Simply put, a depachika is a Japanese food hall – but confuse it with the average grocery store at your peril. Usually found within Japanese department stores, depachikas are carefully curated tributes to Japan’s finest foods: the best cuts of meat, beautiful cakes, rare bottles of sake and gift-wrapped fruit baskets. Hungry? Here's everything you need to know:
In the 1930s, Japanese department stores started selling food in their basements. These areas became the go-to places for customers searching for food to give as gifts, or food or drink intended for special occasions.
They’ve now become more mainstream, but there’s still a huge emphasis on fine foods and breathtakingly beautiful displays. You’ll also find (albeit elaborate) bento boxes, salads and appetisers designed for hungry office workers. Many department stores also have roof gardens that are perfect for alfresco lunches.
It starts in the morning. Depachikas are usually found on the basement and ground floors of department stores. Their “eat-me” window displays of beautiful food mean queues usually form well before opening time, when senior members of staff will step outside, bow to the public and fling open the doors.
And beyond those doors? Towers of rainbow-hued cakes, ribbon-adorned fruit baskets and yokan: colourful cubes of bean paste, decorated with images of cherry blossoms and sunsets.
Where to begin? If you’re on the hunt for a gift, head to the fruit section. The Japanese are seriously into gifting and fruit baskets are the presents of choice. A bunch of golf ball-shaped grapes, placed in a bubble wrap-lined box and tied with ribbon, will set you back around ¥1880 (about £13).
Those with a sweet tooth should head to the patisserie section. Staples are miniature cakes shaped like Hello Kitty, and tiny, shiny domes of jelly (the ones made from white peach juice are especially popular).
If you’re shopping for friends back home, opt for the the small, fish-shaped taiyaki biscuits, which are symbolic of good luck. Like many of the items, they’re individually packaged. Mix and match them with other purchases to create a bespoke gift box.
Kit Kats. Kit Kats are the bestselling type of chocolate in Japan. There are hundreds of varieties available, ranging from wasabi and green tea to pistachio, raspberry and coffee. Several food halls, including the ones inside the popular Daimaru department stores, have Kit Kat concessions.
Expect elaborate and colourful displays of the chocolate bar, and a mind-blowing variety of flavours. Give in to temptation and your purchases will be lovingly gift-wrapped and placed in a miniature freezer bag, complete with a tiny ice pack and instructions about how to care for your purchase.
Etiquette is important in Japan, and this applies to depachikas, too. Most department stores open at 10am, when (after a synchronised bow), staff open the doors to crowds of hungry shoppers, most of whom have had their faces pressed against the window for at least an hour (the most spectacular depachika concessions can be found on observer-friendly ground floors). Taking photos is frowned upon, as is eating or drinking items which have been purchased elsewhere.
Feeling hungry? There’s no shortage of samples. You’ll have most luck in the patisserie areas, although the sheer variety of Kit Kats means that Kit Kat concession staff are usually especially keen to convince you to try the latest weird and wonderful creation.
Depachikas can be found on the basement and ground floors of most Japanese department stores. Some of the most spectacular in the country are the ones in Daimaru, Hanshin and Hankyu department stores, which can be found throughout Japan.
The one at Daimaru Tokyo, inside the city’s main station, has a large Kit Kat concession. Osaka’s Hanshin department store is worth a visit simply to check out the enormous meat and fish departments – although they’re probably not for the squeamish.
Elsewhere, the UK’s first depachika will open at the Japan Centre on London’s Panton Street. Chopsticks at the ready...
Explore more of Japan with The Rough Guide to Japan. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Header image: Atiwat Witthayanurut/Shutterstock.
Tamara is a former snowboard instructor who's been a freelance travel writer for 12 years. She loves snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking and scuba diving, and the regions she knows best are Asia, America and Africa. Europe-wise she knows Germany and France very well. In normal times she does two or three trips a month. Follow her on Twitter