Better Than the Real Thing?

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Comfortable Nostalgia in Old Collectibles Antique Market

Comfortable Nostalgia in Old Collectibles Antique Market

Better Than the Real Thing?

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One of the first things many visitors to Japan notice are the display cases in front of almost every restaurant containing plastic replica menu items. On an average day in Tokyo, you’ll walk past plastic sushi, plastic tempura, plastic gyoza dumplings, plastic noodles, and even plastic mugs of frothy beer.

Who makes all these replica foods, and how? I recently had the opportunity to find out by visiting Yamato Sample Company’s workshop north of Ikebukuro. Yamato Sample is a family company founded over fifty years ago that crafts plastic replicas of menu items for restaurants all over Japan. They also offer anyone curious about replica foods the chance to make their own plastic replica sushi, ice cream parfait, tempura, bento lunch box and more. You can even make replica food mobile phone straps!

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I had an appointment with replica food artist Kazuya Ito [伊藤和也], who had promised to help me craft a mini bento lunch box. First, though, he gave me a history lesson. Ito-sensei told me that the tradition of displaying plastic foods began in the late 1920s, at the beginning of Japan’s Showa era. At that time, restaurants started displaying replicas of their menu offerings in outside display cases to attract customers from the street and speed up the ordering process.

I learned that replica foods were originally made from paraffin wax, and that the major production center was in Gifu Hachiman, in central Japan. Gifu Hachiman is located between the Kansai and Kanto urban areas and boasts a long tradition of artists and craftsmen, so the region was well suited to producing replica foods. However, Ito-sensei told me, since Japanese summers are hot and humid, paraffin wax replica foods can wilt in the heat. Twenty years ago, many replica food manufacturers started using plastic instead and now most replica foods are made from plastic.

I’m sure the replica food craftsmen in Gifu Hachiman eighty years ago didn’t know how useful their products would be to foreign visitors in Tokyo today, but replica food makes eating in Japan very easy for people who don’t read Japanese. Just look at the array of sample dishes outsidea restaurant, snap a digital photo of your choice, and show it to your server.

en_3.jpg After my history lesson, Ito-sensei handed me the first ingredient for my lunch box: a cup of replica rice the exact shade and consistency of real rice. I asked if replica rice was fairly easy to make, but he told me that replicating the exact color of white foods like rice, whipped cream, or ice cream is actually quite difficult. Color is said, he says, is key in making a replica menu item look appetizing and it has to be just right. en_4.jpg

He held a cup of replica vanilla ice cream and a replica strawberry parfait next to to the rice and I immediately saw what he meant. Though all the foods were white, each shade was different. When his company receives an order, he goes to the restaurant, looks at real menu items and then uses color swatches to determine and replicate the food’s exact color. 

Next, I had to choose seven side dishes from a box of sample plastic food items. After much wavering, I chose grilled salmon, a hamburger patty, a fried egg, lettuce, a sausage, fried chicken, and, finally, a red pickled plum to place on the rice. Then, Ito-sensei gave me a jar of white woodworking glue and told me to mix it thoroughly into my replica rice. Once my rice was covered in glue, I placed it into the bento container. Then, I made a hole in the rice for my pickled plum and glued it on top. Finally, I carefully glued my fish, hamburger, egg and other food items in place atop the rice using medical tweezers. I felt a half like a chef and a half like a surgeon.

Finally, my bento was ready. Ito-sensei inspected it carefully and announced his approval! But what do you think? Does my mini-bento look as good at the real thing?

 

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