Department store food floors are a fun and relatively cheap way to experience Japan’s food culture, and foreign ones as well. Depachika is short for “depaato-chika shokuhin uriba,” (department store basement food-selling place) but don’t let the name fool you — these are not bargain basements, nor are they an afterthought stuck in some spare space, as you might find back home. They commonly bring in a quarter or more of the store’s revenue, and are a major attraction bringing customers to the store. Some big department stores have two depachika floors, one for packaged goods, the other for fresh foods.
The displays are set up in islands, like a shopping street, rather than aisles like a supermarket, and many of the islands feature top gourmet brands — Godiva chocolates, Toruya-yokan (famous sweets from Kyoto) and Queen Alice cakes.
There’s always a lot of activity at a depachika, imparting a festive air to the shopping experience. The workers in the fish section shout a welcoming “Irrasshae!” — often there are two or more stalls competing with each other on volume and aggression, giving the place the air of a traditional rural market. Someone is always making something — rolling out dough for “soba” (buckwheat) noodles, grilling “taiyaki” (fish-shaped buns filled with “anko” sweet-bean paste), “takoyaki” (fried octopus dough balls), yakisoba (pan-fried soba noodles with veggies, meat and other goodies), okonomiyaki (Kansai-style pancakes), and Western-style decorated cakes. Many depachika rotate these artisans, so they have a different one each week; some have permanent workspaces for them.
Most depachika contain an excellent bakery, serving up superior baguettes, pastries and home-grown favorites, like melon-pan (big floury buns with green sort-of-melon-flavored topping — a little disgusting for first-timers, but a childhood favorite for most Japanese). Top hotels set up bakeries there, as well as soup and cake corners.
Exotic foods have pride of place in the depachika — German sausages, gourmet sandwiches, and umpteen kinds of sushi, some of them quite exotic, like “kaki-zushi” (sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves) and “masu-zushi” (trout sushi from Ishikawa).
For a good introduction to the various regions’ food cultures, the depachika “bussanten” can’t be beat. The regional authorities are invited to bring local food makers to the depachika to build awareness of their area’s specialties, so one week it will feature a Tohoku bussanten with sake, “shio-ika” (extremely salty pickled squid in a jar), “konnyaku” (springy gel-like stuff made from potatoes) and various kinds of seafood from northern Honshu; the next a Kyoto bussanten with exquisite “wagashi” (Japanese-style sweets); and the next maybe an Okinawa bussanten with pickled pigs’ ears, goya tea, “saa-taa agi” (specialty donuts) and “kurozato” (black sugar).
The better depachika have “eating corners” run by famous restaurants, where customers can sample gourmet French cuisine, top-of-the-line pasta, superb “wagyu” (Japanese-style beef) and the very best soba noodles, for example. Most have a “bento” section or two, selling box lunches from all over, such as “ikkura-don” (salmon roe on rice) and “uni-don” (sea urchin on rice) from Hokkaido.
Another valuable little secret to know about depachika: in the evening, just before closing time (usually 5:00), you can cruise through and get a lot of these things at a steep discount. I often do this when I’m traveling in Japan — after awhile, restaurants get to be too much, so in the evening, exhausted from a long day, I sometimes prefer to just go back to the hotel and chill out with a pile of gourmet goodies.
The “omiyage” (souvenir gift) corner is a reliable place to find lovely and absurdly expensive gifts for the family back home — and the office, and the club, and the neighbors, etc, etc. They’re not all expensive; the biggest seller, especially at year-end and midsummer, is beautifully wrapped gift boxes of beer, costing not much more than you’d pay for the beer alone.
And of course, there are the famous $100 melons. Visitors often ask me if such a fruit can really be that delicious, but of course eating it isn’t the point — giving an expensive gift is. If it’s a perfect melon, free of blemishes, with the desirable cross-hatch pattern and the proper handle-shaped stem, the recipient knows it’s expensive — and giving a perfectly tasty but cheapo-looking melon just wouldn’t do.