Ramen bowls evoke piping hot comfort. Pancake stacks promise fluffy and sugary pleasure. All over Japan, plastic food replicas on display outside restaurants captivate diners. A small mountain town in the Chubu Region, Gujo Hachiman, produces most of these drool-worthy marvels that are such a huge part of Japanese food culture.
Gujo Hachiman’s ode to food replicas
That said, the ultimate pilgrimage is about three hours by train from Tokyo. Gujo Hachiman is a picturesque former castle town with canal-lined streets and traditional buildings. Takizo Iwasaki, inventor of the sampuru (a Japanese word from the English “sample”) was born there in 1885.
Iwasaki pioneered Japan’s first sampuru business in Osaka in 1932 but later returned to Gujo. Today, Gujo has 10 factories handcrafting around 70 percent of the market. Shop, watch the artisans, or try making your own!
Sample Village Iwasaki is a five-minute walk from Gujo Hachiman Station and is still run by the Iwasaki family. Takizo Iwasaki’s original 1917 prototype—an omurice (rice omelet) with ketchup—is still proudly displayed.
Sample Kobo is closer to Gujo’s town center, near the Tourist Office. Both venues offer free entry and classes for a fee. Craft your own tempura vegetables and shrimp, lettuce, or ice-cream cup. See one of these crafty workshops in action, below!
Sampuru were originally made with wax, but more durable plastics were used from the 1970s. Restaurants order them ready or custom-made. Pieces are cast in molds using real food or by following photographs, baked in an oven, then painted and finished.
What prefecture is this in?
Today, digital menus and photos threaten the sampuru, but they’re still a quirky, cool slice of mainstream culture. Like the luscious fake soft serve that never melts, here’s to hoping this unique Japanese craft never disappears. Plus, they always help tourists choose a meal.