Discover the meaning of Japanese 'depachika' with Michael Booth, and what you're likely to find in these shiny, basement-level food halls.Most capital cities in the world have at least one great food hall - think of Harrods’ ground floor in London, Ka De We in Berlin, or the new Eataly in New York. But the greatest food nation on earth does things a little differently. In Japan every city has at least a couple, often several, world class food halls, traditionally located in the basements of the major department stores, such as Isetan, Odakyu, Seibu or Takashimaya. They are called Depachika - meaning ‘department store basement food-selling place’ - and they constitute not only the greatest, most bewildering, jaw-dropping food show on earth, they are also a great place for foreign visitors to explore the amazing diversity of Japanese cuisine, and eat cheaply.
While Japanese restaurants can often seem daunting or forbidding for foreigners, in depachika you are free to roam, look, and often taste alongside the locals who - as is often the case due to their restricted cooking facilities at home - shop here for ‘ready meals’ on a daily basis. Tokyo’s depachika are relatively reserved (though they can get insanely crowded at weekends), but head for Osaka, for instance, and the atmosphere becomes more market-like as stall holders holler to grab your attention.
Depachika sell just about every type of raw ingredient, processed food and completed dish imaginable (the largest of them sell up to 30,000 items): from freshly made, restaurant quality sushi; to tempura; tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets); all manner of tofu dishes; wagashi (Japanese sweets); grilled eel; and okonomiyaki. Many of them will be prepared before your eyes in small ‘goldfish bowl’ kitchens on the store floor itself. As well as the prepared foods, there is usually the freshest fish, the country’s renowned wagyu beef, picture perfect vegetables and, of course, the famous £100 cantaloupe melons, gift wrapped and presented in wooden boxes like fruity Fabergé eggs. And that’s just the Japanese food: you’ll also find famous-brand European cheeses, dim-sum, pizza, wines, German cakes and gorgeous French patisseries: if you can find a more perfect macaron in Paris than the ones sold at the Tokyu depachika in Shibuya, I will be very surprised.
The competition for stalls in Depachika is fierce, and turnover is high, which guarantees both quality and value. Stores monitor each stall’s sales closely, and the management aren’t slow to terminate any that don’t pull their weight. A stall’s success is often dictated by fashion, and the Japanese media pays close attention to what’s going on in the depachikas, listing best-selling products and alerting their readers to new trends, which places them right at the front line of global culinary innovation.
Good tips for shopping in Depachikas: If you visit after five o’clock there are bargains to be had as they sell off the perishable items from the day, although you will have to fight with the little old ladies to grab them; take advantage of all the free samples on offer to experience new Japanese flavours you might otherwise hesitate over; and don’t forget to look out for the regular ‘bussanten’ - wildly popular regional-themed weeks where you can sample obscure delicacies from every corner of Japan.