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.