Gourmet Underground: Depachika's Hidden Treasures
January 5, 2017
Sometime back in the 1990s, I landed at a run-down guest house on the outskirts of Tokyo, bewildered, broke, and looking for adventure. Thumbing through my second-hand guidebook, I was surprised to find a passage extolling the wonders of department store food floors. Surely, I thought, this must be a joke. I was thinking, of course, of the rather less inspiring department store basements I was used to in my home country. The book claimed that “depachika” (a combination of “depato”, meaning department store and “chika”, which means basement) were a must-see spectacle of local and international gastronomy. Most intriguing, though, was the promise of generous free samples during peak times. Hungry for cheap entertainment, and something other than cup noodles, I enlisted Frank, an enormous German housemate of mine, and made the trek into the city center, where subterranean troves of edible treasures lay just beyond the ticket gates.
I was not disappointed.
The crowds, the colors, the smells, the samples. The samples. My synapses were firing on all cylinders. So were Frank’s, but much less pleasantly. While I drifted from counter to counter, drunk on sensory overload, Frank seemed on the verge of a panic attack.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him.
“There is just… it is just… too much,” he sighed, “plus when you wander off, I cannot see you!” He had a point: like many of the locals, I’m on the short, dark side. Frank, by contrast, was easily a foot taller than the average shopper, with a shoulder-length, blond mane that practically glowed under the fluorescent lights. “Don’t worry,” I replied to my flaxen-haired friend, “I can see you.”
Frank’s meltdown soon subsided, and we spent the next couple of hours on an aimless, but thoroughly enjoyable tour of Japanese gastronomy. On the train home, full of newfound knowledge and delicious free samples, we were proud of ourselves for having (literally) descended into the unknown, and emerging victorious.
Japanese consumerism may have cooled considerably since then, but the world’s third-largest economy still has no shortage of enthusiastic shoppers, and the retail sector rises heroically to the occasion. If you’ve spent any time in one of Japan’s urban centers, you know that when it comes to shopping, the Japanese don’t do things by half measures. This, combined with an almost fanatical love of eating, has kept the depachika alive and sizzling. They are still the place to go for a crash-course in Japanese food and shopping culture.
What's down there?
Perhaps a better question is “what isn’t down there?” On entering a major depachika, the first thing to strike you is the scale. These massive food halls sometimes encompass two entire floors, and it is estimated that the larger outlets can offer up to 30,000 items at a time. As you’d expect, each depachika has its own unique configuration, layout, and price range. Some pride themselves on an extensive selection of alcohol or high-end teas, while others have special spaces devoted to pop-up stores hawking regional or seasonal delicacies. And while this can all seem rather chaotic and overwhelming at first, it’s generally split into quite neat, tidy and easily navigated sections.
Let’s have a quick look through some of the main ones.
One of the most surprising parts of the depachika is the desserts, especially given the Japanese reputation for healthy eating and self-restraint. Here, you will find an almost obscene variety of treats. From traditional Japanese red bean or mochi-based “wagashi” sweets, to impossibly ornate European-style cakes and cookies, there is no better place to indulge your sweet tooth.
Though rice is still the staple of the average diet, the Japanese are hardly indifferent to bread. I have counted as many as four large bakeries on a single food floor. With some exceptions, French boulangerie seems to have the market cornered. “Furansupan” (baguette), and “kurowassan” (croissants) are especially well-known and beloved. Depachika baked goods are generally made fresh on-site, so strolling past the overpowering aroma of fresh bread without stopping is a real test of self-control.
Despite their subterranean setting, here the ubiquitous Japanese bento, or boxed meal, soars to unimaginable heights. Again, the sheer variety is just staggering. From simple “onigiri” rice balls, to single-serving meals from Michelin-starred chefs, to sushi that is superior in quality and freshness to what you’ll find in some restaurants, there seems to be no limit to what you can pick up and enjoy at home, in your hotel room, or even on a park bench.
Ever since my initial depachika encounter, the rows of “deli” counters have remained my first love. The steaming Chinese dumplings, delicate tempura, sizzling yakitori skewers, crisp European salads - all fresh, often prepared right in front of your eyes, and sold by weight - are enough to bring a hungry gourmand to tears.
While you’ll notice these deli counters bear little resemblance to those in Europe or North America, they do remain true to their Latin root-word delicatus, which means “delightful, pleasing”.
A very super market
Most depachika have a separate section for “perishables”, and in higher-end shops this resembles a supermarket for the upper-crust. While this section carries produce and meat familiar to most of us, sometimes at prices that are quite reasonable given the quality, it is also where you’ll find extravagant gift items that beggar belief. Gift-giving is part of the glue that holds Japanese society together, and this can take the form of a box of biscuits for a neighbor, a pricy bottle of whisky for a favored client, and even a piece of high grade fruit. Yes, this is the home of the fabled $150 muskmelon you may have heard of, almost impossibly perfect and housed in its own exquisite box, waiting to be given to… well, I haven’t the slightest idea, actually.
Now that you have some idea of what to expect from your depachika adventure, I will leave you with a few words of advice. First of all, like myself in younger days, do feel free to enjoy the plentiful free samples on offer. In retrospect, I probably “enjoyed” them a little too much. Try not to abuse the privilege. If you visibly enjoy a morsel, the counterperson may offer you another, but decorum suggests you should leave it at that. Also, even though you can’t wait to wolf down those delicious sushi rolls you’ve just purchased, eating while walking around is considered poor form. Many depachika will have some counter space for a quick nibble, but barring that, try taking your goodies out to a nearby park, or wait until you’re home.
Finally, do not, by any means, enter a depachika if you’re too hungry to think rationally. Your stomach, and wallet, may not survive with their dignity intact.
Photos courtesy of
Tokyu Department Store
2-24-1, Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Text: Marcus Hutchings
Meatballs with Sweet and Sour Sauce