If you head underground, deep below the busy streets, you’ll find the best kept secret in Tokyo: the bustling markets of the city, aka depachika.

Sushi at Matsuya Ginza Department Store
Sushi at Matsuya Ginza Department Store | Photo by Gregory Lane

Packed full of every treat you can imagine, from delicate French desserts to bottles of high-quality sake and bright displays of gleaming fresh fish, depachika are a food-lovers heaven. Beneath floors and floors of clothing and perfume, you’ll find the shelves stacked full of every treat you can imagine, families and pensioners hurrying to find the best deal on sushi or steak and countless shop assistants ready to welcome customers. The depachika name comes from a combination of two words: depato (the name for department stores) and chika (basement), which keeps it pretty simple. Catering to all needs, the prices are usually pretty high, but you can get some great discounts at the end of the day or spend some of your hard-saved yen on a treat.

Tempura at Matsuya
Depachika are all about the quality | Photo by Gregory Lane

Depachika can be found in almost all department stores, but all depachika are not equal. The more traditional the store, the better the foodie offerings. We’ll list some of the best at the end, so be sure to check it out. The best part is that since most large department stores are found near train stations, you can usually pop over without having to go outside, which is great for a rainy day or if you’re in a hurry. If you have a long train journey ahead, especially if it’s on the Shinkansen, there is nothing better than arriving a little early to browse the deli section at a depachika and pick yourself out something special for the trip.

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Deli of dreams: arrive hungry

Usually split into 3 sections, depachika have large deli sections, with food from all over the world and often sold by weight—meaning you can mix and match from different shelves or stalls. There’s everything from salads to quiche to yakitori, often displayed in huge mountains beneath spotlessly polished glass, with immaculate servers waiting to catch your eye.

Croquettes at Depachika
There are always croquettes | Photo by Gregory Lane

There’s often plenty of Western food, especially Italian and French, as European food is considered pretty high end, and the imported ingredients can get a little pricey. It’s perfect if you’re missing some home comforts though—with lasagna, arancini and fresh pasta all readily available. Some counters will also have eats in sections, where you can enjoy a quick meal at the counter or behind in a small seating area.

The Japanese food is definitely the most varied though, with everything from wagyu beef bentos to freshly cut sashimi and home favorites like curry too. If you’ve been wanting to try some specialist Japanese food, but couldn’t quite afford it (looking at you wagyu), then a bento box is a great place to start, especially if you can get a discounted one later in the day—you just have to wait til after the dinnertime rush. There’s always a great choice for mix-and-match with Japanese snacks too, from fried chicken to croquettes with a thousand different fillings, as well as fancy onigiri too—you’ll definitely be spoiled for choice.

Depachika bento yakisoba
Yakisoba and Okonomiyaki bento | Photo by Gregory Lane

You may see some pop-up stands from prefectures across Japan offering their local specialty and these are always great to check out. They often have plenty of tasters on offer and friendly staff as they are promoting the region as well as their food. If you haven’t been able to visit the area on display, it’s a great way to get a taste of it and try something unusual.

Another perk to look out for in the deli section is the seasonal flavors. Throughout the year stalls will incorporate fresh flavors into their rotating menu, with chestnuts in the autumn and bamboo in spring. Be sure to try the specials and seasonal offers when you go round, these will often be promoted with signs and plenty of pictures so they’re easy to spot.

The gifts: Almost too good to give away

Whatever you do, make sure you leave plenty of time to wander through the desserts and gifts section, and try to retain some self-control. The stunning French desserts and Japanese specialties will leave you questioning your cheapo ways, with stunning presentation and glorious combinations of unusual ingredients.

The gift sets and boxes of beautiful chocolates and biscuits will leave you wondering who could possibly deserve such a treat, and whether or not you could finish off a box to yourself. Tasters are often available, so get involved and make the most of the tiny morsels of deliciousness.

If you’re looking for a gift, then depachika have great options, and are a safe place to head if you’re not sure what to get someone. The alcohol section will sell the finest wines, whiskies and beautiful bottles of sake (aka nihonshu), which make an excellent souvenir for back home. The attendants are always really helpful and you can usually find a special bottle as they will give recommendations and often have a tasting table for sake. Although the prices here are not going to be the cheapest, the range is often better, and if you’re looking for something special but aren’t familiar with names nor grape types and whatnot, it’s a safe bet.

If you need a gift for a co-worker or friend in Japan, the fruit section can be an excellent place to look, as fruit is considered the perfect gift: valuable, but perishable, so it won’t be a burden and can be enjoyed (unspoken Japanese gift rules are tricky to negotiate sometimes). From expensive grapes to pears to peaches, you can find beautifully presented fruit which they will also gift wrap for you.

The market : Fresh fish and decent discounts

If you need some unusual ingredients or to stock up on tricky-to-find staples, then the market sections of depachika are perfect. They often have an in-house supermarket or a private one like Seijo-ishi as well as a fresh area with meat, fish, fruit and veg.

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This is the section you want to head to in the evening as it’s where you’ll find the discounted sushi platters and bentos, all still gleaming and delicious but with that lovely yellow discount sticker on the front. On a day-to-day basis the food is more expensive than your local supermarket, but the quality is high, and if you’re able to wait till evening, you can get it for a steal—be prepared though, the elbows come out and the elderly do not hold back.

The store section is great if you’ve been looking for elusive items like real Greek yogurt or Indian spices, as they often have a wide range of foreign foods, especially cheeses.

Where to go

Now we’ve got your mouth watering, you need to know where to go! While you can basically always head to a department store, try for ones near the station, and look for big names like Isetan, Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya, Keio, Matsuya and Odakyu.

Shibuya Takashimaya: Considered to be the number 1 food hall in Tokyo by many, the newly refurbished department store has an incredible selection of foods as well as a rooftop garden with a picnic area. The multi-Mmichelin-star Kikunoi has a slot here, with bentos available if you’re feeling flush. Takashimaya, 5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Shinjuku Isetan: An excellent one for alcohol, the section has a small bar to try some of the top whiskies and an incredible array of foods. As a traditional  high-end and much-loved department store, they have caviar and champagne bars as well as an excellent wagashi selection. They have famed chefs for a 2-week residence in the Kitchen Stage which is well worth checking out as well as a rooftop garden to enjoy your food in. Isetan, 3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi: Another famous name in the department store world, this is the oldest department store in Tokyo, with some seriously high-end produce. They have an excellent sweets section with delicacies from across Japan and branches of the famous Eataly Italian food hall, as well as baumkuchen made in house. Mitsukoshi, 4-6-16 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo

Ginza Mitsukoshi: If you’ve worked up an appetite with all the window shopping, this is the place to go. With the only Dominque Ansel bakery you can try some store-only specialties and the famous Hakone Akatsukian soba shop where you can watch them roll and cut the soba by hand. There’s a nice rooftop garden area perfect for a mini picnic after all your hard decision making. Mitsukoshi, 4-6-16 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo

Shibuya Tokyu Food Show: One of the easiest to get to and great if you’re out to see the crossing already, this food hall is one of the cheaper ones and is much less intimidating to walk though. It is a bit smaller but is especially great for the fresh fish and sushi right when you walk in! They also have a great alcohol section with a wide range of sake/nihonshu and very friendly staff—try the tasting table at the front. Tokyu Toyoko-Ten, Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 2-24-1

Ikebukuro Tobu: The largest department store in all of Tokyo, this one would take hours to fully explore, with countless delicious stalls and stands to tempt you in. There’s an impressive number of restaurants on the higher levels too, so make sure you have a good appetite! Tobu, 1-1-25 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima, Tokyo

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