What Is Sampuru? The Illusive Art Of Japanese Food Replicas

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Many who have stepped foot in Japan will notice the array of displays of food with exceptional detail and texture in glass boxes. The first question that pops into mind is: is it real?

Known as the “sampuru” by the Japanese which translates to mean sample, these food replicas are a glance into what to expect at the restaurant — from the actual bowl to toppings and side dishes included. The details of the food replicas can even boil down to the bubbles of  oil in a ramen bowl. The best part of these food replicas is that it acts as a visual menu to point at, for those of us who are lacking in the survival Japanese language. If a picture says a thousand words, an actual 3D model of the meal will speak volumes. 

With exquisite detail and deceptively real appearance, the Japanese food replicas should be considered a high level work of art. While it used to be a secret to the creation of it all, in the present days it’s far from it. Delve into the rich history and cultural influence behind these magnificent, delicious samples.  

The Birth Of A Brilliant Craft

The original capital city of Japan, Kyoto, is the birthplace of the very first known plastic food replica. This art dates back to 1916 during the Taisho Period and the mastermind, Sojiro Nishio, who initially created wax sculptures of human body parts for doctors and medical students to use for study. Later on, he was approached by a restaurant to make wax models of their dishes. 

Another iconic name linked to the origin of Japanese food replicas is Tsumoto Sudo, an anatomical model maker in Tokyo. He was also approached by eateries to create wax models of food and that was when there’s a slight significant boom in the food sample business.

Yet the most famous story is not of the two but of Takizo Iwasaki who called the Gifu prefecture his home. The story is that he had made a wax model of the famous Japanese omelette rice — it was so realistic that his wife and other people who’d seen it couldn’t tell it wasn’t real. The original “omuraisu” is still on display at his company, Iwasaki-bei. 

The food replica industry only took off in the 1930s, two decades after the first known creator of the “sampuru”. Soome restaurants had the idea of displaying actual foods, but then decided to opt for these fake food replicas to keep the pests away.

How Are Sampuru Made — Then And Now

Initially, these food replicas are made of wax. Unfortunately, the matter had its weaknesses — wax is not the best matter in heat, and there have been cases where the wax food replicas melted in the showcase when they were under direct sunlight. Later in the 1970s, these wax replicas are now made of resin — it’s durability has significantly improved and opens up more doors for the creative hands to add in miniature details that would’ve been impossible with wax.

The first replica workshop is by the famous creator Iwasaki himself and it is said to be the leading company in the industry, claiming more than half of the Japanese food replica market. Gujo Hachiman and Sample Kobo are close competitors. All three workshops specialize in different types of food replicas, though, but they’re more than capable of replicating anything.

The process of the food replica first requires a mold. As these replica workshops want their crafts to be as detailed as possible, they would request the restaurants to send them a sample — more commonly a real dish frozen and shipped to these workshops. The molds are filled with PVC, baked at extremely high temperatures and then airbrushed and painted to match the original dishes.

Why Does Sampuru Exist?

The food replicas are without a doubt part of the Japanese culture now. Its existence has positively impacted the country in more ways than one — be it as a marketing strategy for the restaurants to draw customers’ attention or even just for its uniqueness alone.

Most diners appreciate the food replicas as it gives an accurate sense of what the meal will look like and the size of it. Most of us are pulled by the sight and smell senses, and having a blown-up menu of 3D food models is more likely for one to be drawn to that eatery.

Many foreigners who have seen it have the link of these food replicas and Japan engraved in their minds, and hence shining the country in a more intriguing light. There has been a continuous buzz on the food replica topic everywhere around the globe, and tourists who come to visit have been known to have “see the Japanese food replica for myself” on their bucket list —if it’s not already a priority, that is.

Tour The “Sampuru” Food World

The fame of the Japanese food replica is not exaggerated. Because of its originality and uniqueness, there has been increasing demand for a proper introduction to those who traveled all the way to Japan just to witness its art in person. The streets of Shibuya and Shinjuku are full to the brim with restaurants, Japanese cuisine or not, that feature their delectable dishes in forms of food replicas in a case outside the store. One can kill two birds with one stone while strolling the famous cities of Tokyo.

If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details from A to Z, sign up for a tour solely revolving around the “sampuru” art. Yes, there are actually multiple tours that are specially for that. From showing you to countless food replicas of different restaurants to educating you on the history and cultural influence of it all. This one’s extremely recommended for the food replica enthusiasts.

Bring The Culture Home

The idiom “wearing your food” is now a possibility. Everything from mini versions of Japanese foods to beverages and pastries can be found in forms of charms, phone cases, and even jewelry. Some even up the game by including tempura shrimp USB memory sticks, cake key holders and omelet computer mouse. The possibility is endless. It makes one think what else the Japanese have come up with that we haven’t even begun to imagine? 

Asakusa is literally the home of famous sampuru souvenir shops — namely Tokyo Biken, Maiduru, Sato Sample and Gansho Shokuhin Sample Shop. From traditionally-made food replicas to the more durable ones that will make perfect souvenirs for friends and family back home, these shops have them all. One product that’s extremely popular with the tourists is the “sampuru” cooking kits which are a DIY kit where one can put together a food replica on their own, in the comfort of their own home. Various series are available as well, including cooking, parfait and shaved ice. It can even be a collection hobby for some.

Make Your Own

After the mention of a Japanese food replica tour, a “sampuru” workshop is a no bigger shock than the former. It is surprisingly popular, split equally between male and female participants. Places like Yamato Sample Seisakusyo offers a few variations of the menu for one to take part in. Expect the classic tempura craft, ramen, Japanese-style curry as well as a range of Japanese sweets like a parfait.

These workshops don’t just present the art of making food replicas but also gives the opportunity to include this craft to everyday useful items like notes clip or candles. What more can one ask for from an interactive experience with a souvenir one can proudly say they made it from scratch?

The Wrap-up

At the end of the day, everyone can agree that this groundbreaking creation that began to exist more than a century ago is nothing short of a work of art. Everything from the workmanship and detailed craft to the popular usage and worldwide appreciation calls for endless praises. If this modern-day, food is being replicated in Japan, what other mind-blowing creations can we expect in the future from this innovative country? 

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