Jennifer O'Bryan shops for fake sushi in Tokyo
Excerpted from To Japan With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
During my stay in Tokyo, I observed that plastic food displays are ubiquitous in the windows of Japanese restaurants, and I wondered where the proprietors bought the glasses of fake Asahi beer, faux bento boxes, and mock curry beef bowls they put on display to tempt customers in from the sidewalks. The Kappabashi restaurant supply neighborhood in Tokyo's Asakusa District, that's where.
On my first venture into this area, I knew I was in the right place when I gazed toward the sky and saw a giant, mustached, white-toqued chef's head atop the Niimi Building. Exit 3 at Tawaramachi Station had landed me at Asakusa-dori, a boulevard that runs right through the heart of Kappabashi.
Anything a restaurant owner could possibly want can be found here, and some of the approximately one hundred and fifty shops are so small that they specialize in only one type of supply. During my visit that day, I found a shop that offers only chefs' uniforms, another that sells only bakery supplies, and one so specialized that food strainers are the only merchandise it carries. If I wanted to open a 1950s-themed diner, there is another store that sells an impressive array of Americana, from vintage posters and neon wall clocks to those glittery, red vinyl stools, a classic trademark of the American luncheonette.
Along the way, I browsed in a shop called Nishimura, which just sells noren, those curtains that hang in restaurant doorways to advertise the type of food offered inside. I found another shop called Kondo Shoten that specializes in bamboo wares, and one called Kappabashi Soshoku, which offers a variety of red paper chochin lanterns. In the pottery stores, I marveled at the abundance of porcelain piled high on shelves in narrow aisles, making for some dicey moments as I sucked in my stomach and held my breath, hoping nothing broke as I squeezed by.
After several fascinating hours spent idling in Kappabashi's many shops, I finally found the one I'd come for: Maizuru, one of Tokyo's largest and oldest purveyors of faux food. This plastic food emporium features replicas of every dish imaginable, from spaghetti with meat sauce and crisp garden salads to exotic sushidelicacies. And although it offers custom-made items, I was happy to make my selection from their regular inventory.
Predictably, I was powerless to resist Kappabashi's temptations. At the end of the day, I headed home with eight teacups, two iron teapots, five pairs of chopsticks, four chopstick rests, a dispenser that keeps water warm for tea and soups, and, naturally, a delightful assortment of plastic sushi that looks as tasty as the real thing.
Getting to Kappabashi
Take the Ginza Subway Line to Tawaramachi Station, which is about a five-minute walk from the heart of Kappabashi. Once you arrive at street level through Exit 3, look for the sign that reads: "Kappabashi-dogu-gai," and for the giant chef's head atop the Niimi Building. The following website offers shop descriptions, detailed directions, and a small map of the district.
While plastic food is a big draw for tourists, Kappabashi is also a great place to pick up Japanese-style kitchen wares, such as lacquer bento boxes and chopstick rests. Irregular factory-produced pottery items are inexpensive and are often displayed in bins outside of shops, with beautiful teacups selling for as little as ¥200 apiece.
To read more essays from To Japan With Love, click here.
Published on 12/21/09