May 24, 2012
My last day in Tokyo dawned hot and dry. I thanked my generous host Hitomi profusely and headed out for some errands. I stashed my bags in a coin locker at a central station and headed out for Kappabashi, known as “Kitchen Town” for its profusion of shops for restaurants and kitchens. I was on a mission for my friend Andy to find him a knife.
First I encountered the shop selling steel implements, strainers and funnels.
Steel containers of every conceivable size and shape. There was a particular restaurant supply shop in Boston, but here were dozens of shops along a single street, all selling different things! Some had a larger variety of inventory than others, but most specialized.
Cookie cutters in all shapes, but very expensive.
One shop had put out its trash in the bright morning for collection. This was the first “mess” I’d seen in Tokyo proper, bins and other containers stacked by a shrubbery.
Some shops reminded me of the dark, cramped stalls in the Old City of Jerusalem where I expected to find Aladdin’s lamp. Selling a hodgepodge of things, ranging from giant pots to Buddha heads to highly specialized machines, you could find anything for your restaurant or kitchen in Kappabashi.
I loved the cookie cutters: seahorses, feet, knights, starfish, handprints, telephones, lighthouses… displayed next to flasks.
Kappabashi is famous for its サンプル, or plastic samples of food. The industry is worth billions of yen a year, and some restaurants may order millions of yen worth of samples to display outside of their restaurant. The plastic samples are very helpful to illiterate gaigin who would like some idea about what the food will be before ordering. The tiny plastic samples above in keychain or magnet form were hundreds of yen each, easily costing $10 or more dollars for something that would fit in your pocket. Handcrafted out of polyvinyl chloride, each slice of watermelon or octopus tentacle could pass for a real piece of food.
The larger samples of complete meals were stunning. What sort of artisans make these plates? How do they color them? What are the processes like?
I thought about bringing home a box of sashimi samples, but at $50 I couldn’t afford it. Quickly running out of 円, I had to focus on my plight of finding Andy a knife.
Don’t forget the beer, frosted in plastic ice.
Other shops sold tablecloths, napkins, window curtains, chopsticks, spoons, and everything else imaginable for the kitchen. I could have spent days and my entire income from 2012 there.
Some of the shop owners did not allow photographs, especially at the store selling noren, or curtains. I asked around at the shops with owners who allowed photographs, and they recommended a particular knife store. The owner allowed and encouraged photographs, and spoke English to boot. He had beautiful knives made of layered steel.
Some of the eel and fish knives were in the hundreds if not approaching thousands of dollars. I picked the most beautiful knife that could be used for vegetables and fish, thanked the owner, and headed on my way. (When reimbursing me, Andy would pick out the precise moment of the transaction based on the receipt to decide the exchange rate.)
If you find yourself in Kappabashi, buy your knives from the Kamata store.
The last store I visited sold ceramics. I could have brought back an entire suitcase of their bowls and cups, but resisted. My favorite was a Daruma cup with a lid, the monk who meditated for so long that his arms and legs fell off.
As I hightailed it back to the train station, I passed a number of stores selling funeral supplies, shrines and caskets for ashes. The juxtaposition of fake food with death indicated something about the impermanence of existence and whether this is all real. I didn’t stop long enough to contemplate the metaphysics of the situation and hopped on a train to run the last errands before the airport.
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