'Depachika' -- Japan’s underground food emporiums

TOKYO —

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 first “depachika” opened in 1936 at the basement floor of the Matsuzakaya department store in Nagoya, though at the time it wasn’t known as a “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.

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 Harrods. 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!

Savvy Tokyo

  • 9

    Moonraker

    But mostly at prices I am not really prepared to pay.

  • 7

    Brainiac

    I love the department store food basement floors. I pick up dinner there on my way home once or twice a week. The best time is between 6 and 7 p.m., when they lower the prices.

  • 6

    thepersoniamnow

    It often more expensive than a restaurant, but Takashiyama in Namba has some awesome take home food.

  • 2

    Dango bong

    "But mostly at prices I am not really prepared to pay."

    Agreed, I must say even by high Japanese price standards 800 yen for a small piece of cake is tough to comprehend.

  • 2

    Pacech1967

    Those places do have some nice for a high price, at times you can find some bargains.

    Usually go there to buy imported Cheese (World Cheese) or Ham and Bacon when the online import stores are out of stock.

  • 0

    paulinusa

    I'm just as satisfied with the prepared foods at the local supermarket. Cheap and pretty darn good.

  • 4

    papigiulio

    Always have an inner struggle, which is stronger my stomach or my wallet.

  • -1

    commanteer

    I must say even by high Japanese price standards 800 yen for a small piece of cake is tough to comprehend.

    Take a look at how much they pay in rent, and you'll begin to comprehend.

  • 2

    Robert Dykes

    We have a VERY tiny "depachika" in the Fukui eki-mae Sebu.... Its better than nothing, but man do I love visiting the ones around Osaka, Nagoya, and Tokyo. Its so hard to decide what to get. Bentos, and treats, and take home food by weight, as far as the eye can see in every direction. And yeah.... the prices tend to a be high, but at least its usually worth it.

  • 0

    goldorak

    Why buy overpriced J food at a depachika knowing you can buy similar stuff at half the price nearby (or even better, eat out)?

    Depachika are imo a decent option if one's after quality European food and/or does not have time to shop around and/or doesn't know the neighbourhood. Many local bakeries and cake shops for example have better/cheaper bread, cakes, pastries etc than at depachika's often French bakery (let's face it you pay extra for the French name). Without the snobbery and the crowds. Plus eating, buying local/independent is imo more 'rewarding'.

    Different story for imported cold meats, cheese and other 'regional' products which are harder to find at small/independent local shops.

  • 0

    John-San

    Super over priced and over packaged. I cook my own pasties and cake at the local baker. I have never had a oven in Japan only when I worked in hotels. I would go down to the kitchen use their ovens. But for food from home I would hang out until I went home. I found bargains in place like Maxie, Aeon, Apple in the morning when veg and fruit are mark down also until the local farmer section appear that indicate they are harvesting annual crops. I tour the farming areas looking for Farmers or stall and cut out the middle man. Also before these place close fresh breads and Pasties, fresh Meat and fish are mark down. I love shopping and that include scoring a bargain and these place above are for the rich.

  • 2

    SimondB

    I cook my own pasties and cake at the local baker.

    Very obliging baker to let customers come in and cook their own food in his/her oven. Can't imagine there's much profit margin in it for them.

  • 0

    Wakarimasen

    Don't have to buy. Can have 3 squares a day just on the samples. If you are so inclined.

  • 2

    therougou

    Don't have to buy. Can have 3 squares a day just on the samples. If you are so inclined.

    I'd feel nauseous from all the crowds of obasans by the time I get one sample. For me, a combination of smaller import stores such as Kaldi or Seijou Ishii have enough international variety for my wallet, and basically any other place will do for the homegrown stuff. But if you have extra money to spend, the depachika's do sometimes have stuff hard to find anywhere else.

  • -5

    MsDelicious

    My ¥11,000,000 needs somewhere to go, so I pick up stuff there.

  • 1

    John-San

    SimondB, If know about a Bakery ,They turn their oven on around 4 am and off around 8 am. If your keen to get up and give a hand while your waiting and there is penalty of space for the odd cake or loaf of bread. You get free samples and they get free PR. They can also charge like the baker at Atami when I was living.

  • -1

    Yubaru

    Take a look at how much they pay in rent, and you'll begin to comprehend.

    That shouldn't be an excuse. If their product is worth it, they could sell it for a lower price and double, or triple their customer base.

    Rather have 100 people eating my 100 cake then 10 people eating my 1000 yen cake.

  • 0

    Suzu1

    Love them.

  • 0

    Ah_so

    Rather have 100 people eating my 100 cake then 10 people eating my 1000 yen cake.

    As both add up to 10,000 yen, I would rather have 10 buying my 1,000 yen cake. I would be making a better quality product and production and sales costs would be lower.

  • 0

    Suzanne Starr

    If you're ever at Nakano Broadway (for some reason), in their foodie basement there's an ice cream stand that sells cones with like 8 different flavors of soft serve. They're giant and delicious at maybe 600-800 yen.

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