Depachika: Japan's Subterranean Department Store Food Halls
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It's no secret to food lovers that Japan is home to a vast array of wonderful cuisine. Not everyone knows, however, that some of the best eating can be found not in glittering rooftop lounges, but in the labyrinthine subterranean department store levels that house the food halls known as depachika. While many exist throughout Japan, here are seven located in Tokyo that simply must be experienced on your next visit.
Japan, a country whose washoku cuisine won long overdue UNESCO Cultural Heritage status in 2013, has been described by food lovers the world over as an adventurous eater’s paradise. In a culture that regards food and drink with obvious respect and devotes no small amount of ceremony to stages of their handling from prep to presentation, finding an impressive meal is rarely difficult. Making memorable eating experiences all the easier to locate, particularly for tourists certain to be less familiar than native residents with the better off-the-grid food locales, is the Japanese food hall and marketplace, the depachika.
The word “depachika” is a portmanteau of the Japanese words “depāto”, meaning “department store,” and “chika,” meaning “basement” or “below ground.” Typically occupying entire sublevels of department stores throughout Japan, depachika are expansive food markets that sell ready-to-enjoy meals, snacks, desserts, and beverages, as well as supermarket staples like fish, meats, and bread. Typically trading in time-honored standards of Japanese culinary culture as well as comestibles of Western/foreign origin, these vast food arenas embody the marriage of traditional food customs and modern culinary trends.
In the depachika, lined as far as the eye can view with concessions stalls offering up more choices and selections than any single person could rightly experience in a single day, the universality of food’s appeal as more than simple sustenance is ever on display. At the same time, there’s an irony to the depachika’s genesis as a literal “underground” source of great food that isn’t lost on this writer. The past decade has seen these food havens emerge to claim their earned and rightful place among the best places not just in the country, but in the world to eat and drink remarkably well while discovering untold varieties of unique cuisine. These days, the subterranean depachika are anything but “underground” in the symbolic sense.
M’ZA Department store Kanazawa Japan. (Image credit: Tktktk | Dreamstime.com)
Often directly connected to metro stations in bustling metropolitan areas, depachika are such sprawling expanses that they are frequently compared to food-centric theme parks. Imagine strolling through Six Flags, and having all of its rides and attractions replaced with bakeries, restaurants, noodle shops, tea houses, grocers, and so on, and the magnitude as well as the charm of such a place comes into sharp focus. For anyone who has ever counted an eating or drinking experience among their most unforgettable, life-altering pleasures, the depachika is more than a place to pop into for a quick bite or a kitchen cupboard restock (although this surely happens as well). It’s a place to spend a weekend exploring, taking in all there is to taste and see and smell. It’s a place to eatery-crawl with friends, where young and old, native and tourist can coexist on common, delicious ground.
Kit Kat Chocolatory. (Image credit: Sepavo | Dreamstime.com)
Its ever-swelling popularity is underscored by the existence of guided Tokyo depachika tours as well as a website devoted to keeping depachika aficionados abreast of the latest promotional festivals and attractions. Those promotions, it should be noted, are an important part of life as a depachika concessionaire. Competition among depachika tenants to attract adventuring palates is cutthroat, with underperforming businesses forced out in as little as a couple of months to make way for new, more profitable establishments.
One may argue that such a brutal method of quality-control—and by extension the ever-evolving roster of food and drink offerings that comes with it—contributes invaluably to maintaining the standards that have earned the depachika the respect of legions of devotees. And while Osaka remains a long-established center of Japanese culinary culture, depachika scattered throughout Japan's capital Tokyo in areas like Ginza, Shinjuku, and Shibuya are a major draw to Japanese urbanites and tourists alike.
Here are seven well-known depachika currently affording the department stores of Japan’s capital a prolonged moment in the sun, and in the hearts and stomachs of hungry people visiting and living in the prefecture.
Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Main Store
Features: Deli-style items; alcoholic beverages; a self-service "Kayuan" section offering specially-selected high quality sweets from respected national brands.
ISETAN Shinjuku Store
Features: national and worldwide product brands; alcoholic beverages, shop of world-renowned chocolatier Jean-Paul Hevin.
Features: Close to Tokyo shinkansen station, popular bento, 50+ confectionery brands represented.
Features: Traditional kaiseki cuisine, grocery items.
Features: Japan’s largest depachika; restaurant belonging to Chinese iron chef, Chin Kenichi.
Features: Themed food shows, French patisserie Paul.
Shibuya Tokyu Toyoko-ten,
Features: Direct link to Shibuya Station, small batch shochu and sake tastings in the sake department.
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