Tokyo: The Fine Art of Fake Food

ON KAPPABASHI STREET IN TOKYO, YOU CAN TOUCH, BUT IT’S PROBABLY BEST YOU DON’T EAT, WRITES BERNARD O’RIORDAN

Stroll down Kappabashi Dori (Street) in Tokyo, the famous restaurant supply district known as Kitchen Town, and your stomach will almost certainly rumble.

Up and down this 1km strip, located halfway between Tokyo’s north-eastern Asakusa and Ueno districts, you’ll be enticed by incredible edibles like perfectly rolled sushi, gleaming oysters in the half shell, hot dogs dripping with mustard and the frothiest of cold beer.

It all looks good enough to eat.

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Unfortunately though, it’s all fake; part of the lookalike plastic food industry that is booming in Japan.

If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll be familiar with the plastic food models that are common outside most restaurants. They’re a handy point-and-order option for tourists (gaijin) in a country where most menus are Japanese only.

Known as sampuru or sample, the art of realistic fake food hasn’t really caught on outside of Japan, except in specialist enclaves in big cities where there’s a Japan Town or Korea Town.

But here it’s a century old tradition, as well as an increasingly lucrative one.

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Rough estimates suggest the industry could be worth as much as $A100 million a year, fuelled by a tourism boom and an increasing number of young people who eat out rather than cook for themselves.

The industry is also branching out, with this faux food craze now a mainstream consumer hit. In souvenir shops across the country you’ll find take-home tokens like sushi key rings, bento box phone covers and even towels that look like nigiri sushi when rolled up.

Maiduru has been making these durable silicon food samples for more than 70 years. You could easily lose track of time in this store as you marvel at the magnificence of these hand-made creations.

Iwasaki Co. is another replica-food maker that has been in business for more than 80 years.

On the second floor of its Kappabashi showroom, Ganso Shokuhin Sanpuru-ya (Original Food Samples Shop), you can even take a class in the fine art of making fake food.

Classes run for 1.5 hours and cost around 2,160 yen. You also get to take your three pieces of silicon food home with you.

Of course, the cluttered stores of Kappabashi Street offer much more than just fake food. 

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As well as being home to an iconic 10-tonne, 11-metre Chef’s head perched atop a building (pictured), this is where you’ll find around 200 wholesale and retail stores hawking everything from bowls and bento boxes to teppanyaki plates and tea towels.

You can buy bales of chopsticks and boxes of wooden toothpicks. And if you’ve always wanted a corn cob shaver or a cherry pitter, then this is where you’ll almost certainly find it.

On Kappabashi Street you’ll also find a wide range of unique pottery and ceramics, alongside the mass produced variety.

A popular pottery store is Tousyougama, which has an eye-boggling array of quality ceramics, sake sets and tableware stacked high. Be sure to let them know if you’ll be flying soon, and they’ll wrap it appropriately.

It’s also worth browsing an antique shop called Soi – which sells traditional pottery as well as kimono’s and hand towels.

A lot of tourists come to Kappabashi Street for the high-end kitchen knives that cost as much as 50,000 yen. These are serious shoppers who come specifically to buy artisanal blades that are renowned for their high quality and durability. Personalised engraving is also free.

Around 25 per cent of customers at KamaAsa Syoten, which has one of the grandest displays of knives on the strip, come from overseas.

Shopping on Kappabashi Street is actually quite easy as the staff in most stores speak reasonable English.

But just remember, when it comes to food, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

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