An Insider’s Guide to Depachika

Peko-chanThis is the first article I wrote for Metropolis magazine and it is one of my favorites to this day. It is based on my experience working at Takashimaya’s depachika in Nihonbashi. (text follows)

It goes without saying that Japan is a paradise for any foodie. This is the country where cows are indulged with beer and massages. Fruit is fondled and coddled like a newborn. Bread from Poilane is flown in weekly from France and handmade wagashi from Kyoto is whisked to Tokyo via shinkansen.

This outright obsession with food is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Tokyo’s department-store food floors, or depachika. Working as the sommelier at Takashimaya’s Nihonbashi depachika, I am surrounded by the familiar, such as background music from the Carpenters, and the not-so-familiar, like the endless variety of fish. My workplace is constantly evolving, and so massive that I feel I will never fully understand its intricacies. Nevertheless, the depachika is one of the greatest places for anyone who is passionate or slightly curious about food to get a taste of Japanese cuisine and culture-and to begin to unlock their many secrets.

Location, location, location
The first place you may want to check out is not the basement, but the top floor of the depaato. It’s often the site of weekly special events where you can find vendors from all over the country offering their regional specialties. Temporary eat-in restaurants are also set up and this may be your only chance to get a seat in a famous shop. Often the special events are not limited to food products, but you will find cooking-related items.

If you come at a time when there is not a special event going on upstairs, then head to the basement, where most depachika will have dedicated “event space” offering local products not always available in Tokyo. Depending on your language skills, you can get the real scoop on how the makers harvest and produce their goods. Consider it Slow Food on a local level. When purchasing a material I have not cooked with before, most producers will enthusiastically offer recipe suggestions.

Another favorite area of mine is the meibutsu (regional specialty) section, which displays popular items from around the country. Mitsukoshi in Ginza will rotate artisans who proudly create their food in front of customers. If you forgot omiyage from your trip to Kyoto, the meibutsu store is the place to go and pick up an extra box of yatsu-hashi (cinnamon-flavored sweets) for your neighbor. Another highlight is the tasting areas. Takashimaya in Nihonbashi, for example, brings in jizake producers weekly, offering a great opportunity to get your hands on hard-to-find sake.

Bargains can also be had in the depachika, especially if you time it right. Later in the afternoon, some, but not all, of the bakeries will offer a “morning set” grab-bag of breads, often at a discounted price. In the fresh market, discount stickers start to appear around 5pm. The truly savvy penny-pincher will come late in the day to visit the vendors who are ending their one-week stint, both on the top floor and in the basement.

Another place to be on the look out for is the “sale” stand in the dry goods or fresh produce area. These are often small tables pushed into an out-of-the-way corner. I myself am guilty of pushing and shoving like an obatarian to get my hands on slightly damaged but highly discounted produce.

Eye openers
If there’s one thing that’s unique to the whole depaato experience, it’s the opening of the store in the morning. In a country where the consumer is king, the respect shown at this morning ritual is a reminder of how wonderful it is to shop in Japan. Receiving bows in every aisle and riding with the sharply dressed elevator girls are more nods to this notion.

Once you arrive at the depachika, be sure to check the production schedules at the bakeries. Housewives use this information to line up at Fauchon for their fresh-baked bread. Peck also offers great ciabatta and foccacia while Maison Kayser has some of the best croissants in the world (so say the French). If you’re a fan of mentaiko, don’t miss the French-style baguette smeared with mentaiko and then baked.

If you must go to depachika on the weekends, I advise either early in the morning or late in the evening-it can be packed from 5 to about 7 pm. And as much as I love meandering through the food floor, I avoid it at all costs before Valentine’s Day and White Day.

As the holiday crowds can attest, the tradition of gift-giving is a key part of the depachika phenomena. Everything is offered at certain price points. Some gifts you may want to consider are kohaku wine sets, which are gift sets of a bottle each of white and red wine, and beer ken (vouchers for beer). For non-drinking friends, there are Haagen-Dazs ice cream ken that can be purchased in the sake uriba.

Now, what to do with all of your purchases? Have them shipped home. At Takashimaya, a case of wine can be delivered for as little as ¥300. In the summer, this jumps to ¥650 as the wine must be sent “cool,” in a refrigerated truck. If you plan on doing a lot of shopping, have your packages held for you. They will be sent to a holding area and you can collect them you leave.

Each day I learn something new about this mysterious underground world. Just the other day, my friend, a cashier, looked at me and said, “Yukari, it’s raining.” But how, in this windowless workplace, could she know that?

“Can you hear the music? This song is played whenever it starts to rain.” Yes, I could hear-it was “Singing in the Rain.”

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