Truly Tasteless: Japanese Plastic Kitchen Artists Get Creative

This photo taken on August 17, 2022 shows plastic food samples in preparation for an exhibition organized by Japanese group Iwasaki in Tokyo. — AFP photo

Saturday, August 20, 2022 9:54 AM MYT

TOKYO, Aug. 20 – From the “leaning tower of pizza” to a fish that slices and cooks itself and a dragon emerging from a dragon fruit, Japanese artisans’ original plastic food sculptures have been on display this week at an exhibition in Tokyo.

The models were crafted with the same painstaking detail as the rock-solid noodle soups and crispy plastic snacks that have long been displayed outside Japanese restaurants where they are called “shokuhin sampuru”, or “samples of foodstuffs”.

Sampuru are common outside ramen shops and family restaurants across Japan a century after stores began using wax models to advertise their menu to a growing middle class.

“Normally, we have to track customer orders. We consider their point of view when we make items,” plastic food artist Shinichiro Hatasa, 57, told AFP.

But when you come up with fun designs, “you can use your imagination. How it ends is entirely up to you,” he said.

For the exhibition, Hatasa made a cob of corn sunbathing quietly on a beach.

This photo taken on August 17, 2022 shows a plastic food sample in preparation for an exhibition organized by Japanese group Iwasaki in Tokyo.  — AFP photo

This photo taken on August 17, 2022 shows a plastic food sample in preparation for an exhibition organized by Japanese group Iwasaki in Tokyo. — AFP photo

Other creations on display included a fried prawn with four breaded legs wandering like a tiger on a mountain of shredded cabbage and a chicken-based Tetris game.

A Japanese breakfast of fermented soybeans called natto seemed to spiral through the air, resembling a mighty cyclone – nicknamed, naturally, a “nattornado”.

About 60 sculptures were on display, some silly but others designed to showcase the artists’ formidable skills.

“They’re not real, but they look so real. It’s wonderful,” said Reiko Ichimaru, a participant in the exhibition.

“Burgers are for beginners”

All models were handcrafted by specialists from the Iwasaki Group, Japan’s leading ‘sampuru’ manufacturer, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.

At an Iwasaki factory in Yokohama near Tokyo, artisans first take molds from ingredients sourced from real meals cooked by customers at the company’s restaurant.

Then they begin the meticulous work of decorating the samples to look as realistic as possible, from the droplets of moisture on the chilled glass to the subtle bruises on the surface of a fruit.

“Fresh products are more difficult to prepare. Fresh vegetables, fresh fish. Ready meals are easier” because the colors are less complicated, factory manager Hiroaki Miyazawa, 44, told AFP.

This photo taken on August 17, 2022 shows plastic food samples in preparation for an exhibition organized by Japanese group Iwasaki in Tokyo.  — AFP photo

This photo taken on August 17, 2022 shows plastic food samples in preparation for an exhibition organized by Japanese group Iwasaki in Tokyo. — AFP photo

“Burger patties are for starters,” he added.

Fake food is a multi-million dollar market in Japan, but sampuru production has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has reduced restaurant demand.

Sampuru makers hope that more tourists will soon be allowed into the country to boost the restaurant industry, but they are also putting their unique skills to good use elsewhere.

For example, artisans at Iwasaki have made replica bananas in varying degrees of ripeness for factories to use to train new employees.

Orders are also being placed by IT vendors, who want to use fake 5G Wi-Fi routers in their presentations.

Meanwhile, at the exhibition, the most original proposals delight young and old alike.

“I think the number of restaurants using plastic displays is decreasing,” said Yutaka Nishio, 52.

“It’s interesting to preserve this as art. It’s really great.” – AFP

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