Depachika: Japan’s Underground Food Emporiums
Explore These Amazing Basement Food Wonderlands
Three-star Michelin restaurants? Check. Best sushi in the world? Not a problem. However, what awaits you in the basement of the department stores will take your foodie experience in Japan to a whole new level.
In a metropolis with roughly 160,000 restaurants and more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, you might think that no other food-related stops in Japan would ever blow your mind. Think again. Japan’s depachika, the basement floors of department stores where Japanese and international foodstuffs are sold, are a perfect marriage two of our favorite manias: a passion for food and a love of shopping.
A gourmet food wonderland
On the bottom floor of nearly every department store in Japan, there is a gourmet food wonderland. Informally, the Japanese refer to it as depachika (“depa” for department store and “chika” for basement). The underground world truly runs at its own pace in Japan. These vast spaces are filled with a maze of aisles displaying domestic delicacies and imported culinary delights. Each night after workshoppers descend into the teeming subterranean food halls to roam the fancy stands contemplating their take-away dinner choices or gift options.
The vast space is filled with a maze of aisles displaying domestic delicacies and imported culinary delights.
The first depachika opened in 1936 at the basement floor of the Matsuzakaya department store in Nagoya, though at the time it wasn’t known asa depachika per se, but simply as a floor selling seasonal and recommended foodstuffs. The word “depachika” was, in fact, a sensation created by the Japanese media only in 2000 when the Tokyu Toyoko department store in Shibuya opened its dedicated food-only floor, Tokyu Food Show.
Sheer food diversity
It’s easy to get disoriented by the scale, diversity and sheer gorgeousness of the world’s choicest comestibles. The food is presented like jewelry and the fruit treated like gold. This culinary theme park will amaze you with its limitless options of succulent savory dishes, perfectly packed bento, gem-like sushi, Japanese tea, fancy sake, freshly steamed dim sum, rare honey or wide array of condiments. The most desirable foods are limited in quantity, just like designer apparel items. Newspapers and special websites publish a list of the latest food trends and best-sellers on a daily basis to keep food-basement junkies abreast of the novelties and promotions. The preparation of the food which, at times, equals artistic performance, can also keep you entertained for hours and the food aisles further link to supermarkets which are filled with beautiful produce.
I developed particular fondness for elaborate dessert parlors which house some of the best bakeries in the world. You can indulge your sweet tooth with any treat imaginable: gorgeous pastel-colored Japanese confections elegantly molded into beautiful flowers, fruits or birds; gourmet KitKat flavors from cheesecake to butter; a box of deliciously sweet and juicy strawberries. Pierre Hermé lures you in with gorgeous Ispahan macarons… the choices here are endless.
Grasping the local food culture
Perusing these aisles gives a wonderful insight into the local food culture. The selections change on a regular basis, showcasing seasonal ingredients and introducing impressive culinary novelties. It’s fascinating to see what locals fancy and to explore the latest food trends. I find it an interesting place not only to admire and savor the multitude of culinary delights, but also to people watch and observe what stimulates the taste buds of the locals.
With limitless choices of lovely boxed sweets, cookies, assortments of Japanese tea in immaculate tins, depachika are also the perfect place to look if you need omiyage (souvenirs) to bring home.
[Depachika is] an interesting place not only to admire and savor the multitude of culinary delights, but also to people watch and observe what stimulates the taste buds of the locals.
Plan your visit
I highly recommend you visit the depachika at luxury department stores if you enjoy finer things in life. Think of them as the Japanese versions of Harrod’s. Some of the best known in Tokyo include:
- Tokyu Food Show in Shibuya (2−24−1 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku)
- Daimaru in Marunouchi (1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku)
- Isetan in Shinjuku (3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku)
- Takashimaya in Nihonbashi (2-4-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku)
- Mitsukoshi in Ginza (4-6-16 Ginza, Chuo-ku)
Definitely plan on finding a nearby place to savor all your goodies once you purchase them. A great place might be a roof-top garden, which can be found in almost every large department store. Alternatively, you can head to the nearest park to enjoy a little picnic outdoors.
Pro tip? Go on Sundays. It will be ridiculously busy, but the stores put out free samples to taste the wares before buying so you can try before you buy to your hearts content — everything from fruit, dairy, meat, sweets and sake!
Enjoy your basement exploration!