For two years, I worked as a sommelier at the depachika beneath Nihonbashi Takashimaya, the flagship location of one of Japan's best-known luxury department stores. Depachika are expansive, dazzling food halls that lurk beneath each of Tokyo's major department stores, where vendors sell everything from bento boxes for lunch to formal gifts like green tea or nori packaged in fancy tins to everyday groceries. Recently, I've been working as a depachika tour guide, so I visit a few each week. They're a great way to experience a wide swath of Japanese cuisine in a single location. Here's what you need to know to get the most out of your experience.
Every depachika includes sections for Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Western prepared foods. Typically every major style of Japanese cuisine is represented, including yakitori, tempura, and sushi in its many variations: nigiri-zushi (bite-size), maki-zushi (rolls), oshi-zushi (pressed), and inari-zushi (rice and fillings like ginger, yuzu, or sesame seeds stuffed into sweet tofu packets). "Western" options in a depachika might include German ham and sausages, cheese, sandwiches, as well as colorful salads. For good bargains on prepared foods, head over about 30 minutes before closing.
Another standout in nearly every depachika is the dessert and bakery sections. Both wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) and yōgashi (Western-style cakes, pastries, and chocolates) are available in abundance. Many well-known French patisseries, like Pierre Hermé and Ladurée, have stalls in high-end depachika, and French boulangeries like Maison Kayser and Paul offer classics such as croissants and baguettes. There are also Japanese bakeries with funky baked goods like deep-fried curry-stuffed dough. Isetan's Jean-Paul Hévin even has an adjacent café for chocolat chaud and gateaux, which makes it a great destination for an afternoon snack or dessert.
Gifts are a huge business at depachika. They're traditionally given twice a year in Japan — during summer and at the end of the year — as well as when visiting family and friends or to celebrate a special occasion. Popular options include alcohol, attractively packaged sweets, and flawless seasonal fruit like mangos, cherries, grapes, and muskmelons, presented in wooden boxes, which start at ¥10,000. If you need to pick out a gift for a Japanese friend or host, fruit is a good bet, since it is often eaten in lieu of dessert and can be appreciated by everyone in the family, from young children to grandparents. (Although the situation is changing, many Japanese households are still multigenerational.)
Some, but not all, department stores will have a rooftop picnic area. My favorites include Shinjuku Takashimaya, Shinjuku Isetan, Ginza Mitsukoshi, and Nihonbashi Takashimaya, all of which offer a quiet spot to have a bento.
Oh, and most depachika have a concierge to help you find what you are looking for. Be sure to ask if there are any special events on the floors of the department store above; there are often pop-ups featuring regional food from different prefectures, like Hokkaido and Kyoto.
The Shinjuku Takashimaya depachika houses a retail outpost of Kikunoi, a Kyoto-based kaiseki ryōri (traditional multicourse cuisine) restaurant with three locations that have together earned a total of seven Michelin stars. Its location here has many pantry staples, prepared dishes, and bento. Peck, an Italian bakery from Milano, is also a great place to pick up ciabatta, focaccia, and cured meats.
Eat-in counters include Imahan Sukiyaki and Taimeiken, which serves yōshoku (Western-style Japanese food) such as omuraisu (Japanese rice omelette). Patissieria has a huge selection of cakes from six pastry chefs.
5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo | +81 03 5361 1111 | www.takashimaya.co.jp/shinjuku
Isetan has several eat-in counters and tasting bars throughout the shop. Sample whisky at the small bar in the spirits section; sake and sake-friendly snacks at Omotenashi; caviar and Champagne at Caviar House & Prunier; and wine and hors d'oeuvres at Hediard.
The wagashi selection is stunning here, with desserts presented on dramatic pieces of pottery and exquisitely packaged. Mochi balls stuffed with sweet red bean paste are served on large ceramic pieces, while gift sets arrive inside woven bamboo baskets.
The Kitchen Stage is an eat-in area with an open kitchen featuring a rotating series of famous Tokyo chefs who stay in-house for about two weeks, while the Toraya Café serves green tea and wagashi.
3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo | +81 3 33521111 | www.isetan.mistore.jp/store/shinjuku
The peaceful picnic space on the rooftop of Nihonbashi Takashimaya is my favorite, as very few people know about it. Pick up a cold beer or chilled sake downstairs (don't forget to ask for some small plastic cups), then grab a bento and a dessert and head up to the rooftop. One especially notable stall is Shunpanro's eat-in counter, which serves fugu (blowfish) sliced so thin that the flesh is almost transparent.
2-4-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo, Tokyo | +81 3 3211 4111 | www.takashimaya.co.jp/tokyo
Two bronze lions stand at the main entrance of Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi, Japan's oldest department store, which opened in 1673 as a kimono shop and then transformed into a department store in 1904. The depachika is split between two buildings: the honkan (main building) and shinkan (annex). Eat-in counters include outlets of the pricey Tempura Yamanoue and Izumoya, which serves unagi (freshwater eel). The primary locations of these two counters serve high-end, formal, and lengthy meals. But the depachika branches, while still expensive, are a bit more informal due to the small space and the speedy pacing, in case you want to try their cooking without a huge commitment.
For sweets, try Kayuan's selection of regional confectionaries from throughout Japan — the variety is dizzying, and many are affordably priced at less than ¥1,000.
The shinkan has a branch of Eataly, the massive Italian food hall and marketplace with locations in Italy and the U.S., and Club Harie, which serves a labor-intensive and beautiful baumkuchen, the German ring cake that, when cut, reveals its tree-like layers. If the timing is right, you might catch the bakers rolling a large dowel in a vat of cake batter and baking it against a wall of fire (really).
1-4-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo, Tokyo | +81 3 3241 3311 | www.mitsukoshi.mistore.jp/store/nihombashi
A short walk from Tsukiji Market, this depachika is located on the B2 and B3 levels of Ginza Mitsukoshi.
Dominique Ansel will open his first depachika outpost here in late March, offering Ginza-only sweets such as square watermelon cake. Elsewhere in the depachika, chocolate lovers will treasure the temperature- and humidity-controlled chocolate room by Jean-Paul Hévin. Don't miss the selection of high-end fruit for gift-giving at Sun Fruits on B3; fruit that isn't purchased gets made into fresh fruit juice at the Sun Fruits juice counter on B2.
4-6-16 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo | +81 3 3562 1111 |www.mitsukoshi.mistore.jp/store/ginza
Ikebukuro's Tobu department store has the largest depachika in Tokyo, but nothing inside jumps out as particularly spectacular. However, if you find yourself in the area, there are more than 200 shops and 60 restaurants spread over five floors. (The best way to pick something to eat, for what it's worth, is to walk around and check out all of the plastic food presented in front of each shop, then order whatever you think looks best.)
1-1-25 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima, Tokyo | +81 3 3981 2211 | www.tobu-dept.jp/ikebukuro
Yukari Sakamoto is the author of Food Sake Tokyo, a guide to Japanese cuisine, food culture, and a walking guide to Tokyo's food neighborhoods. She offers tours to Tsukiji Market, depachika, and local markets. Yukari worked as a sommelier at the Park Hyatt Tokyo's New York Grill and at Nihonbashi Takashimaya department store.
All photos exclusive to Eater.