Looking for a trendy tempura stall recommended by friends, I descend into the vast, teeming basement food emporium at Takashimaya Times Square, a department store in Tokyo's Shibuya district—and promptly get lost. It's easy to get disoriented by the scale, diversity and sheer gorgeousness of nearly half an acre of the world's choicest comestibles. Dodging a hail of free samples, I thread past a rosy display of German wursts, ranks of yakitori sticks slicked with a burnished caramel glaze, pastel-colored Japanese confections molded into swans and chrysanthemums, and sleek piles of panini at an outpost of Peck, the famous Milanese deli.
Judging from the high-pitched squeals around me, "Oishi!" (delicious!) might be replacing "Kawaiiii!" (cute!) as the battle cry of the Japanese female consumer, a force that pretty much drives the world's second largest economy. Still trying to find my bearings, I scan the shoppers nearby. Two schoolgirls in plaid miniskirts and matching flared leggings perch at a counter in triumph, having scored a bamboo tray of tofu so coveted it's sold only four times a day. Across the aisle, a posse of retro-punk teens in torn fishnets are ogling this week's "it" sandwich, white-bread triangles layered with whipped cream and sliced bananas and kiwis. The sandwich is both kawai and oishi. Beyond them, a prim Ginza matron is deep in contemplation of a $175 pair of muskmelons, no doubt intended as an omiage, or obligation gift.
The food basement at Takashimaya Times Square is one of the dozens of depachika—a contraction of depato (department store) and chika (underground mall)—doing booming business all over Tokyo. To a Westerner these subterranean food halls seem less like places to buy-and-bite and more like mammoth hyperdesigned exhibition spaces devoted to the latest food trends. And it isn't just the profusion (an average food basement stocks some 30,000 items). The thrill of being at a depachika these days is the sense of riding the crest of the Japanese shopping mania, marveling at the virtuoso layering of the ritualistically traditional and the outrageously outré, of handmade and high tech. If Japan is the mecca of global consumerism, depachika are its newest shrines to excess.