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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogReplica Food Samples: Why Are They Important?

Replica Food Samples: Why Are They Important?

James LauJames Lau
Published Time
Posted on 
April 27, 2024
One of many replica food samples of sushi.

Welcome to the world of replica food samples in Japan, where craftsmanship and creativity blend to craft realistic copies of culinary delights. Join us to uncover these samples’ fascinating history, artistry, and importance in Japan!

What is a plastic replica food sample?

Created in Japan during the Taisho and early Showa periods, plastic replica food samples became famous after being displayed at a department store in Tokyo in 1923. The introduction of a ticket system alongside these models improved sales. Over time, the quality improved, thanks to craftsmen experimenting with materials like wax. Plastic resin has become standard, offering both durability and a more comprehensive range of expression.

A plastic bowl of ramen.
Plastic replicas made it easier for people to choose their meals. Image via Shutterstock

Restaurants can order them pre-made or customized. Production involves casting pieces in molds using real food or reference photographs, baking them, and then applying paint and finishing touches. Despite digital menus, sampuru remains part of Japanese food culture, with restaurants often renting them to showcase their dishes. While they can range from ¥3,000 to ¥100,000 for larger pieces, souvenir versions are more affordable.

Who invented it?

Food samples have a history and roots in Gujo Hachiman, Gifu Prefecture. While Takozo Iwasaki is credited with popularizing plastic replicas in the 1930s, some stories traced the practice to Soujiro Nishio in Kyoto around 1917. Gujo Hachiman remains known for food sample production, with over half of Japan’s samples crafted there. Modern food samples use materials like PVC for durability, with wax still used in some hands-on workshops.

A person making a replica food sample of shrimp tempura.
Most plastic samples use resin. Image via Shutterstock

The story of food samples highlights Japanese artisans’ creativity. They’ve turned a basic need into an art form. From plastic omelet-rice dishes to sushi platter replicas, these pieces are visually appealing. They offer a peek into Japan’s vibrant culinary culture. This industry values tradition and community. It draws in visitors and diners with its realistic and detailed work.

Why do restaurants use them?

The plastic food sample industry in Japan serves multiple purposes. These replicas were first made to help communicate with tourists who didn’t speak Japanese. Their popularity grew in the 1950s when visitors came to post-war Japan. Menus did not have English translations, and color photography was rare. So, restaurants used these displays instead. They helped foreign customers see what they could order.

A plastic bowl of ramen.
Plastic replicas made it easier for people to choose their meals. Image via Shutterstock

Generally, they show a restaurant’s offerings, serve as cost-effective decorations, and last for years due to their durability. Crafted with meticulous detail, plastic food samples give tourists an idea of what the restaurant serves. Whether aiding in restaurant decision-making or serving as conversation starters, plastic food samples help visitors pick their next delicious meal.

What are the most common dishes that use plastic replicas?

Sushi, ramen, and donburi are the most famous Japanese dishes replicated in plastic food samples. Sushi is particularly challenging to recreate in plastic, as each piece requires meticulous attention to detail. Artisans carefully sculpt the rice, shape the nori seaweed, and paint the fish toppings to achieve a lifelike appearance. High-end sushi restaurants may spend up to $500 on a tray of plastic sushi samples.

A bunch of plastic sushi.
Sushi is one of the most popular dishes that have plastic replicas. Image via Shutterstock

Ramen is another Japanese staple that lends itself well to plastic food modeling. The noodles are carefully curled, and the broth is meticulously painted to capture the complex flavors and textures. A bowl of plastic ramen can cost around $100 to produce.

Finally, donburi, or rice bowls topped with meat, egg, or vegetables, are also commonly replicated in plastic. The rice is molded into shape, and the toppings are carefully painted to create an appetizing display. Donburi samples help customers visualize the dish and make informed ordering decisions.

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Where can you find these replica food samples?

Kappabashi-dori, also known as “Kitchen Town,” in Tokyo, is known for its shops selling kitchenware and plastic food replicas, offering items from sushi to ramen. Gujo Hachiman in Gifu Prefecture is the “Plastic Food Capital of Japan,” boasting small shops specializing in high-quality plastic food production. Other notable locations include Maizuru and Sample Village Iwasaki in Tokyo and Ganso Shokuhin in Tokyo Skytree.

A bunch of plastic nikuman (meat buns).
There’s even plastic nikuman! Image via Shutterstock

These places offer diverse selections of plastic food replicas, from sushi to entire meals, catering to both tourists and locals alike. Sample Village Iwasaki in Nagoya even provides workshops where visitors can learn the art of making plastic food, adding an interactive experience. For those interested in replica food samples in Japan, these locations offer a look into the craftsmanship and creativity behind this unique industry.

Why are replica food samples important in Japan?

Plastic food samples are essential for several reasons. Firstly, they serve as tools for communication, helping both locals and tourists navigate menus by providing visuals of dishes, especially in restaurants and stores where language barriers may exist. Secondly, these replicas are important in promoting Japan’s culinary culture and connecting its cuisine to a global audience.

An assortment of plastic food.
Have you ever seen replica plastic samples before? Image via Shutterstock

Additionally, plastic food samples contribute to the appeal of restaurants and souvenir shops. Ultimately, by bridging the gap between language and culture, plastic food samples serve as ambassadors of Japan’s food culture, inviting people worldwide to explore and appreciate its delicious offerings.

So, the next time you visit Japan and feel confused about what to eat, look at the food samples outside the restaurants! Have you ever seen any of these food samples? Did you buy a souvenir? Let us know in the comments below!

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