Depachika: Foodie heaven in Japanese department store basements
If you are new to Japan, you might not be aware that culinary wonderlands are spread under the majestic façades of department stores.
Simply go to the entrance of most any local department store and take the escalator or elevator down to discover an incredible foodie heaven.
You have entered a “depachika,” a food marketplace that is so much fun to explore.
These basement food bonanzas are crammed with individual shops carrying a wide variety of high-quality foods, ranging from German breads, French pastries, Chinese-style dumplings, fresh fruit and vegetables, to the sashimi (raw fish) of the world-famous blue-fin tuna and Wagyu beef steak.
You can find fish ready for the grill and meals already prepared. You’ll also discover the finest varieties of spirits, teas and coffees and traditional Japanese and Western-style sweets. While strolling along, you’ll see a mind-boggling array of baked goods, a dizzying selection of cheese and a wealth of local delicacies.
While most items are made elsewhere, there are often some dishes being made by hand or machine while you watch, such as sushi, Vienna sausage, fish-shaped buns filled with sweet-bean paste and other treats.
And as you take in the delicious sights and smells, your ears will be filled with the sounds of shop clerks boisterously yelling out words of welcome, urging shoppers to take a look at or taste of their tasty treats.
Whenever I visit a depachika, I am always amazed on how crowded it is. But I shouldn’t be because many of these stores are connected to train and subway stations and commuters drop by for their daily groceries or take-home dinners.
And depachikas cater to commuters by offering smaller portions and sizes of products to make it easier to carry on trains.
“As you know, Japanese sake was originally sold only in a large 60 ounce bottles, but Keio Department Store introduced a smaller 24 ounce bottle for shopper convenience,” said Yuko Nishi, who helps run Depachika.com. “Although breweries at first didn’t like to sell their sake in the smaller bottles, they were convinced as shoppers who use trains always chose the smaller bottle.
“Today, the smaller bottle is the mainstream in any sake shop,” Nishi said.
Besides cutting down on the size of products, depachikas also start cutting down prices as closing time nears. Most fresh food vendors mark down prices by 10 to 50 percent. It’s really a great way to get tasty food at a cheap price.
Many folks come just before closing to get the special deals. You’ll see them standing around waiting for store clerks to mark down the prices. And once they do, watch out for fellow shoppers grabbing what they can.
Creating food trends
Even though our family doesn’t spend much time in depachikas these days, we can’t avoid visiting one on occasion. My wife and daughter visit to buy chocolate and other sweets to make homemade confectionaries during holidays or before Valentine’s Day. I usually drop by one to buy a gift on the way to meeting friends or relatives. And that gift might just be a bottle of sake.
My wife also likes to pick up pre-cooked dishes so she can save time and effort in cooking our dinner and making our daughter’s boxed lunch.
“Since depachikas have a lot of quality precooked dishes, I can easily pick up some according to the tastes of my husband (that’s me) and daughter,” my wife said.
No matter your tastes, you’ll find something to your liking. According to Nishi, a depachika will have an average of 10,000 to 30,000 items for sale.
“Depachika offer local foods, but also initiate or create food trends,” she said.
“Like at the Seibu Department Store in Ikebukuro, demonstration sales are one of recent trends throughout the nation,” Nishi explains. “Each depachika conducts various food events each season, or offer rare and limited food items to keep their customers’ attention.”
Guest vendors are often invited to introduce their regional specialties that are not usually available locally. And these guest vendors, like most of the regulars, are more than willing to give you a taste of their food.
It can be fun for you to sample interesting looking Japanese food without having to order a full meal at a restaurant. You can get full by just sampling everything offered. And, it’s free!
“By visiting depachika, you can see and sample local and seasonal foods,” Nishi said. “If you are interested in specific local cuisines, you can get basic knowledge at a depachika.”
Not all the same
Let’s be clear, not all depachikas are the same.
“Depachikas in the Hankyu and Hanshin department stores that are located within five minutes of each other in Osaka are really different,” Nishi said. “While Hanshin provides cheap and large portions of food items, Hankyu offers rather fancy and gorgeous delicacies for richer customers.”
Shoppers know the difference very well, and choose one in accordance with their needs and opportunities.
“I often see shoppers who visit the depachika in Hashin department store complain that their free samples are too small,” Nishi said with a chuckle.
Each depachika has its own specialty items as well. Keio Department Store in Shinjuku is known for its sake. There are licensed sake advisers who can help you to pick up the best one from the hundreds available, according to Nishi.
And for you health and fitness freaks, depachikas cater to you as well. Today, healthy foods, called “super foods,” such as cacao (chocolate), asaai palm, chia seeds or various organic vegetables are in trend. “These popular foods are available at all depachikas,” Nishi said.
Usually, one or more department stores are located in the center of any local city. So, when you go to a department store head toward the down escalator and explore its basement. I am sure that you will enjoy the foodie heaven.
Did you know?
About 80 years ago, a department store in Nagoya City established its food section in its basement. Throughout the years, department stores across Japan followed suit. A combination of “depato”, meaning department store, and “chika”, meaning basement, the word depachika was reportedly first used to describe these food basements in 2000 when Tokyu Department Store opened its own and some newspapers and TV programs used the name.
See www.depachika.com for various information on food fairs, limited-time bargains and special guest vendors.
Ryubo: Last of its kind on Okinawa
As you see more and more shopping malls and super markets open on Okinawa these days, the word Depachika seems a little outdated, especially to those who are more used to casually shopping at shopping malls. Admittedly, I am one of those casual shoppers. However, seeing locations that are part of your childhood memory change one by one puts me in a sentimental mood.
So, when I went to the department store Ryubo recently for this story, I was very curious to see how the only department store left in Okinawa is doing in this golden age of shopping malls and supermarkets, especially the basement floor.
I had not shopped in Ryubo’s depachika for a long time, even though I come to this department store from time to time. It is probably because I got too used to buying food at supermarkets or convenience stores in my neighborhood.
As I passed through fancy cosmetic stores on the first floor (just like any other department store) and took an escalator down to the basement floor, a new but somewhat familiar look and smell of the depachika welcomed me.
Looking at the variety of food booths, sweets displayed on counters and the many customers walking around with plastic bags full of goodies hanging on their arms, there was no doubt that this depahcika – the last standing on Okinawa - is still thriving.
As I was trying to recall what the depachika looked like last time I visited, Yuichi Shimozato and Shinichi Asato of the store’s food department joined me to explain how they help make this place still matter to customers.
“Live-kan and sizzle-kan are crucial these days,” was the first thing Asato said as he showed me around.
It didn’t take me long to figure out what he was talking about. Many of the depachika stores have windows that allow customers to see how their food is cooked.
I watched waffles being made loyal to original Belgium (not Japanese) recipes, and Japanese sweets cooked with a machine with many dimples, just like a Takoyaki maker.
“Sometimes, we do performances for our customers,” Asato said with a smile. “The other day, we made a very long roll of rice with all of employees lined up to celebrate the Setsubun (the end of winter).
“Entertaining customers and letting them have fun is important these days,” Asato said seriously.
Serve customers’ demand
As we continued, Asato talked about the importance of a depachika providing what customers want.
“This may not be as easy as it sounds,” he explained. “Take salad for instance, customers don’t normally get to choose the amount. But we make it possible by assigning at least one person to each booth.
“If customers want food fresh from the oven,” he said “We can take orders on the spot and cook it up for them.”
This reminded me of the fact that people come to a depachika to look for something special. Not just food, but also service. I can tell you that this depachika provides both.
One of the obvious changes to the depachika was the addition of places to sit down and eat at some of the stores. Asato said this catered to customers who can’t wait till they get home to taste the food, or need to take a break during their shopping.
Unlike common food courts, the eat-in spaces at Ryubo are designed to allow customers to enjoy their food casually without being exposed too much to other customers.
There’s no need to worry about putting your partner in a grumpy mood while shopping at Ryubo. Even if you spend too much time shopping around, as you can always have your partner rest in an eat-in area.
Good quality and exceptional food
You may say that some of the food they offer at this department store is something you can get at any regular supermarket in your neighborhood. That may be true. But there is plenty of the food at Ryubo - Kujo negi, a welsh onion, and white strawberries - that is hard to get at supermarkets.
And you can’t beat the quality. If you are picky when it comes to beef, you should check out the A5 Beef produced in Okinawa that is sold at Ryubo. Asato explained that many customers buy these foods even though they are more expensive. It is the premium value that attracts people, he said.
Showing me the first floor, part of which functions as part of the depachika, Asato said: “Many of the shops you see at this place cannot be found at any other location in Okinawa. This is the only place in the prefecture where you can enjoy classic Japanese sweets from Minamoto Kicchou, a prestigious sweets maker, or slices of fashionable cake from Anténor, a regular tenant of famous department stores in Japan.”
He then showed me Café Gino, a private shop run by Ryubo where baristas serve coffee brewed from freshly roasted coffee beans. I found a sign which actually read: “Our roasted beans are air transported every Saturday.”
Now I find it really difficult not to imagine myself sipping coffee at this place every Saturday.
When I was a kid, there were four department stores on or near Kokusai Street: Yamakataya, Dainaha, Mitsukoshi and Ryubo. Now three of them are gone. What used to be Yamakataya is now a hotel, and Dainaha’s building is now used as a book store. And, as I mentioned earlier, Mitskoshi was closed in 2014. It’s now a shopping plaza.
To me, it’s not just coincidence that the three department stores closed were from “hondo” mainland Japan. Ryubo is run by an Okinawan company. Plus, this local department store is at an exceptional location, which is at the end of Kousai Street, across the street from Okinawa Prefectural Government building.
So it is not too much to say that Ryubo is at the center of Okinawa in many ways, and the location has probably helped the department store survive the change in the Okinawan shopping scene.
Before I left, I asked Asato what the game plan was to keep Ryubo and the last depachika going strong. The chief of the food department answered briefly and with much confidence: “Well, we will stick to our principle which is to offering exceptional food.”
Open: 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. (1F and 2F close at 09:00 p.m., 3F through 8F close at 08:30 p.m.)
Location: 1-1-1 Kumoji Naha, Okinawa, Japan 900-0015
Website: www.ryubo.jp/ (English translation is available)
For more information: call 098-867-1171 (Japanese)