Of all the strangest blog titles I never thought I would be drafting, this one perhaps takes the biscuit (apologies for the pun, which you will soon learn is all too relevant).
In truth, alongside my recent article about the bush walk to the nudist beach in Croatia, this surreal moment in Japan ought to have won a free pass into my weirdest travel moments round-up. However, with so much inspiration for that post blossoming from Japan and with the intention to pen another article devoted entirely to those “Only in Japan” stories, this particular travel tale was demoted to the reserve team.
As someone all too familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of being in a school reserve team, a wave of guilt swept in about my elitist tactics. Apologies, quirky little Osaka experience. Today is your moment to take centre stage; may you shine brightly.
If you are making your maiden voyage to Japan and have more days at your disposal than we did, allow yourself more than one night in Osaka. The city is a thriving, energetic foodie playground with an exhaustive menu of activities that promises not to have you fingering your Lonely Planet in a frantic state of boredom.
In time, I hope to condense my time in Osaka into a helpful guide for you but until then, let me tell you about our impromptu craft experience.
An Introduction to Plastic Food (Sampuru) in Japan
The plastic food industry, sometimes named fake food and known in Japan as Sampuru, is one of booming, billion dollar proportions. This is not plastic food that should conjure up images of adventurous diners ploughing toxic plates of PVC into their guts; rather, these are food models made of plastic, displayed in restaurants and cafes throughout the nation. They range from plastic bento boxes, elephant-sized bowls of plastic ramen, plastic tempura prawns stacked like hearty American pancakes and wide platters of wholesome plastic sushi.
Ignorantly, I assumed that only tacky restaurants exhibit their meals in this manner, since any similar fake pizzas or fake ice cream cones here in London are rarely representative of any notable underlying quality.
But as you slowly familiarise yourself with Japan’s food scene, consuming all the must-try dishes in Japan, you will soon come to the realisation that fake food models are in no way a negative reflection of the dishes they were born to replicate.
Some of the most authentic, concealed treasures we found for lunches and dinners were in those very restaurants showcasing cabinets full of plastic food models. The take-home message is simple. Do not judge a book by its cover and in Japan, do not, for one minute, turn your back on a restaurant just because it shows off windows full of fake food decor.
The story goes that plastic food has been a part of Japanese restaurant tradition for around a hundred years and craftsmen were initially tasked with creating theses models to make it easier for diners to order in the absence of menus.
That may have been the rationale then but as a non Japanese-speaking tourist, I can reliably inform you that the logic remains on point decades later with the models being our saving grace when we dined in restaurants without English menus.
Nowadays, the plastic food industry has escalated in leaps and bounds with the craftsmanship required becoming an art-form in its own right and restaurants competing to out-do each other in terms of the quality and precision of their fake food.
Take a closer inspection of the models in Japan as you walk between eateries and you will soon observe that more than just a hallmark of a building’s food-serving status, the plastic foods are in fact almost identical replicas of the house specialties. Restauranteurs setting up shop for the first time will often seek out bespoke Sampuru to accurately represent their own individual menus.
The plastic food menu doesn’t stop at savoury food either. Dessert parlours, crepe stalls, tea houses, ice-creameries and coffee shops all want a slice of this industry too and if you have a soft spot for colourful, Instagrammable desserts, prepare to be flooded with choice in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
A Plastic Food Making Class in Osaka
During our overnight stay in Nara, we were unwinding on our tatami mats with an uncharacteristically early night, trying to formulate an itinerary for our Osaka visit the next day. I took to the guide book, leaving Pumpkin to use online resources. “Shame we won’t be in Osaka for another couple of days,” he piped up in a whimsical manner “or we could have made plastic food”, he continued, as if it were the most ordinary statement in the world.
Perhaps it is the hidden desire to compensate for my lack of art skills but something in his throwaway comment piqued my interest. “What do you mean,” I asked, as he showed me the website he had stumbled upon with an option to book plastic food making class.
From that point onward, I became a woman on a mission and whilst that particular class was a dead-end, I found another one that was reportedly open daily. Armed with address details, we went as far as to move our plans to include this fun, feel-good activity as our one final moment of randomness on our last day in Japan.
We turned up at the named plastic food shop in Osaka the next morning and asked if we could be accommodated into one of their classes that day. Thankfully the presence of laminated photos of the class allowed us to express ourselves through the fumbles of a language barrier. They had space for us (hurrah!) and it was agreed that we would return at 4pm. They told us the price per person but took no deposit, simply our names, such was the trusting nature of so many of the Japanese people we met during our trip.
We were asked to choose between making sushi or dessert as they run different time slots for both. Tough call as I have a penchant for both but you all know about my sweet tooth by now so it was parfaits and crepes for two.
But in our excitable moment of enthusiasm, we hadn’t thought through the logistics of the process…
Later that day, as we were sightseeing our way around Osaka, it suddenly dawned on us that if we were going to be making these models from scratch (and we weren’t sure that we were), then how on earth would the molten plastic be set and ready in time for us to carry with us the next day en route to South Korea?
Why pay for a class if we can’t actually take home the quirky souvenir? We thought about ringing them to check but how on earth would we ask the question without knowing a word of Japanese? Even in person, a lot of charades had been deployed just to book the class.
As the shop was in the heart of Osaka, it seemed easiest to turn up and ask in person so we headed back around 3pm to discuss. The bemused looks on the faces of the staff came as no surprise to us. Clearly of the belief that we had muddled up our timings, the tip of the sales-assistant’s index finger tapped away at the number 4 on the clock face. We nodded knowingly, trying to reassure them that we knew the correct time.
But now to the question at hand, would we be able to take these plastic models home? Thankfully, we had anticipated just how challenging it would be trying to convey this sentence. As a result, before our arrival and thanks to the mobile wi-fi facility we had (which you can read about in my Japan travel tips post), we actually used Google translate to store the translated sentence in our phones prior to arrival.
Pumpkin whipped out his phone and showed the staff member a series of beautiful Japanese symbols translating to “can we take home the parfait today?” I think it is safe to say that this is not a sentence I will be putting into Google translate ever again.. 😀
Sorry to sound like an old Granny but technology is quite something since immediately after her eyes had scanned the last of the Japanese symbols, her face released a huge reassuring smile and conclusive, affirmative head nod that left us in no doubt that we would be able to take home our models at the end of the class.
We figured therefore that the emphasis of the class would be on decorating the models rather than using molten PVC, since both the price and the duration of the class seemed too low for that but we returned again an hour later, ready to begin our class.
Accompanying us, contrary to what you might expect, were one other Japanese couple who appeared in their twenties and not the horde of school girls that we were expecting to have found joining us,
In the spirit of keeping things realistic, I leapt to the parfait mould for dear life, whilst leaving the wafer-thin round crepe to Pumpkin…although strictly speaking, in real life, I would naturally have made a bee line for both. Spoilt for choice with the range of toppings available, I did as the Japanese do in choosing seasonal produce such as strawberries before designing a strategy towards achieving the perfect parfait.
The spiral whirls of the luscious “ice cream” that would form the core of the dessert needed hand-piping into the mould. All of a sudden, my icing weaknesses were exposed once more (you guys remember my Halloween cupcake decorating class right?)
little lot of observation from our tutor, I developed a steadier hand and soon found myself more at ease in my newfound craft world. Simpler a task was the clumsy insertion of black dots (that’s seed in the non plastic food world) into my kiwi slices, as if watching them sprout their way into the complex pubertal world in front of my very eyes.
I may have secretly wished for my Instagram husband to spend the entire class photographing each step of the process for my blog post but when it comes to art, Pumpkin was hosed with talent from an early age and was preoccupied with his own task of rolling his delicate crepe with conical precision.
Fusing flavours was not my forte – even an amateur chef knows that chocolate, strawberry, kiwi, mango and sugar hearts aren’t all complementary ingredients and that less is often more but the unicorn-loving child within me has never been able to turn down a blast of the rainbow vibes. And then there was the whole 5 a day smugness so I went for the more is more approach.
We may have invested only 60 minutes of our time partaking in this crafty experience but it was one of the fondest hours of my visit for the sheer whimsy of the moment. Regular readers would know that I am not someone who obtains much thrill or excitement from the purchase of material items such as clothes or shoes but for the first time in many of my travels, these were two items that I cherished like rescue puppies arriving at a much-needed home.
I insisted we carry them in our hand luggage to mitigate against damage and I reassured him they would be presented with glee in our living room if they made it home intact.
He may have been unconvinced but this is indeed where they now reside, emanating colour and dessert temptation with pride. Just like you put away the breakables when little ones enter the house, I find myself packing away the plastic food models too; not because they are valuable in monetary terms (they are not) but because they are congested with cosy, endearing memories of an adventure that swept us in with the magnetic prowess of an illicit, engulfing love affair.
And for those who worry their plastic food needs willl be unfulfilled by a one hour long class, rest assured you can buy craft kit boxes to recreate the fun in your own home not to mention a whole range of plastic food souvenirs. Anyone for a gyoza dumpling USB stick?! Word of warning, however – the quality of the models is reflected in the price so these are not the £1 souvenirs you might have hoped for!
Have you ever found yourself learning a new art form on your travels?