Almost every city in Japan has a dish or specialty they can boast about. Gujo (郡上), however, is famous not for its cuisine but for its food replicas. If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant, you will have seen the plastic foods displayed at the entrance. These models are quite convenient for restaurant owners because it allows customers to easily see what kind of food they offer without the problems caused if real food was used. It’s no wonder that it’s a billion-yen industry.
These plastic food replicas have a long history in Japan, with Takizo Iwasaki opening the first factory in 1932 in Osaka (大阪). Later, he returned to his hometown in Gifu (岐阜). Today, Gujo, Gifu is still one of the leading manufacturers of model food, supplying around 80 percent of Japan’s food replicas.
While you can find model food factories elsewhere, Gujo is home to 10. Gujo, a picturesque town that is also famous for its all-night dancing festival, displays this fact proudly as many stores invite you in to purchase your own model food.
Looking at plastic food is all well and good, but have you ever wanted to make your own? This, too, is possible in Gujo. There are numerous places where you can experience this for yourself but the most famous are Sample Village Iwasaki (サンプルビレッジ・いわさき) and Sample Kobo (サンプル工房). Sample Village Iwasaki has a much wider selection than Sample Kobo.
I went to Sample Kobo, where there are three options. For 900 yen, you can make either a cup of ice cream or a mini dessert tart; or you can make three pieces of tempura and a cabbage head for 1,200 yen. At Sample Village Iwasaki, you can also make a bowl of ramen (2,900 yen), spaghetti (2,700 yen), sushi, or kakigori (shaved ice dessert) or a keychain (500 to 750 yen). However, some of these are only available on weekdays. A reservation is required for all the courses at both places, and when we arrived at Sample Kobo, it was easy to see why; the place was quite crowded. However, even if you have to wait, there is plenty to keep you occupied.
The model food making areas are located at the back of the shop which is an experience in itself. You can buy everything from plastic food magnets, keychains, cell phone straps to life-size (and expensive) food replicas. They also offer a quiz that you can take to test whether you can tell real food from the models. The food and their corresponding models are spread throughout the two branches of the shop in display cases. It mostly featured things like cookies and chocolate since understandably, foods like sushi or meat would spoil quickly.
As someone with years of experience eating, cooking, and being around food, I assumed telling them apart would be easy. It was not. The four of us (my friends and I), all smart and competent adults, agonized and argued over which was real. I was shocked by how difficult the quiz was, which is a testament to the superb craftsmanship that goes into these models. They really are amazingly lifelike. Sample Kobo’s website offers an online version (Japanese only) of the quiz if you want to challenge yourself before you arrive.
If your frustration gets the best of you, you can also take a look inside the workshop where the food models are made by the experts. It was interesting to see the models at various stages in the process, though sadly, no one was actually working when we visited. You can also watch customers try their hand at making model foods since the workshops aren’t closed off or separated from the general shop.
For the main event, we were given aprons and were joined with about 15 other people. The instructors showed us the process and then split us into groups to try for ourselves, two at a time.
Since this is intended to be a simplified and quick introductory lesson, you use pre-made plastic foods as a base for your tempura. There are many options to choose from such as shrimp, potato, and asparagus. The tempura batter is really hot wax which you pour over the plastic food while it is submerged in cold water.
The staff clearly demonstrate the process and you will be under their watchful eyes the entire time, making it easy to follow even if you don’t speak Japanese. Of course, our results weren’t nearly as perfect or lifelike as the staff’s but it was an easy, fun process and our finished products were still fairly good. By the third go, I was feeling confident in my tempura skills.
The class ended with the cabbage head, which was trickier than the tempura though the process looked much cooler. You slowly and carefully pour green wax into the same cold water basin, and once you’ve created a large rectangle, you take one end and pull it so it flips over. This step proved to be less intimidating than it looked. Lastly, you remove it from the water and mold it into a cabbage shape in your hand, which was slightly more difficult than I expected. The staff girl remarked that mine looked more like a shumai (which was undeniably true), but despite my less-than-perfect cabbage, being able to mold and make something in your hands was a satisfying final step after just simply pouring wax for the tempura.
In short, it was a fun experience. The process was easier than I anticipated and the staff were friendly and supportive. It was an interesting opportunity to explore a less famous aspect of Japanese culture. It’s an experience that’s appropriate and fun for all ages (and Japanese levels) and the three class options at Sample Kobo make it easy to cater to your needs. If you want a unique souvenir, Gujo is a great place to get (or make) it at.
Gujo is a little tricky to access. Sample Kobo is a 20-minute walk from Gujo-Hachiman Station (郡上八幡駅), which is almost a 3-hour train ride from Nagoya (名古屋). Access is much easier by car, though there is a bus from Gifu Station (岐阜駅) that takes an hour and a half. Sample Village Iwasaki is slightly easier to get to since it’s only a 5-minute walk from the same station. You can try making sample foods in other cities, of course, but if you have the chance, it is worthwhile to venture out to the model food capital of Japan.