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When I watched Big Bird in Japan as a kid, one scene in particular stuck in my memory, even decades afterwards.

In one scene, Big Bird stops in front of a restaurant and looks at the food displayed in the window. He demands to eat the food that’s in the display and, to his disappointment, discovers that it’s not real food at all, just a plastic replica.

Known in Japan as サンプル, or “sample,” this waxy, fake food has been around for nearly 100 years and, over time, has evolved beyond restaurant windows.

Nowadays, you can get this fake food in any form you want: keychains, flash drives, cell phone charms, and even, as we wrote about a while back, fake food iPhone cases.

fake-food-iphone-case

Where does the fascination all come from? How did fake food come to be a thing in Japan?

You have one group to thank for sampuru: foreigners. Not because fake food is a foreign invention, but because it was foreign influences that shaped it.

As foreign influences became more and more prevalent in Japan in the early 20th century, more foreigners found themselves in Japan, and the Japanese found more foreign food in Japanese restaurants.

In order to help foreigners unfamiliar with Japanese food and Japanese people unfamiliar with foreign foods, restaurants began placing plastic replicas in the windows so people could have an idea of what they were ordering.

How Do They Make It?

At first, fake food was a primitive affair. Early in its history, food replicas were made with different forms of wax. Of course, this wasn’t ideal; wax isn’t the most sturdy material ever.

Nowadays, sampuru has reached a level of sophistication that early 20th century restauranteurs could have only dreamt about. The materials used now (vinyl choloride) don’t fade or deteriorate as older replicas did, and could probably withstand the apocalypse if it came down to it.

Through all of this though, one thing has remained the same: fake food in Japan is still, by and large, handcrafted. While you might think that it’d be easy to mass-produce a bowl of fake ramen, most manufacturers take an artisanal approach, taking great pride in their craft.

Some artists even create their sampuru using the same methods that might be used to make the actual food. The closer to the real thing, the better.

Where Can You Buy It?

Where do you go for fake food in Japan? One place makes and sells more plastic food than possibly anywhere else in the world: Kappabashi, Tokyo.

Kappadashi is a street in Tokyo that has an incredible concentration of suppliers of restaurant equipment. Some people call it “Kitchen Town.”

misc-fake-food

Photo by Jill

Alongside the shops that sell industrial refrigerators and mixers, there are businesses that specialize in fake food. Shops offer a wide selection of fake food to buy as individual pieces, or wholesale. You can even, as This Japanese Life did, make your own sampuru creation.

fake-sushi

Photo by Robert Young

For more pictures, check out Danny Choo’s blog from when he visited Kappadashi last year.


Personally, while I definitely think that the fake food craze is interesting, I can’t imagine ever wanting to buy some for myself.

What do you think? Would it be cool to own some fake sushi or a fake steak? Tell me in the comments!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I’m a big fan of plastic food replicas. I was a bit disappointed when I went to Kappabashi! I recommend Gujo-Hachiman in Gifu Prefecture instead …. well, that’s a bit far out, but it’s also one of my favorite places in Japan, so it’s definitely worth a visit.
    I recommend going during o-bon vacation in August when they’re doing the all-night dances called “Gujo Odori”.

    My apartment is full of plastic food replicas!!! Help!! *g*

  • http://twitter.com/iruka11 Cla (iruka11)

    I remember my brother brought home rubber/plastic sushi and dango when I was a kid. They looked really good but when I went to Japan myself and saw all those restaurant windows with omurice and parfaits, it’s just so amazing how they can do all those things.

  • http://twitter.com/helios_396 helios

    I don’t have any of these fake foods but I know I like to stare at them whenever I saw some on display. The ones with the best quality are soooo pretty they’re no longer mere food samples, they’re art masterpieces. Even real food doesn’t look that good. Really.

  • elwhy

    My grandma had fake shrimp sushi on her coffee table. When I saw it, I thought “grandma left a piece of her lunch”. Then I picked it up- funny.

  • gorghurt

    I went to an fake food manufactory (do you write it like this?) with my homestay familly. it was really interessting and you could make some of the fake food yourself (out of wax, and it was simple stuff like cabage.) its amazing how realistic those look, if they are made by pros.

  • Tora.Silver

    This is another foreign loan word that’s a bit off. In English, a sample should show you how the food tastes. If you tried one of these samples, you might hate Japanese food. Or die.

  • MisterM2402

    I’ve seen several shows that have done features on plastic food, and it’s *always* tempura and lettuce leaves that they show how to make. I want to see something different for a change, goddamnit! :D

  • DAVIDPD

    It’s ‘spensive!

  • Lionrence

    I couldn’t possibly have any, looking at it makes me feel starved, having them at home would make me constantly crave that food and I’m become very fat lol

  • WhiteRice

    Is it Kappabashi, or kappadashi? There are two spellings in this article. I can just google it.

  • http://twitter.com/EjiputonoDEARS エジプトのDEARS

    I’d love a fake sushi key-chain (of the salmon nigiri variety). I can’t wait to visit Japan to take a look at all the samples they have.