... they arrived in a week (USPS Priority Flat Rate shipping is pretty reliable here). And then she sent me more. And more, until I finally Skyped and kindly said that I appreciated the marshmallows, but I wasn't making any giant Stay Pufft Marshmallow Men anytime soon. Even eating on the South Beach plan, I have been more than happy with what I can find at the commissary. My vegetarian and organic-food-only friends are also managing not to starve. Like everything else in military life, you have to be flexible. Semper Gumby people, Semper Gumby.

4) Yes, you have must have your ID

Yes, you must have your military ID card. No exceptions, don't argue, just go get it and present it to the employee at the front door who asks. They are just doing their job and protecting your privileges. You can snort, stomp your foot and look like a cow if you want (I did once and am not proud of it... in my partial defense, it was 95 degrees in August, I had had to walk half a mile to get there and no one had told me it was required. We had just arrived in Iwakuni a few days earlier and I didn't frequent commissaries in the States.) but it will do you NO good. So, make sure you have your military ID on you at all times. Side note: when you have non-military family and friends visit, only under special circumstances that have to be approved by God-knows-who can your friends or family shop at the commissary or exchange. Their stomping and snorting doesn't work, either.

5) Coupons rock!

At the overseas commissaries, you can use coupons for up to 6 months after they expire. Which means a lot of great people back in the States bag up old coupons for us, ship them over here and we can use them. The commissary actually has drawers full of coupons for anyone to use, sorted by product, right at the front door. How nice of the employees to do that! Thank them next time you are in there.

Also, go in Building 411, the library building, and walk in to the first door on your left on the first floor. That is the Relocation and Referral office and they have buckets full of bagged up coupons for you to use. And while you're in there sign up for a free or seriously discounted (we're talking less than $10) cultural trip!

I have never been a coupon cutter before now. I did not care/had no interest/did not live somewhere that had a lot of coupons in the Sunday paper/who my age subscribes to the Sunday paper anyway? But, since it is so easy to acquire coupons for the items I buy, I feel dumb at the checkout counter if I don't plunk down at least a few coupons. I even managed to win a free massage this past spring for saving over $220 in coupons in three months (a free program offered by the base's financial management office - how cool is that?) Even the spouse and kids are in to it. "Look how much I saved," is now a family board game. And speaking of family, have your family back home send you expired coupons in your next care package. And now that I have mentioned expirations...

6) Expiration dates are merely a suggestion!

Some products at the commissary are "expired." The Iwakuni Classifieds page blows up over this sometimes (among other asinine topics, such as pizza delivery, but you can go lurk on there for entertainment on your own time... don't get me wrong, it is a great resource, but some people are just bored and/or have their own agendas. You'll learn who they are soon enough.) First, many of the expired products have been frozen before they expired, so the expiration dates can be extended months longer if they are kept frozen. Second, take a look at this article from Time magazine. Many expiration dates are a marketing ploy, anyway, getting you to toss out old stuff that is perfectly fine so you'll spend money on new stuff. Use common sense (I know this is a stretch for some people, but work with me...), if it is discolored, looks weird or smells bad, don't use it. Don't simply toss stuff out because the date printed on it is from two days ago. And, hey, can't bad milk happen at grocery stores in the States, too? Of course it can! "But wait Jessica," you may be thinking, "I can simply stop going to that grocery store and go to a different one. That's not possible in Iwakuni." Wrong! And here's why:

7) People in Japan eat.

I know! I was surprised, too, since they are such skinny people. But, yes, they do eat, and many of them eat a lot. But they walk and bike a lot more than we car-loving Americans do, so they burn it right off. But the good news for us car-loving Americans is that they have grocery stores filled with all sorts of tasty foods... some of them you can easily recognize. Like salmon (the commissary is often out of frozen salmon), eggs, veggies, Activa, and so much more. If you like Acme-brand low-glucerin, three-calorie, cage-free, legume-flavored popsicles, no, those may not be easy to find. But you complain, kick the couch, shake your head and then grab your purse to go out and find something else to crave. Or, you order it on the Internet and hope it doesn't melt before it manages to get here.

Aside from the standard grocery stores that are located all over Japan, there is Mama-san and her produce shop 100 feet from the front gate of base. Bonus: her produce prices are WAY cheaper than the commissary's in most cases. And that brings me to my next point...

8) Produce is expensive!

Yes, the commissary's big marketing push is that you save up to 30 percent when shopping there. That is probably the case if you buy a lot of stuff that comes in cans, jars or boxes. And hooray for that. But, those of us who shop more in the dairy, meat and produce sections, these fresher foods can be expensive. Please see item #2 above for what I believe to be the reason.

No, I do not like spending $4 on two bell peppers, or $15 on a spaghetti squash, but then I remember that the spouse gets several hundred dollars in Cost of Living Allowance, or COLA, each month and understand that things like my bell peppers are what the extra money is for. And finally...

9) Yes, the commissary is closed on Mondays.

I have no idea why, since most grocery stores are open 7 days a week now, but no amount of complaining is going to change it. So, plan accordingly and be glad it wasn't like sequestration this summer when it was closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Why it was closed two days in a row every week, I have no idea, but it would have been better to be closed Mondays or Thursdays... something that made it easier for people who have kids who forget to write things on the grocery list to get often-used items. Waiting 48 hours to get Sweet-n-low (not available in Japanese stores!) can be agonizing for some of us.

Thanks for reading, I hope you found this post helpful. Also, I have some more photos of products currently (remember point #1!) in the commissary... enjoy!

Batteries are low because we just had a typhoon warning a week before this photo was taken.

Yes, the Gatorade aisle is the same length as the baby aisle... you have to remember that the majority of inhabitants on this base are single people under 25 who are required to work out. Gatorade is a food group. Babies are not.

Just a warning: Certain brands and types of bread go moldy before others. I am not going to tell you which one my family prefers because I want to make sure it's there when I need it and don't want all you people buying it up. Just kidding... sort of. 


Tamara Henderson said...

LOVE this! Lived in Iwakuni for 14 years over several different tours. So much has changed and yet so much has stayed the same. The building may be different, but the policies are the same. Now I'm home sick. :o)

Our Family, Our Life said...

Oh Tamara, Hi!!!! I used to hang out at your scrapbooking weekends! How have you been? Missing Iwakuni along with you. Ahhh….how things stay the same even years after! Iwakuni will always be my favorite duty station for all the friends that I made that I now consider family. Enjoy shopping at the commissary blog readers, but I suggest checking out the Japanese grocery stores and all the little street stands downtown and at Kintai. They are fresher, cheaper, and even better…..non-GMO!

Jessica Guthrie said...

I couldn't agree with you more! Thanks for reading!

Kimberly H said...

Thanks! I've been reading your blog, too, because we'll be headed there next summer and this post was particularly helpful. I love your sense of humor.

Jessica Guthrie said...

Thanks! I'm glad you found it helpful. :)

aBBy said...

I'm so happy this blog is recent. I'm absolutely dreading the move and there is almost zero information on day to day living there. If you have pets, a quick blurb on dealing with that would be fantabulous. Otherwise, I'll take the commissary info happily.

Jessica Guthrie said...

Hi, Abby: I do not have pets, so I have not experienced that. I have heard MANY stories, both good and bad. I recommend posting any questions you have to the MCAS Iwakuni Classifieds and Information group, or searching that page for pet info. There is a lot of it there. I hope that helps.