Depachikas are tourist attractions too

We were walking past the Takashimaya basement event hall in Ngee Ann City last week and were greeted with the depressing view of a large empty space with bare concrete. During normal times, it’s never vacant except during setups for events like their Mooncake Festival bazaar, Chinese New Year market or other regular promotions for toys, kitchenware or travel products.

But these are not normal times.

The food hall within Taka itself was less empty but it was definitely missing the usual crowd of locals and tourists sampling and buying various Japanese cooked food, desserts and regional produce. It’s modelled after the large department store basements, or depachikas, and while the one in Singapore is fairly large, it is just a shadow of those in Japan.

I’ve been to Japan many times, for work and for holidays, and while there are many beautiful sights and delicious restaurants, you’d be missing out if you didn’t spend some time wandering around the amazing depachikas.

One of the first things that you’ll notice is the amazing variety of cooked food available, ranging from the ubiquitous bentos to Japanese staples like yakitori skewers to Western salads to Chinese dishes, similar to chai png in Singapore hawker centres but clearly more atas.

If you visit before having your meal, there’s a high chance that you’ll end up buying something to eat. So, my advice is to just give in and set aside one dinner slot in your travel itinerary to binge on depachika food. And if you can wait until around one hour before the typical depato closing time of 8pm, almost everything will be on sale.

You’ll probably also end up getting some desserts, especially when you walk past a huge array of both traditional Japanese sweets and beautiful cakes and pastries. Personally, I’m a sucker for good financiers and Japan makes some of the best.

Japan is famous (infamous?) for really expensive fruits and there are abundant examples on display in depachikas. While they are nowhere near the exorbitant prices in specialty fruit stores like Sembikiya, they can be way up there when compared to fruits in most other countries.

Perhaps there’s some consumer psychology at play here, where the top-end prices anchor your expectations, so when you see something that’s lower (but still very high), it’s not as scary. There’s no doubt that they taste great, but on a cost-performance basis, they’re not for me.

Case-in-point: One tray of 15 white strawberries with the “fragrance of first love” for about US$7 each. No, that’s not a typo. One tray = US$100.

The meats and seafood on display also look very tempting, and will set you in the mood for a good meal of beef sukiyaki or crab leg nabe in a restaurant. Most of the fresh produce found in depachikas are sourced locally, and you’ll often see labels of which prefecture they’re from. They also offer imported produce, but you’ll be able to spot those easily given the significantly lower prices.

The uniquely Japanese products like mentaiko and shirako are almost surely local but may not always be available. If you don’t know what they are, mentaiko is fish roe and shirako is, well, another part of the fish. It is delicious when served raw with some ponzu, or mixed into a creamy risotto.

Shipping fresh seafood home is impractical, but depachikas are also a great place to buy snacks such as these delicate crackers that The Wife likes, as well as a wide selection of Japanese sauces and seasonings that your foodie friends will appreciate.

In addition, they also carry other beautifully wrapped sweets and desserts, which are more interesting than the generic KitKats and Tokyo Bananas that are sold in airport duty free stores.

So, the next time you visit Japan, make sure you drop by a depachika and spend some quality time there. And maybe even buy back a large daikon as a souvenir.

Why daikon, you ask? Because The Wife said so.

And yes, that’s me carrying the daikon. It’s happened twice, and I’m quite sure it’ll happen again.

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