In his 1933 manifesto on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows, author and novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō notes: “It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten.” While he couldn’t predict how globally famous Japan’s fake food would become, I’m betting he wouldn’t have been surprised.
These days, the arrays of mouthwateringly realistic food replicas displayed outside restaurants is super handy for foreigners visiting Japan, but the practice originated in the 1920s as a method to help Japanese people navigate Western food, which was newly imported and unfamiliar to the general population.
The story goes that Iwasaki Takizo was inspired by candle wax dripping onto the tatami floor and spent months perfecting his technique until his wife was unable to tell the difference between a real omelette and his wax replica. In 1932, a year before Tanizaki’s manifesto was published, Iwasaki’s omelette appeared in a department store in Osaka and the shokuhin sampuru (“food samples”) industry was born. Still family-owned today, Iwasaki Co. boasts over $46m in annual sales and claims to account for four-fifths of Japan’s fake food market.
For decades, the counterfeit morsels were crafted from wax, but since the material loses its shape and fades quickly, most are now made from ultra-durable polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In addition to vinyl and resin, sometimes real herbs and spices are added to lend authenticity to the appearance of dishes, especially curry. And in spite of new technologies like 3-D printing, all are still painstakingly made by hand. The toughest dish for sampuru artisans to create? Fresh fish and sushi, which can take 10 days to 2 weeks to get right. Unsurprisingly, a replica dish costs more than the real thing. Some of the more intricate models can cost up to several hundred dollars.
Gujo Hachiman, a mountain town several hours west of Tokyo, has been the center of this unique industry for almost a century. Many of the sampuru firms there offer tours of their facilities and hands-on workshops where visitors can try their hand at creating replica tempura. The fake food souvenir shops sell everything from magnets to keychains to phone covers to USB flash drives. On a hilltop, the regal Gujo Hachiman Castle offers a perfect view of the town and also gives you the perfect chance to wonder what the castle’s inhabitants in the 1500s would have thought of sampuru.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.
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