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Japan’s freshest ready meals can be found in the basement

by Steve Trautlein

If there’s one thing all Japanese guidebooks, concierges and expats can agree on, it’s that tourists from overseas should make an effort, at some point during their stay, to visit the basement food floors of a major department store. And with good reason. More so than any single restaurant, open-air market or shopping street, depachika, as they’re known, offer the chance to encounter the stunning diversity of Japanese cuisine.

For some food lovers, visiting a depachika can be a life-changing experience. I can still remember my first trip to the basement of Takashimaya’s Nihonbashi branch, where aisle after aisle of glass counters held foodstuffs whose ingredients and preparation I could only guess at. One of the things I did recognize was kamaboko fish cakes, but these, too, had an air of the unfamiliar: Delicately shaped and richly colored, they bore little resemblance to the wan disks added to bowls of ramen back home.

Even for those with a background in Japanese cooking, depachika have the power to amaze and delight. My friends may mock me for it, but one of my favorite ways to spend some downtime is wandering around the food floor of my local Sogo in Yokohama. I’m in good company, too. The dozens of food stalls at this depachika never fail to attract a crowd; even during the lowest days of the recession, housewives and old ladies thronged the market for takeout items that offered an easy escape from their kitchen routine.

Maybe too easy. “It used to be that getting takeout was tied up with the idea of slacking off,” says Chie Yumino, head of public relations at Kobe-based Rock Field Co., a leading purveyor of deli-type side dishes known as sōzai. Yumino suggests that in many traditional households, where multiple generations lived under the same roof and where women handled most of the chores, the idea of relying on outsiders to cook a family meal was considered extravagant, even wasteful.

Yet as with so much else in Japan, demographic shifts have exploded these notions. As young people choose to marry later in life, and as married women increasingly remain in the workforce, the stigma against “indulging” in takeout is fading fast. Add to these trends the growth of fast-food outlets and the downward pressure on retail prices in the deflationary post-bubble era, and it’s easy to see why Japanese households are preferring to outsource their cooking duties.

To be sure, the sōzai scene is booming. According to market-research firm Fuji Keizai, sales last year in the “home meal replacement industry” (which includes everything from bentō boxed lunches to minced-beef cutlets sold at convenience stores, department stores and train stations) topped ¥5.5 trillion for the first time. And despite this month’s rise in the consumption tax, sales in 2014 are forecast to climb even higher.

Rock Field is well positioned to take advantage of the surging demand; in fact, it could be said that the company is one of the driving forces behind it. Under its RF1 brand, the firm operates more than 180 takeout counters in depachika and other locations around the country, with an emphasis on freshly prepared dishes and carefully sourced ingredients. The menu, heavy on salads and other minimally processed fare, appeals to the health-conscious and the time-starved alike.

“With the emergence of high-quality sōzai, people don’t feel guilty about not cooking for themselves,” Yumino says. “We’ve found that dishes that can’t easily be made at home, or are difficult to replicate at home, are particularly popular.”

Chief among these is RF1′s so-called 30-ingredient green salad, which has been a best-seller since its introduction in 1994. Yumino says the idea came from a former health minister who, as a way for people to maintain optimum health, advised them to eat 30 different types of food every day.

You can count me among the converted. On those special occasions when the Everyman Eats household indulges in takeout — Golden Week, birthdays and the like — our go-to starter is RF1′s spring roll assortment, which includes a Thai-style shrimp harumaki and three other varieties, along with individual dipping sauces. And my top dining experience so far this year was an RF1 seafood salad brimming with greens, meaty scallops and crispy shrimp.

“Our company’s strength is that we manage both making the food and selling it,” Yumino says. “From purchasing to production to sales and management, we emphasize professionalism and work together to create the final product.”

Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way throughout Japan.


Ramen demon Minoru Sano, RIP

Kanagawa native Minoru Sano opened his first ramen shop in Yokohama’s Totsuka district in 1986, gaining renown for both his noodle bowls and his, um, fastidious approach to customer service. The chef forbade patrons to use cellphones or even to wear perfume.

Sano went on to become a familiar presence on TV cooking shows, where his withering on-air critiques earned him the nickname of Ramen Oni (Demon). In 2008, he was invited to open a restaurant at the prestigious Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum.

Sano, who died at 63 of multiple organ failure in Kawasaki on April 11, is said to have slurped down one last bowl of ramen just before passing away.

  • Will

    Steve, nothing wrong with normalling in the Sogo depatochika, tho I personally like the Lazona in Kawasaki a bit more!

  • http://boutiquejapan.com/ Andres Zuleta

    Steve, hanging out in depachika seems pretty normal to me! ;)