Impeccably fresh fish lined up on ice, beautifully marbled Kobe beef glistening from behind the glass showcase, exquisite packages of master-made sushi and yakitori, savory osembei, hand-made rice crackers made from select rice, rare green teas difficult to find outside Japan, handsome cakes and pretty pastries perfectly assembled and precisely decorated. This is just a preview of what you can expect to experience - either see, eat or bring back home when you visit Japan.
While it's fun and exciting to travel around the city, it's also nice to know you can have a "one stop experience," too - at depachika.
The word depachika is fairly new in the Japanese language: depa is short for "department store," and chika means "basement." Every major department store in Japan has a basement level food hall with tenant shops selling fresh produce, meat, fish, packaged and prepared food, and gift items such as sake, wine and sweets. Hyakkaten, or "a store selling one hundred odds-and-ends," is just what its name implies: an emporium selling high quality miscellany.
Join me on a depachika cyber tour of one of Tokyo's premier department stores, Takashimaya. Their flagship Nihonbashi store with 200 famed tenant boutiques in its huge basement floor of 5,000㎡ is just a few blocks from Tokyo Station. Opened in 1933, it is one of the oldest department stores in Tokyo, and an average of 30,000 customers visit it every day.
Enter the store at ground level through an impressively elegant lobby. Toward the back, and to the right, take stairs* to the bustling basement level. You will find yourself in the midst of freshest fish, fish, and more fish! In front of one-meter-long whole salmons from Hokkaido, shining mackerels from Kyushu, big-eyed Kinki (similar to snapper) and huge snow crabs from the Sea of Japan, fresh oysters-in-the-shell from Hiroshima, and lots more. Flown into Tokyo from all parts of Japan, the variety and freshness is incredible. Customers can ask the fishmongers to scale, behead, fillet, skin, and cut into pieces. Whatever they need done, they just have to ask!
The meat purveyors' section is next to the fish department. Here, too, you will see top quality: premium cuts of beef (Kobe and Matsuzaka brands), chicken, pork and sausages. Big chunks of fully marbled sirloin look gorgeous, and paper-thin, individually wrapped slices of beef for syabusyabu or sukiyaki lined up and overlapping are impressive.
Nearby are beautifully arranged, blemish-free fruit and vegetables, sheets of lustrous black nori seaweed of the greatest quality. A bit further is wagashi (和菓子), traditional Japanese confections, section. Among baked, steamed, or deep-fried buns are precisely crafted seasonal cakes called namagashi (生菓子). Made fresh daily by skilled pastry chefs, these are hard to find outside Japan and I urge you to try some. Similarly, osembei (Japanese rice crackers) with their diverse flavors make a wonderful souvenir from this country.
Western-style pastries, cakes and confections are next on our culinary tour. Individually wrapped and appealingly packaged sweets make a wonderful gift for your family or friends. And be sure to treat yourself, too! Try Japanese "strawberry shortcake" - you will find some in almost every boutique's showcase throughout the year. This genoise (sponge) - based cake covered with whipped cream and strawberries on top has been the best selling item for more than a century. Ask any Japanese what cake they had for their birthdays or Christmas - they will be sure to say, "Strawberry shortcake."
No depachika tour would be complete without a visit to the osozai or prepared food section. Always bustling with people getting their lunch or dinner to go at their favorite food boutiques, from traditional or modern Japanese to Western or Asian delis, the variety is extraordinary: Japanese lunch boxes filled with authentic kaiseki cuisine, sushi, yakitori, Chinese
dumplings, Vietnamese spring rolls, Korean kimchi, French pate de Campagne, German sausages, Italian caneloni, and lots and lots more. Takashimaya boasts 10 bakeries - Japanese people adore bread, as well as their long time staple food, rice.
For those who want to buy some prepared food and enjoy their lunch on the spot, there is a picnic area with a table and chairs on the rooftop garden. For those who prefer to stay indoors to have some rest and food, there are restaurants on other floors in addition to several eat-in counters in the food hall that offer fancy fruit dishes, Japanese sweets, sushi, sukiyaki, and more. For those who want to buy items other than food, absolutely no worries. Everything from classy clothing and jewelry, to tabletop accessories and electric appliances is available on upper floors. Take your time! For those who bought more than they can carry, a delivery service is available. Need further assistance? A multi-lingual concierge awaits you, besides the main entrance at the ground floor.
No matter what area of Tokyo you decide to explore during your visit, you are sure to find a department store nearby. It's the best way to experience food and culture in Japan.
*there are many other stairs, escalators and lifts on every corner of the floor.
Beef slices for sukiyaki on the upper shelf.
A namagashi line-up for November at Tsuruya Hachiman (鶴屋八幡).
The showcase of Henri Charpentier (アンリ・シャルパンティエ), Japanese confectionery whose head shop is in Ashiya, Hyogo prefecture. A strawberry shortcake is seen on the top shelf.
Skewers of yakitori, which have just been grilled in the backyard kitchen.
Nihombashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-8265