Tokyo's department-store basements take shopping to another level

by WENDY YANAGIHARA·
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Depachika = depa (short for depaato, or department store) + chika (basement)

Why is there a Japanese word for 'department-store basement'? Step into one and you'll immediately comprehend the import of such a word.

Every Japanese department store worth its hand-harvested sea salt will have its own depachika, some of which encompass several floors, and all of which are crammed with individual shops carrying a dizzying array of high-quality comestibles. These immaculate shrines to consumption contain all manner of raw and prepared foods, ranging from fresh baby sardines on ice to delicately scented lavender-and-vanilla macarons. Shoppers could spend a fortune on the finest shade-grown green tea from Fukuoka and seasonally-themed wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), or simply roam the maze of shops for a feast of the visual variety.

It's probably wise not to visit with hunger pangs, as a glance at the gleaming pastry counters or trays of crispy tempura will elicit them anyway. Aisles snaking between the various shops and counters lead to bountiful displays of cakes, shiny unblemished fruits, packages of pickled vegetables and marbled cuts of marbled wagyu beef. But the ubiquity of department stores around Tokyo also makes depachika convenient places to pick up a bento box for a quick picnic lunch that feels as decadent as it is inexpensive. They're also fantastic spots to spend one's last stash of yen before hopping the train to the airport – pick up some gorgeously packaged petits fours, crunchy rice crackers or dried shredded squid for the folks at home, and pick up a couple of onigiri (rice balls) for an in-flight snack.

In cosmopolitan Tokyo, fierce competition keeps the depachika on top of lucrative gourmet trends. The debut of a heavily touted cream puff can mean hours of queuing for the ensuing months-long feeding frenzy. There's even a website (www.depachika.com, in Japanese) tracking current food fairs, limited-time bargains and special-guest vendors, so that OLs (office ladies) can snap up gourmet deals on their way home from work.

Time your visit for the hour before closing – usually around 8pm – when prices are significantly slashed on everything from packaged sushi to perfectly ripe Asian pears. Or simply stop in to goggle at the artistically arranged counter displays and nibble at the samples.

Tokyo's top five depachika:

Isetan (3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku): Commonly recognised as the best in Tokyo, Isetan is the best depachika for taming a sweet tooth

Daimaru (1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku): Centrally located at Tokyo Station

Takashimaya (2-4-1 Nihonbashi, Chūō-ku): Another venerable giant in the heart of Tokyo

Mitsukoshi (4-6-16 Ginza, Chūō-ku): In the Ginza shopping district

Seibu (1-28-1 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku): This depachika is the biggest in Tokyo and worth a wander for sheer scale

Still got energy to burn? Try our top 10 spots to shop in Tokyo.