Steve Edwards takes a look inside Inside Japan’s Plastic Food Factories
You’ve all seen them: Magical displays of food that never go off. Cans of Asahi, apparently held in mid-air by their own frothy waterfall. Ever wonder where they come from? Hint: They aren’t made in China. Prominent in restaurant windows from Okinawa to Sapporo, chances are that those under-appreciated works of art come from the quaint country city of Gujo Hachiman in Gifu prefecture.
Gujo Hachiman is home to not just 1, but 10 fake food factories. Since the industry’s inception, this ancient town has been the epicenter of artificial food. All roads lead to Gujo.
The fake food business got its start in Japan in 1917, when the first models were made out of wax, just like the artificial house plants of the time. Around six years later, a restaurant in Tokyo displayed artificial food to show customers what they had to offer and the restaurant saw a huge increase in revenue. Fake food on display meant more business, and that still holds true today. It does away with the guesswork and the need to use your imagination when looking at a menu. Aside from being appetizing, the food replica shows you exactly what you’ll get in terms of size and color, and assures the customer of its quality. If your food doesn’t look as good as its twin, send it back and tell the cook to try again.
The replica food industry got its legs when one of its first pioneers, Ryuzo Iwasaki, began selling his creations in Osaka in 1932. After achieving initial success in the big city, he moved back to his home town in Gifu prefecture and established what would eventually become a very real artificial food empire. A green, larger than life bust of the man sits atop a monolithic perch outside his main Gujo factory, staring over his vision of a fake food world, not far from a gigantic red fish displayed at the entrance. The story goes that the fake food industry was born of Iwasaki’s creative impulses after he had seen wax anatomical models, fake food from nutrition lessons, and then dripped candle wax onto a tatami mat, giving him the inspiration to create a wax rice omelet. The first rice omelet with ketchup he made back in ‘32 is on display at his Gujo factory and looks as clean, bright and tasty as if it had been made yesterday.
What one Tokyo restaurant did as an experiment in advertising, Iwasaki saw as a future industry, and to this day his company reportedly provides around 80% of the imitation food seen in Japan, raking in billions of yen a year. That’s billions with a B. With dozens of locations all over the country, and over 300 employees, the Iwasaki legacy is looking to a diverse future. They’re expanding into foreign markets – especially eyeing China – making mock pet food, and even helping the Japanese government make fake drugs for training.
Food replicas aren’t just for restaurant display cases. They’re often used in commercials and photography, especially ice cream and bowls of noodles. Real ice cream melts on the set and real bowls of noodles are difficult to dance with in a kimono, hence the need for fakery.
So how does real restaurant food go from being cooked in a kitchen to becoming plastic? Typically, fake food starts with the real thing. Sometimes sketches are made to correctly position and capture the exact way a restaurant places the various pieces of food. Pictures are taken to get the right color of all the elements, and often the actual food is brought to the factory by the restaurant or client as a perfect model. Ideally, the finished product should look as good, if not better, than the example the factory is given. The food is then put into a casting box and silicon poured over it to create a mold. Once the silicon has hardened, the food is tossed out and liquid plastic, actually vinyl chloride, is poured into the mold. The mold is baked in an oven to harden the plastic, then the model is separated from the mold, cooled and painted with an airbrush or by hand.
Making realistic artificial food often requires using the same methods as when preparing real food. Cutting plastic vegetables with kitchen knives, pressing the sushi to the rice by hand just like a sushi chef – even going as far as adding curry powder to plastic curry – are some of the lengths these replica artists (as they’re sometimes called) go to create that realistic look.
I spoke with Kunita Tadao of Asahi Sample Kobo, who offered some insights into making fake food on the professional level. Some of the most difficult things to make are often the simplest-looking. Uiro, for example, is a nondescript rectangular block of pink goo with boiled red beans inside. The trick for the fake food maker is getting the right amount of beans in the pink stuff to make it look like the real thing, which is not as easy as it might seem. Placing the beans exactly where they need to be in order to be seen through the material is a painstaking process of placing them in the mix one by one. Another tricky one is bankuhen, those round rolls of bread which are actually one very long, thin strip of bread rolled into a circle. The difficult part is getting the right texture on the top and bottom of the roll with a slightly rough, imperfect look. Cutting the top and bottom perfectly straight doesn’t look like baked bread at all, so to get the effect, he scours the outsides with a sponge until it has tiny little imperfections that give it slight highs and lows.
His greatest challenge and artistic satisfaction, like many replica artists, comes from getting whole plastic fish to look fresh and real. The actual-size fish samples at Sample Village Iwasaki are amazing, as if they had just jumped out of the water and into the display case. To challenge themselves and show off their vivid imaginations, every year the Gujo factories have a contest to see who can make the most interesting fake food. It’s a time when making the same old thing isn’t enough, when true artistry comes into play. It’s where normal food won’t do and something striking and memorable needs to catch the judge’s attention; such as a noodle dragon, a tempura Godzilla, or Medama Oyaji (a naked man in a bowl of soba with an eyeball for a head, incase you aren’t a manga fan). How these food makers can get a real fork or a pair of chopsticks to dangle in the air, seemingly pulling at spaghetti or ramen, or drinks being poured into cups seemingly frozen in time, is truly inspired. A favorite of these frozen effects is the slice of pizza being pulled from the dish by an invisible hand, the still-hot melted mozzarella stretching from the pan. This is the stuff you don’t learn in art school.
Most of Gujo’s food replica factories and museums offer classes, called taiken, where you can make your own shrimp tempura, sushi, or head of lettuce. These practice foods are made entirely from wax, instead of plastic, because it’s cheap, safe and easy to manipulate and recycle. It looks almost identical to the plastic versions, but it’s far more fragile and won’t last as long, especially in the hands of kids. In the old days, all fake foods were made out of wax and had a limited shelf life as a result. The wax didn’t fare well, often losing its color, melting or losing its shape in high temperatures. The plastic they use now will retain its shape and color until the cows come home, so long as the cows stay out of direct light.
Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of fake food makers are women. Sample food companies look for people who like cooking and eating, which comes more naturally to Japanese women, who traditionally do more food shopping and cooking than their male counterparts. Potential replica artists must have an attention to detail, and fair idea of how to imitate fresh food by artificial means. Watching these workers make their plastic creations is always fascinating. They make the tricks of the trade they’ve learned over the years look easy, creating tempura-covered shrimp in seconds and a whole head of lettuce in just minutes. The techniques they’ve mastered surely came by trial and error, and you have to wonder at the amount of times they got it wrong before they got it right. They work quietly in focused attention, the silence punctuated by the occasional sound of an air blast or a heat gun. Not much need for glue here, they simply heat up the pieces of plastic and they stick together like magic.
Why Gujo remains the ground zero of fake food is because, even though the company has expanded to every corner of the country, the factories of Gujo specialize in making particular elements. One factory might have cornered the market on making tempura shrimp, whereas another may have perfected making lettuce, which is the specialty of the Sample Village Iwasaki factory. An Iwasaki-affiliated plant in Hokkaido might get an order for a certain dish from a restaurant and the Gujo factories will send the parts they specialize in to be assembled locally, much in the same way that a car is assembled from the parts of dozens of manufacturing companies.
If you’ve been in Japan for a while, and you’ve already given your friends and family all the traditional Japanese things you can think of, why not try fake food omiyage? Places like Sample Village Iwasaki in Gujo have the biggest selection of actual size foods, key chains and fridge magnets in Gifu prefecture, but if you really want to go whole hog, the place to go is the Kappabashi district in northeast Tokyo, most notably Maizuru, the mother of all sample food shops. There you can find the greatest variety of imitation food and drink in every conceivable shape and size.
The one thing that’s noticeably absent from artificial food is the smell of the real thing, but imitation food does its job and does it well: It makes you hungry. So next time you see fake food in the display case outside a restaurant, take a good look and appreciate the quality, knowing that more likely than not, some part of it came from Gujo Hachiman.
For information on how to get to Gujo Hachiman, check out the city’s excellent English website at: www.gujohachiman.com/kanko/index_e.htm