Restaurants in Japan often display mouth watering food in their windows – sushi, noodles, burgers, soup, and ice cream. But they are not meant for eating, no matter how good they look, because they are made of plastic. These food replicas are surprisingly realistic, and restaurants display them so potential customers can see at a glance what is on the chef’s menu before stepping inside an eatery. The practice is less of a novelty and more of a necessity especially for tourists since restaurants in Japan print menus only in Japanese. They’re also a convenient way to order. Rather than trying to figure out the correct Japanese translation, customers can simply point at the display window.
The food models, called sampuru, started appearing in Japan nearly a hundred year ago, in 1917. In the beginning they were used merely for decorations at home, just like artificial house plants of the time. It wasn’t until a few years later, when a Tokyo restaurant decided to use it to attract customers, that the idea started taking off. Fake food on display meant more business, and that still holds true today. It does away with the guesswork and the need to use your imagination when looking at a menu. The food replicas show you exactly what you’ll get in terms of shape, size and color, and that means they have to be hand crafted from real food samples. A single restaurant can spend as many as a million yen (USD 8,500) on plastic replicas.
About a dozen fake food factories operate in Japan making plastic food replicas for restaurants and collectors alike. One of the first pioneers of the replica food industry was the businessman Ryuzo Iwasaki, who began selling his creations in Osaka in 1932. After achieving initial success in the big city, he moved back to his home town in Gifu prefecture and established what would eventually become a very real artificial food empire. Iwasaki Be-I, is still the biggest plastic food manufacturer in Japan, and controls 80% of the plastic food market.
Making plastic food is an art in itself, and the manufacturers fiercely guard their trade secrets. The process typically starts with the actual food which are brought to the factory from the restaurant or client to serve as the model. Pictures are taken, sketches are made and a mould is prepared. Liquid vinyl chloride is poured into the mould and once hardened, the mould is taken apart and out comes the model. These are then hand painted by talented craftsmen who examine every detail of the actual food and applies oil-based paints to the plastic using fine brushes. The replicas reproduce every detail of the real food, from browning on bacon and eggs, to grill marks on chicken, or the difference between steaks cooked rare or medium. Almost all food replicas are handcrafted to order, as the same dishes can differ in their shape, color or presentation at different restaurants.
If you want to get your hands on these food replicas as a souvenir, visit Kappabashi-dori - a street in Tokyo located between Ueno and Asakusa neighbourhood. Nicknamed “Kitchen Town”, the street is lined with stores that caters to restaurant supplies including dishes, cooking utensils, bamboo trays, stoves, tables, chairs, and of course, plastic food replicas.
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