Depatos – department stores – play a much more central role in Japanese life than their equivalents do in the UK. These giant temples to consumerism are to be found in every major shopping area in Tokyo. Only the best quality products are on sale here, and at prices to match – so unless you’ve got an unlimited budget, it might be best to think of a depato more as a kind of art gallery than as a shop – you go to admire the products, but you don’t take any home with you. The above ground floors will be full of a wondrous array of top class apparel – famous international brands (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Tiffany, Hermès) and their lesser-known Japanese counterparts. This is much like you would find in top end shops in the UK – but in Japan there are many unique products not to be found anywhere in Europe – from finely embroidered kimonos and decorative fans, to designer chopsticks and lacquerware lunchboxes.
A pair of melons in a presentation box – ready to be given as a gift
On the roof, some depatos even have gardens and mini Shinto shrines to the gods of commerce, but it is underground that the greatest wonders are to be found. The basement of almost every depato is a treasure cave crammed with all sorts of culinary delicacies. Even more significant is that every item is itself a work of art – from beautifully shaped cakes to bread rolls that are a delight just to look at. There are hundreds of little stalls, each selling the specialities of one part of Japan, or of somewhere overseas. It would be possible to spend hours vicariously feasting on the splendour arrayed before your eyes. The sake (rice wine) section is also well worth checking out – especially as you might be able to score some free tastes if you profess an intention to buy. Giant bottles are available in hundreds of varieties – and in December special bottles containing tiny flakes of gold go on sale – a must buy for anyone wanting to toast the new year in authentic style.
Depatos are a clear demonstration of the willingness of the Japanese to pay for quality – everything tastes heavenly – but you’ll likely be able to afford no more than a mouthful. Most shocking to Westerners are the fruit – not because they are so perfectly shaped and carefully packaged – but because a pair of melons could set you back £400! That’s right – melons! In Japan it’s important for fruit to be completely uniform in size and shape, but melons seem to have a special cultural significance, so much so that they’re often packaged in a decorative box so they can be given as presents. They’re also available in all sorts of custom shapes – square melons (presumably grown in a box) or heart shaped melons (no idea how these are made) can be purchased for a significant premium. If you can afford one for yourself, the subsequent taste experience will be worth every penny, but otherwise you’ll find that apples and oranges are a bit more affordable – and yet still have incredible flavours.
Access: Mitsukoshi in Nihonbashi, founded in 1673, is the Harrods of Japan, and even has its own Mitsukoshi-mae Station on Tokyo Metro’s Ginza and Hanzomon lines. Alternatively the Seibu and Tobu department stores attached to Ikebukuro station (which is on eight separate train lines, including the JR Yamanote line) were until recently the world’s largest.Super Sento