Japan Mar 2011 Day 5 – Surviving Depachikas in Japan
We love depachikas! And we most certainly made no attempt to hide it! Depachikas is surely a shopping phenomenon which was uniquely Japan before the concept was widely emulated in departmental stores all over the world. I remember the first time we walked into the depachika in one of the major departmental stores linked to Shinjuku station on our first trip to Japan and the experience was simply “fwah!!!!” to say the least. From appetisers to desserts, from English salads to Japanese homemade pickled foodstuff, depachikas provide an exceedingly wide repertoire of delectable foods prepared for all thinkable occasions, from a light meal to elaborated box sets for hanami or hina matsuri celebrations, from simple bentos for the nearby working lunch crowds, to delicately crafted dinner courses worthy of kaiseki calibre! And do not think that since its a “food-to-go” takeaway concept, the quality would be compromised and shoddy. In fact its quite the contrary! A large number renowned restaurants and shops have set up delis and counters in depachikas, just to keep up with the pace of the dining crowd and maintain exposure. The competition is often stiff, keeping everyone on their toes to present their very best. One doesn’t have to look too far when he needs to plan a feast! In fact, a decent spread from any good depachika is just the perfect excuse for him to hold one!
And not surprisingly, there is always a shopping crowd in depachikas all day round, all year round, catering to shoppers and diners from all walks of life. Late mornings and early afternoons usually see the working lunch crowd, grabbing a lunchbox or taking away a club sandwich before scurrying back to the office. Late afternoons and early evenings, we will find homemakers and housewives doing their rounds, getting some dishes to compliment what they’d already prepared at home, often times small portions of Japanese pickled radish or boiled lotus root marinated in konbu and mirin sauce which would have been too laborious or time consuming to make at home to warrant the quantity required. Then comes the dinner crowd, often compromising of working mothers or singles taking away dishes from various counters. One only needs to boil rice and the meal is complete. If he is feeling a little lazy that day, bento sets are also available from almost every other counter at every corner.
For me, the most exciting time to visit a depachika is about half an hour before its closing time. This is when the “real show” unfolds! And guess who we’d find here at this time of the day, the return of the housewife-obasan-entourage coming back for the grand finale and making curtain calls! They are back for the “deals of the day”, items which they saw during their earlier rounds which was priced a tad higher than what they’d hoped to pay for. Shops often slash prices to make the last closing sales at this hour, especially for the perishables like salads, sashimi and sushi, which makes a good bargain for everyone!
About an hour before closing time, we would find a reflux of shopping crowd in the depachika. People walking around various stores, silently creating a shopping list of “to gets” when the price slashing begins. It likens connoissieurs inspecting antiques before the final bidding at an auction, just that prices go down intead of up!
Then comes the action! It often starts with the counter staff calling out the “fast selling out” items that day, enticing shoppers to swarm in to swoop up the last pieces. This faux tactic however, does not work on veteran “late hour” depachika shoppers as they are not easily swayed and their objectives remain clear – bargains at cheaper prices. Its only when the staff steps out from behind the counter when the veterans swoop in for the kill. Like hawks with keen eyesight, they observe closely at the little stickers the staff would paste on boxes of the merchanise, some indicating a “slash away” value from the original price, e.g. 100 Yen off, while others indicate the final discounted price, usually a fraction of the original one. From now on, it entirely depends on the yardstick one has in mind for an item of interest, i.e. grabbing a merchanise at half price for example. It is now that we see a contest of speed and wit! A sight to behold really, at how the crowd would build up around a small counter with items on bargain, and how
talons and claws hands swoop down to grab an item which has been freshly “bargain tagged” just a split second earlier. And all this goes on amidst some level of mild jostling and pushing while maintaining perfect social order! When one manages to secure a bargain by grabbing it just before the others do, it seemed customary for the person who emerged victorious to acknowledge her fellow “contenders” by looking up at them with a nod and a meekish smile dotted with a hint of embarrassment, seeming to thank them for graciously letting go the item to her! How totally bizarre!!!
The veterans are often highly discerning over what they want and as our interest do not conflict with theirs, we are often lucky to have met up with little competition and resistance at depachika closing times. Sashimi is one of the items low on their priority list. Raw fish which is meant to be eaten raw seemed to be of little “value” to these housewives as the cuts are acute perishables and often have to be consumed within a short period of time and thus cannot be stored overnight. So yes, for us, the best place for decently priced quality sashimi is not fanciful restaurants or sushi delis in Tsukiji but from depachikas! The former are often highly and sometimes overpriced and/or overhyped locations touted blatantly in tourist guidebooks. With the prices severely marked down, premium cuts often become quite affordable, low enough for us to formulate an almost daily indulgence. Now I wonder in retrospect on what developed that seemingly insatiable and somewhat ritualistic craving! Is it the food, the sheer price of it, or the adrenaline rush amidst all that “last hour grabbing”!? I’d hoped to think its a combination of all of the above…
So here’s the kill we made on our last night in Kyoto. Delectable punctuations on the wondeful memories of this lovely city, if you ask me.
さば棒寿司 “Saba Bo zushi”- Cured saba (mackerel) over an elongated strip of japanese rice flavoured with vinegar and mirin, moulded in a long box named hakozushigata and thus name “rod sushi”. This form of sushi making is uniquely Kyoto, just like 箱寿司 hakozushi from Osaka. Together, these two forms of “collective sushi-making” in a box, be it elongated or square are very Kansai in style, compared to the individual nigiri sushi which is more of an Kanto/Edo style. Half price bargain!
Neatly cut slabs of cured saba which still had their metallic shimmer!
Curing seafood is a very painstaking process, especially for a fish like saba, whose level of freshness deteriorates rapidly. Strips of pickled ginger are often slotted between the rice and fish layers to help remove any “fishy smell”.
Farm bred Kampachi (amberjack) sashimi from 香川県 Kagawa prefecture on Shikoku.
Embellished with real crysantheneum
An assortment of premium (江戸前握り) edomae nigiri sushi bento at a bargain! 鮨 means sushi by the way!
Still looking very fresh if you ask me!
Loooooong strip of grilled anago (conger eel)sushi , brushed and flavoured lightly with soya sauce, bearing sharp contrast to the more familar unagi.
Little balloons of ikura (salmon roe) packed with flavour, waiting to be burst when they gently yield in the mouth…
Amaebi (sweet shrimp) sushi, one of my all time favorites!
The highlight in this box is the three pieces of chutoro (semi-fatty tuna) sushi! So yummy!
Not entirely satisfied with the chutoro (fatty tuna) sushi, we bought a slab of ootoro as well! And it was only half-price at only 1040 Yen! Thankfully its from sustainable bluefin tuna farming at Kochi 高知県 located on the opposite side of Shikoku compared to Kagawa where the amberjack was farmed!
The meat was so soft they simply melt and disappear into oblivion in the mouth… I miss ootoro!
The down side from buying at depachikas is we often have to process the cuts on our own. It helps to be staying at a hotel with relatively good room service! We’d requested a set of cutlery from the hotel for our bring-back dining and “in-house” photo-taking!
Stewed daikon (white radish) with fish head. This was not particularly cheap but I’d just wanted to try it as I was curious about how it tasted.
The sauce was so good, I’d almost wanted called for room service to bring up two bowls of rice! But that would be carbo overdose!
Intricately wrapped 柿の葉寿司 persimmon leaf sushi, a form of sushi making from 奈良Nara!
Like bozushi from Kyoto, pieces of cured fish, in this case saba (mackerel) and sake (salmon) are used. This is because Nara and Kyoto are both land locked cities and thus almost impossible to obtain fresh sea produce in the past. Seafood have to be pickled or cured before they make the trip to these places. And mind you, Kyoto used to be the capital city of Japan before Tokugawa made Edo his shogunate, which eventually grew to become present-day Tokyo. So Japanese emperors who reigned from the ancient city of Kyoto were “offered” with pickled seafood while the much poorer folk around the coastal regions had to “make do” with fresh produce like scallops (hotate), sea urchins (uni)! Bizarre!!!
Arranging the pieces over a teatray provided by the hotel for some final photos before taking the plunge!
Here’s my humble collation of some points on “closing hour sale” depachika shopping.
(1) In Rome, do what the Romans do, walk around the various counters and make silent decisions on what you’d hope to get. Don’t be greedy and its often difficult to juggle between counters who happen to have good sale items at the same time! Don’t wanna be caught running around in frenzy!
(2) Be decisive on pricing what you’d hope to get and don’t procrastinate and hope for ultra cheap items. You are paying for premium items afterall.
(3) This is a tactic which I’d seen obasans employ at the closing sales. Swiftly place items of interest into shopping baskets first but bear a keen eye over the ongoing sale of the remaining items over the counter. When the staff proceed to refresh prices by pasting new stickers over the old ones, i.e. “300 Yen discount” over the earlier “100 yen disount” ones, these obasans would quietly place forth the items before the staff to have them re-tagged as well. Clever eh! But this tactic is to be exercised with discretion as we’d also seen counterstaff displaying looks of displeasurement and disgruntlement when shoved with the items again.
(4) Opt for items which are less popular. One man’s
meat dinner is another man’s poison supper. Avoid going for those items which the veterans have already eyeballed. Staying clear of the warzone is sound advice if you ask me. And this also allows one to enjoy the show as the action unfolds. Much much better than watching a Kabuki comedy I tell you!
(5) On a few occasions, we’d chanced upon tourists like us from the region. And its often easy to tell because they would be going on like birds high on booze or drugs, hailing “CHEEEEEAP!!! AIYOH SO CHEEEEAP!!!” or “PAAEEENG!!! PAAEENG!!!” in cantonese. So hilarious I tell you! We generally try to smoulder our sniggering before walking a distance away and breaking out into roaring laughter. The veterans however, are so well-trained that every move is well-executed in silence and poise. One moment an item is still over the counter or rack and when you turn back to look at it again, its gone! I swear these aunties are highly skilled and well-trained ninjas in disguise with at least Jonin rank status! Its really a game of “Now you see it, now you don’t!”
(6) Last but not least, have lots of fun! Apart from the food, its the process that is to be enjoyed and we most certainly did!
Japan Mar 2011 Day 5 – 伏見稻荷大社 & JR Kyoto Station
Japan Mar 2011 Day 5 – 平野神社 北野天满宫
Japan Mar 2011 Day 5 – 金閣寺 の 日栄軒和菓子
Japan Mar 2011 Day 4 – Cannelé and Macarons from Pâtisserie Kanae
Japan Mar 2011 Day 4 – Pâtisserie Kanae Kyoto
Japan Mar 2011 Day 4 – Macarons @ Jean-Philippe Darcis Kyoto & Unagi don dinner
Japan Mar 2011 Day 4 – 知恩院 錦市場
Japan Mar 2011 Day 4 – 京都 清水寺 二年坂
Japan Mar 2011 Day 4 – 京都 洛東 清水寺
Japan Mar 2011 Day 4 – 京都 晨の雪
Japan Mar 2011 Day 3 – A Taste of Spring 岚山 竹路庵 和菓子
Japan Mar 2011 Day 3 – Pâtisserie Henri Charpentier
Japan Mar 2011 Day 3 – Pâtisserie Gion Sakai
Japan Mar 2011 Day 3 – Gion and Depachika Dinner
Japan Mar 2011 Day 3 – Arashiyama Lunch @ 平の家
Japan Mar 2011 Day 3 – Tenryuji and Sagano
Japan Mar 2011 Day 3 – 嵐山 愛宕念仏寺 Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji
Japan Mar 2011 Day 2 – Macarons from Patisserie Alcyon
Japan Mar 2011 Day 2 – Mont Blancs from Pâtisserie Factory Shin
Japan Mar 2011 Day 2 – Dinner @ 鹤桥风月大阪焼 Fugetsu Okonomiyaki
Japan Mar 2011 Day 2 – Pâtisserie Mont Plus @ Daimaru Umeda
Japan Mar 2011 Day 2 – Umeda & Lunch @ Daimaru
Japan Mar 2011 Day 2 – Osaka Castle
Japan Mar 2011 Day 1 – Dinner @ Shi Ten Noh Ramen, Dotonbori
Japan Mar 2011 Day 1 – Sights and Sounds of Shinsaibashi