If you desire it, they will have it, in the world’s best kept and most delicious secret: the Depachika, the food havens in the heart of underground malls of Tokyo.
A depachika is a contraction of depato (department store) and chika (underground mall), a place of endless wonder and marvel producing a feast for the eyes, the mind and the belly. To the Japanese worker or student picking up a snack, dinner for the evening or groceries for the week, it is just a crowded food department. To me, it evokes unforgettable fascinations with the land of the rising sun, and the longing to tour these islands of wonder just one more time.
There is not a food item your heart could desire and not find in a Tokyo Depachika, the concept of food department taken to the highest degree achievable by man. It puts London’s Harrods luxury food department store to tearful shame, and makes my beloved Washington DC’s Wegmans look more like a 7-Eleven snack bar. Gasp! Everything in this world, as Einstein told us in mathematical precision, is relative. Our perceptions take form and shape based the information we know through experience. Much like the spectrum of light particles, if we have not seen the entire spectrum, how are we to determine our most favorite color?
Among the memories of 4 unforgettable trips to Tokyo since 2004, we definitely count our dozen visits to Tokyo’s top depachikas among the best. Even so, we have barely scratched the surface of authenticity packed in these underground treasure malls. The displays in these food halls are not like the aisles of a supermarket, but rather, set up as islands of unique vendors. Sometimes, up to two floors are dedicated to them, and if you have been to Tokyo, the sheer size of each floor and the massive volume of daily commuters is astounding in itself. These food havens are also more than just a fun trip to fantasy land; they bring in up to a quarter of the entire department store’s revenue, and for that reason alone, they must tend to a large clientÃ¨le and with a selection to please and persuade.
I claim to you that the world’s biggest and most delicious secret lies in the under ground malls of Tokyo, it goes by the name of Depachika, and here are my top 8 reasons why this is so:
Reason #1: The cleanliness – These edible arts on fancy displaces in obsessively clean vitrines evoke the senses, raise the imagination, and are the stuff that dreams and fantasies are made of. Argue with me, you will perhaps, but only until you experience a Tokyo Depachika first hand! The cleanliness is taken to a fanatic level in Japan in general. You see every vendor dressed in spotless white gloves, aprons, chef hats or scarves, ready to serve and handle food and packaging. The sense of awareness around good hygiene extends beyond the personal and is of utmost importance to the Japanese. It is an obsession that I wish would take over the world someday but for now, look for it in Tokyo’s depachikas.
Reason #2: The variety and the selections – The food aisles showcase mouth-watering, jaw-dropping selections of prepared, uncooked, pickled, sweetened, salted, fried, baked, and raw foods. You come across endless array of spices and herbs, deliciously packaged selections of vegetables from sea and land, an impressive variety of Japanese teas and other locally produced beverages. The culinary delights tempt and tease you as you pass each single island. The baked goods and sweet desserts are proud displays of artistry, dexterity and imagination. The sushi and sashimi choices are on par with the best restaurants. The selections are mind-boggling.
Traveling changes your mind and expands your horizons! If you like to see the other travel stories here, check the On the Road category.
Reason #3: The world-class service and gratitude – You have not experienced service until you have been to Japan. The best part is that you experience unmatched world-class service at every encounter and transaction, and the worst part is that you hate any other service for a little life after you return to reality, wherever you may live. There are rituals of respect expressed through bowing of the head or the full upper body, accompanied with equally polite verbal expressions that I only wish I could understand. In Japan, food is art, presentation is everything, but above all, the customer is held in the highest regard and looked upon as the ultimate reward for the seller. Culture and tradition play large roles in the transaction of goods, and you will be in for a treat when you experience this service for the first time.
Reason #4: The authenticity – It is not just for the quality, freshness, service and taste that I love the depachika food. It is the unique authenticity displayed at every booth. Even for the same foods such as the salads or the flowers or the breads, there is hardly any commonality. Every display is prepared in an authentic style, silently begging you to stop and examine the work and effort expended in advance of your arrival. Conformity is an essence of the Japanese way of life, but in some irony, the depachika islands scream authentic and a style all their own. Perhaps in one way, they are all conforming to be fiercely authentic, and the results are outstanding!
Reason #5: The technology – It takes some persuasion to think of technology and food in one category but one look at that square or triangle shaped, engineered water melon, and you will not be doubting that high-tech impacts even the food aspect of a Japanese life. Innovation is just as important to this culture as artistic creativity. From growing stage of the produce to final packaging it for sale, the entire chain of logistics is packed with the latest technology, some of it still unknown to the Western world.
Reason #6: The packaging – The packaging of your purchased items is the best part of the transaction. I admit, I have made small purchases for the sheer pleasure of watching the wrapping process before my goods are handed to me with a bow of gratitude. The packaging of produce, fresh or uncooked food is different from any American grocery store or even high-end health stores. Hot items are kept hot and cold items cool for hours after purchase, thanks to this smart packaging. The packaging alone convinces you as a customer that my goods are extremely worth the effort and the expense, and it increases the enjoyment by leaps and bounds.
Reason #7: The free tasting samples – If you are hungry and hit the depachika on your way, you will be hard pressed not to find free samples. If you are not hungry, it won’t be long before you become so. The generous displays of free tasting on most – not all – islands makes the difficult decision slightly less agonizing. Do I buy and promptly eat this fabulously tasting food or that one? Choices are plenty, competition hard, and you as the customer have the floor. Take a sample, and you will make the vendors very happy. This is most common with the tea selections. Not only do I recommend that you buy some delicious green tea, you should also adopt the Japanese way of preparing tea using the brilliant Zujirushi Hot Water Heater!
Reason #8: The unimaginable quality – Freshness, delicious, unique, delectable, the list goes on. These are the thoughts that will go through your mind at the sight, and taste of the Tokyo depachika delectables. I have a high bar of standard for food quality and yet I thoroughly enjoy eating the sandwiches from a Japanese 7-Eleven, and the thought would never cross my mind in the US. This is really all about quality and you should not settle for less. In Japan, you can find quality of food in plenty, and the depachika offer the highest of all qualities imaginable.
Time passes fast in Tokyo, and the millions of Japanese commuters are perhaps partly to blame. The busiest station in the world, Shinjuku Station, one of my most favorite spots in this planet, is the path of some 3.5 million people on a daily basis. The main Depachika at Shinjuku is, needless to say, one of the very best of all of Tokyo’s, located in the underground of the world-famous Isetan Department store. There are several others in the ground floor of other department stores. Another very popular area with 7 major department stores is in Shibuya which is the hang-out for the younger and hippest generation of Japanese, and the awe-inspired tourists.
You would be safe assuming that there is perhaps a depachika, regardless of size, under any major department store so a visit to the ground floor is always a great idea. While we enjoyed mostly the exultation of those in Tokyo, we came across smaller ones in Kyoto and other cities in Japan. And the value of a repeat visit to the same depachika cannot be overestimated!
Ah the fantasy lands of the best food on earth, may they thrive forever, for I shall be back to visit again and again, and I wish the same lucky journey for all other world travelers!