Kappabashi - The Tokyo Kitchen District
One of the best things about Tokyo is that you can catch a subway, travel 20 minutes and always end up somewhere you've never been before. One Sunday afternoon I found myself on the Ginza line. The Ginza line meaning Silver Coin is Tokyoâ€™s pride and joy subway as it takes you through the largest business districts. As a tourist one could easily get trapped within the gigantic department stores, brand name shops and expensive coffee shops. However this drab winter day, I stayed on till the end of the line - Tawaramachi. Exiting the station I walked about five minutes and followed past a giant plastic chef's head towering over a five story building and came to the only logical explanation, I had reached Kappabashi, the Kitchen District, or Restaurant Wholesale District.
My love of the Japanese culture from Shinto shrines to karaoke bars is only outweighed by my love of Japanese food. From creation to presentation Japanese food never ceases to amaze me with its art form and delicate flavor. I have drank at Izakayaâ€™s (Japanese style bars and eateries) I have bought Sake from a vending machine and eaten sushi off a rotating bar but Kappabashi is the real place. The place where the sushi chefâ€™s buy knifes, servers buy uniforms and suppliers buy hand painted rice bowls and single serve soya dishes.
An enclosed street shopping district, Kappabashi is open year round and offers everything from paper plates to designer crystal in over 150 stores. It caters to both home chefs and culinary tradesman alike as things are sold in packages of 4 to 400. Shops sell picnic necessities, anything lacquer, bento (lunch) boxes, and restroom signage. Perhaps the most impressive of my finds however was the infamous plastic food stores.
The plastic food phenomenon is a conversation piece in the homes of all gaijins (foreigners) living in Japan. Almost every restaurant in Tokyo is fully equipped with a plastic food display of their tastiest items. The displays are commonly found just outside of the restaurant and are accompanied with a full menu. The presentation itself is elaborate right down to the exact vegetables included in cream sauce pasta and a parmesan cheese look alike sprinkled on top.
As a tourist in Japan, these displays serve as a universal language and foolproof way to order food. The customer simply points at a plastic representation rather than attempt to explain something line Chrysanthemum Egg Soup or Tube Shaped Fish Cake. Salads are always well represented with half cut eggs and oddly colored radishes. Ramen noodles are equally impressive with circular green onion bits and chopsticks miraculously suspended in midair at the end of an elongated ramen noodle.
A plate displaying the ever-popular Spaghetti Bolognese could cost you upwards of $60.00 but will eliminate all doubts from potential customers with itâ€™s small bits of beef and perfectly round noodles. Some of the reproductions are so amazing that you are inclined to dive in on the spot. For some of the dishes the plastic mold is actually made by pouring hot wax over the actual food and then painted with flawless details.
I wandered for a good three hours, ate at a small ramen stand and pondered my purchasing options. I decided upon plastic grapes to place with a set of antique glass grapes that my grandmother had bequeathed me. I compared prices and colors from store to store in search of the ideal grapes to rest with my heirloom and my Ginza line adventure ended only with the perfect bunch.
I set route back to the station loaded down with kitchen glasses, a sushi platter and a few Christmas presents primarily in the soft plastic vegetable variety. As the train began to fill with salary men in dark blue suits and black shoes, for the first time as a tourist in Japan, I felt ahead of the game for I knew the secret location of their explanatory menu items and polyethylene tea biscuits.
Brenda Buckley, August 2003