You know those incredibly realistic plastic samples of menu items that you see in the windows of Japanese restaurants and other types of east Asian eateries? Well, there’s a street in Tokyo where the shops specialise in selling those plastic samples, along with pretty much everything else imaginable you’d need to run a restaurant. For Tokyo souvenir shopping that straddles the quirky and the practical a stroll through Kappabashi is mandatory.
Kappabashi-dori, known colloquially as simply Kappabashi or “Kitchen Town” is a street situated between the Tokyo districts of Ueno and Asakusa. The vast majority of businesses on Kappabashi are shops selling everything imaginable for the city’s thousands upon thousands of restaurants and eateries. From neon signs to bespoke sushi knives, from cheap ceramics, disposable chopsticks and paper napkins to industrial strength refrigerators and ovens and all kinds of dining ware and furnishings – if restaurants need it, you can probably find it here.
And those realistic replicas of food? They’re known as sampuru, a Japanese term derived from the English word sample. The displays are mesmerizing. Foodies lovers of kitsch will think they’ve found heaven! From beer cans with beads of sweat appearing to be running down the side as if they’d just come out of an ice cold cooler to a bowl of ramen that literally looks good enough to eat, the sampuru are amazing realistic too.
Sampuru make great gifts and souvenirs too. Who could turn away a crab claw keychain or a piece of fake – but nonetheless delectable looking – piece of sushi?
As sure as browsing in one of the many sampuru shops is sure to be accompanied by lots of laughter, the obvious skill that goes into crafting these works of commercial art is nothing to scoff at. And prices reflect can that. Expect to pay upwards to $60 for a replica of something along the lines of a plate of spaghetti or a t-bone steak. There are always inexpensive finds though. Look outside the shops or way in the back for discount boxes for amazingly cheap items. Most of the sampuru shops cater to tourists as well as the restaurant trade. Plastic sushi rolls, mini models of all sorts of foods and an array of keychains are available for around $5 or under.
The easiest way to reach the street is from Tawaramachi station which is on the Ginza line. Nearby is Senso-ji (Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple), Hanayashiki (Japan’s oldest amusement park), the Sumida River and plenty of more conventional shopping along with (of course) plenty of restaurants.
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Photo: Chris Osburn