Eye popping shopping in Kappabashi-dori – Tokyo’s kitchen town.
We keep getting drawn back to Asakusa time and time again. Not only is it the home of fascinating Senso-ji, there’s a warren of narrow streets, indoor shopping arcades, and great street food. It’s busy, noisy, and sometimes frustrating, but there’s always something to see – traditional weddings, rickshaws, kimonos – and kitchenware.
Kappabashi-dori is a ten minute walk from Senso-ji. You know you’re there because a giant chef’s head sits proudly atop one of the buildings. He stares of into the distance with aplomb, and if I could reach I’d want to twiddle his handlebar moustache. On the other side of the busy road, giant tea-cups and saucers (red, white and blue – maybe that’s why I imagine the chef is French?) scale the side of a block of flats. This is kitchen town and Tokyo at it’s wacky best – and this is just the beginning.
It’s restaurant wholesale territory, and we’re not just talking stoves and tables and chairs. One hundred and seventy shops sell signs and lanterns, fridges and freezers, chopsticks and sake jugs, lidded rice bowls and laquerware, menu-boards and cookie cookers, knives and woks, pick-axes for hacking into frozen tuna, bamboo steamers, animal-shaped scouring pads and smiling wooden spoons. Clipboards, cash-books, gas burners, cake tins, cutlery, toasted-sandwich makers, cushions, wellington boots, crocs, aprons, and display cases. Phew! It’s the sheer volume of it all that’s so incredible. Towers of saucepans on the roadside. Shelf upon shelf of bowls. Row upon row of fat Chinese Buddhas. Like so much in Tokyo it makes your head spin.
This is also the home of plastic food. Food samples, as they call it here – not fake food. It looks so real, it made my mouth water. I could almost smell it and taste it. Sushi and kobe beef. Pizza and cake. Fruit. Ice cream. Whole meals. The detail was incredible. Not just lettuce, but lettuce leaves – looking like they’d just come out of the salad spinner and were waiting to be put on a plate. Noodles dripping off a fork poised in mid air. All that was missing was the hand and mouth to feed it into. Slices of toast with knobs of butter and dollops of strawberry jam. Tankards and chilled cans of beer, shards of ice cascading over what I could swear was a frosty surface. A glass of wine that I considered gifting to my sister and telling her that I’d bought her a lifetime supply. It was mesmerising. There were (almost) edible key-chains and fridge magnets, and foodie mobile phone covers.
The food-replica business started about eighty years ago when, in an attempt to speed up business, restaurant owners decided to encourage patrons to make a menu choice outside – and the “get ’em in and shove ’em out” philosophy of the Tokyo restaurant business was born. Besides, real food looses shape, wilts, becomes greasy, and might make people run a mile rather than stand in line for an hour (or more). Food-sample makers receive menus from restaurants and dissect a dish piece by piece to recreate it. How many shrimps does it contain? Is the broth clear or cloudy? Each piece is a little artwork, unique, handmade by a craftsman.
Threaded through all of this, as if chef’s heads and food samples weren’t enough, are a Godzilla-muralled shop-front, a giant scarab beetle crawling over the outside of a food-replica business (why limit yourself to food?), and numerous images of Kappa: a mythological creature that stands upright, has lizard skin, a beak and a bald spot on it’s head which serves as it’s source of power (!) Kappa doesn’t have anything at all to do with Kappabashi. No-one is sure where the name come from, but the two have become inextricably intertwined and images and statues of Kappa are everywhere. Kappa is no cuddly mascot though– it lives in rivers and lakes, waiting to wrestle the unsuspecting to death, by sucking their blood, eating their liver, and slurping their soul through their anus!
Be warned – shopping in Kappabashi isn’t without it’s dangers!