When Japan’s big department stores open their doors each morning, managers step outside and offer a synchronised bow to customers, many of whom will have started queueing well before opening time. Most who file through the doors make a beeline for one area: the depachika, or food hall in the basement. Depachikas (a combination of depato, meaning department store, and chika, meaning basement) aren’t your average food halls. They’re a Japanese institution, a tribute to the country’s finest and most elaborately packaged foods.
At the Tokyo Daimaru, a Kit-Kat concession (it’s Japan’s best-selling chocolate) has Kit Kat chandeliers, and wasabi or pistachio-flavoured varieties to buy and take away in freezer bags containing tiny ice packs.
In the basements, elaborate displays of fruit and vegetables cater to the Japanese’s love of gifting. Enormous honeydew melons encircled with ribbon cost ¥5,724 (around £40) apiece, but those on a budget could choose bunches of beautifully wrapped, golf ball-sized grapes at ¥1,880 (£12.50).
But it’s the patisserie sections that are the most spectacular. Miniature cakes come topped with Hello Kitty faces moulded from jelly. Other popular delicacies include y?kan (colourful cubes of bean paste commonly adorned with floral designs and sold in paper crackers tied with ribbon) and individually packaged domes of shiny jelly flavoured with the juice of white shimizu peaches.
For those not heading to the land of the rising sun, the UK’s first depachika recently opened at the Japan Centre on Panton Street, central London. Suddenly, our local supermarket looks rather plain.