The last time I remember really paying attention to plastic food was in Hakone. It was back in the heady, reckless days of December 2019, when traveling and eating out were fun and carefree activities not yet burdened with the complex logistics and long odds of the Apollo missions. My wife Jaime and I spent that entire December in Japan. Back then, our plan was to leave New York and move to Tokyo in 2020, and we figured it wise to take Japan for a bit of a test drive (unbeknownst to us, Plan B was to lock ourselves in Jaime’s grandma’s house in California and wear pajamas for a year surrounded by a shit ton of snacks). Hakone itself was a peak pre-pandemic activity: riding a packed train to go on a vacation while on a vacation; stopping to grab lunch from a crowded eatery before heading to relax nude in some shared baths and saunas. The spine shivers at the thought.
That day, we were just buying lunch, but for some reason I treated it like we were buying a house. I practically luxuriated in my indecision, dragging Jaime and our luggage up and down the main stretch of Hakone Yumoto, dipping into side streets and alleys, studying the pretty plastic food samples displayed out front of the shops - plastic ten-don, plastic udon and soba, plastic katsu-kare, and plastic maccha parfaits and milk softcream. I stared. I compared. I dove deep into the uncanny valley. When I finally did settle on a place, the reward for my exhaustive efforts? Two perfectly mediocre bowls of niku udon.
If we’re ever able to travel to Japan again, it’s a dance I’m destined to repeat. Plastic food, known as shokuhin sampuru in Japanese, is famously ubiquitous in Japan. At Narita it practically greets you when you exit customs. On its face, it's another quirky Japanese cultural curiosity on the order of manga or anime or pop idols - cultural products that are deemed silly distractions for children in most countries that exist inverted and geared, at least in part, to adults in Japan. But unlike those other examples, shokuhin sampuru hasn’t enjoyed a quickened march toward global adoption, efforts by their manufacturers be damned. Aside from appearances at some Japanese restaurants around the world, and some inroads in China and Korea, it remains largely a Japan-specific phenomenon. Outside the display case, shokuhin sampuru exists mostly as easy cannon fodder for infinite “weird Japan” blog entries, a hands-on experience for tourists, or a souvenir oddity.
In another practical sense, though, shokuhin sampuru has been an elegantly malleable salve as the Japanese food industry has wrestled with modernity and globalization. The earliest examples appeared in 1917 in Kyoto and then after a 1923 remodel of the Shirokiya department store in Tokyo. Growing food halls, searching for a method to control burgeoning middle class lunch crowds, initially displayed real food to accelerate ordering for lines of customers; when they quickly discovered that real food samples would immediately spoil and attract flies, they asked academics making wax anatomical models to produce fakes.
As more restaurants evolved from open food stalls with visible cookery to enclosed spaces, sampuru helped draw the hungry eyes of passing customers; for the customers, it allowed them to make dining decisions without having to first poke their head through a door or noren, thus avoiding the possibility of changing their minds and appearing rude. More importantly, in a world before color photos, it helped Japanese people understand the quickly diversifying menus in an evolving restaurant scene, particularly as more Western dishes started to appear.
In post-War Japan, as foreign servicemen and tourists started to pour into the country, sampuru provided a foolproof way to translate the dining experience (though as Big Bird once demonstrated, maybe not that foolproof). It’s still a critical service. Japanese menus can be notoriously hard to decipher, and the fickle tides of Japanese fluency can be pushed and pulled by your ability to merely order food at a restaurant. You could, for example, be brimming with confidence when a waiter hands you a yakitori menu that looks like a waka poem scrawled in medieval calligraphy, and suddenly - boom! You plummet back to the bottom of the pit. Sometimes, a menu can spark a philosophical reckoning - even if someone tells me how to read the kanji for this particular variety of obscure local mountain yam, if I have no idea what it is and will never see it again, did I really read anything at all? It is, alas, sometimes less painful for everyone involved if you just point at the plastic yakizakana you want and move on.
Whenever I’m in Japan, I will inevitably find myself ambling with my relatives through some shopping complex - one day it’s the Mitsui outlet mall in Makuhari, the next it’s Soramachi beneath Tokyo SkyTree - when we decide to head to a restaurant. Next thing I know, we’re debating the merits and demerits of plastic una-ju versus plastic sukiyaki. Of course, it’s a bit of an odd debate, because the food may or may not actually look like any of this. Shokuhin sampuru models, after all, are an inexact proxy. Sometimes, by design, they can be too beautiful: colors embellished, shapes tidied, volume exaggerated. They're tools for selling an ideal, not for telling the exact truth. There are also times when the food is actually more beautiful than the plastic can express; for example, foods in their natural uncooked state, like a whole sea bream, are difficult to convincingly reproduce. It’s like a digital Princess Leia - you can just sort of tell.
Occasionally, you’ll come across a delightfully beautiful bit of design whimsy in shokuhin sampuru. Carbonara twisted around a fork floating in the air. A wok of rice in mid-toss. A raw egg suspended between two hashi, dripping its whites into a bowl below. This small artistic innovation is credited to an artisan named Shigeharu Takeuchi. His work helps highlight the artistry and true ingenuity involved in making this stuff. And there is a lot of art involved here - since the goal is to recreate the idiosyncratic menus of restaurants all across the country, all of it - except occasionally rice and noodles - is crafted entirely by hand by trained artisans.
There is a charming analog magic to it all; nigiri sushi, for example, is made by actually balling plastic grains of rice and slicing whole fillets of plastic sashimi. Even the simplest items - at tourist demonstrations, the de rigeur menu item is a head of iceberg lettuce made of wax - have a mystifying wizardry. Sit transfixed as the wax is pulled through water, slowly unfurling like a manta wing before suddenly, mysteriously, transforming. You’ll never have more complex emotions about lettuce.
Harder items, like a realistic bowl of ramen, can take more than a decade of development for an artist to credibly create. It's in line with the classic trope of single-minded Japanese craftsmanship and the philosophy of monozukuri - the deliberate, prideful pursuit of perfection in manufacturing - which, depending on who you ask, is either an inviolable tenet of Japanese identity or an advertising buzzword invented by the government in 1998. It’s built through sheer, dogged effort: Jiro Dreams of Plastic Sushi.
Aside from occasionally artistic advancements and bouts with innovation, like switching from wax to silicone and plastic models, like a lot of Japanese industries, there has been a certain stasis. Takizo Iwashita, the man credited with first turning shokunin sampuru into a business, and whose namesake company still dominates the industry today, made his first model, a wax omu-raisu, in 1932 after a month of trial and error. Watch this interview with this artisan in 2011 - he essentially says the process is exactly the same. “There’s no manual,” he says. “You just do it again and again and again, and keep making adjustments, trying to replicate the real thing as close as possible.”
That, along with the slow decline of the Japanese economy, has meant the industry has shrunk by nearly half since 1990: from nearly ¥15 billion to ¥8 billion. Plastic models are expensive, and in a world of digital photography, Instagram, and online reviews, its utility and popularity has waned. The industry is also a victim of the durability of its own product - as noted plastics expert the Pacific Ocean can tell you, plastic lasts forever. That first wax omelet Takizo Iwasaki made nearly 100 years ago? It’s still on display at the company today. While the industry is not exactly small - it’s about the same size as the entire folk craft industry in Japan combined - besides selling as souvenirs to tourists who visit Tokyo’s Kappabashi district, it has no path for growth. Like many beautiful, old things in Japan, it’s at risk of slowly slipping away into obscurity.
Recently, in the midst of the pandemic, I’d been thinking a lot about the late Anthony Bourdain and the now-distant reality - one that prioritized global travel and constant eating out - he embodied. Bourdain, of course, loved Japan. He regularly extolled its virtues - how Tokyo would be the one city he’d choose to eat in for the rest of his life, how if he had to choose, he’d eat his last meal there. Through the varied iterations of his television shows, Japan was one of his most visited destinations. I had a hunch he had an opinion on shokuhin sampuru, and sure enough, he did: he loved it. He posted about it multiple times on his social media. Author Laurie Woolever, who helped Bourdain write his cookbook Appetites, said when they wrote the book in his dining room, they wrote it surrounded by his collection of plastic food from Tokyo.
If you think long and hard, that scene can start to take on a bittersweet cosmic coincidence - two symbols that contain the beautiful, messy multitudes of a potentially outdated era and worldview that might be dissolving before our eyes.
Or, then again, maybe not. As I learned in Hakone, sometimes you can think about these things for too long.