A perfect replica requires imperfection. Take a grilled fish: Uniform all over, flawless in color and texture, it tells you nothing. But let’s say its silvery skin is marked with bubbles of assorted sizes, delicate crinkles and slightly uneven washes of carbonization. Let’s say the fish’s eyes are clouded over from the heat. And its markings, when you look closer, suggest it was flipped over the charcoal, showing you, under the gloss of its own rendered fat, a hot spot, where the heat on this nonexistent grill was more intense. Then, yes, maybe you want to buy that fish. Well, not that fish, which is made of plastic, but the fish it represents — the fish on the menu inside this particular restaurant.
The popular life-size food models known as shokuhin sampuru, displayed outside countless casual Japanese restaurants, function as promotional materials first, a way to boost sales. But the craftsmanship of a food model can be extraordinary — a fish so ridiculously crammed full of detail, so obsessively recreated, that you want the replica itself. No two fish look exactly the same at Ganso Shokuhin Sample-ya, a top-of-the-line shop in Tokyo operated by Iwasaki-Be-I, which displays the kinds of pieces the company makes for restaurants but also carries trinkets for tourists: cut bananas at varying stages of ripeness, bowls of pork cutlets on rice, sushi pieces and grilled fish. Some are better than others. That’s because each sample is made by hand — the work of 68 artisans across the company’s six factories.
Sampuru, estimated to be a multibillion-dollar market in Japan and a growing market in Korea and China, have been used in restaurants for at least a century. In the 1920s, people shopping for clothing inside the Shirokiya department store ordered lunch based on the crude wax samples set up by the restaurant entrance. But this earlier generation of replicas had issues. Colors, already limited, faded quickly. Small parts snapped off. On a hot summer day, a restaurant with a sun-facing display case might wonder why no one was coming in, only to see that their replicas had deformed in the heat, melted grotesquely, putting everyone off Salisbury steaks.
By the 1970s, most sample makers switched over to more expensive, but longer lasting, plastic models, set in silicone molds and painted by hand. Takizo Iwasaki, who founded Iwasaki, worked to commercialize the process. More than half the company’s restaurant clients now rent, rather than buy, their samples (which makes sense when you consider that a particularly luxurious coelacanth replica at Iwasaki’s Ganso store retails for 2.1 million yen, almost $17,000).
Yasunobu Nose, a journalist based in Tokyo, started documenting sampuru in Japan more than 20 years ago, after he noticed that regional deviations were reflected in food models. Eating the food confirmed a heap of differences, which meant the models had become a kind of growing physical archive of Japanese cuisine, documenting minute regional differences with every new custom order. Nose draws a line from the popularity of sampuru all the way back to the late Edo period, beginning in the 1800s, when food stalls in the city center sold tempura, soba and sushi, and displayed eye-catching finished dishes. A sample plate of soba indicated all kinds of vital information, from the portion for the price to the accouterments that came with it. These were sincere samples — the height of sample culture — disappearing by the end of each day and faithfully remade the next.
For The New York Times Magazine, the photographer Kyoko Hamada, who was born in Tokyo and now lives in the United States, documented a wealth of modern samples on Kappabashi Dogugai Street, also called Kitchen Town. The Tokyo street is packed with kitchen stores, where competing shops carry sampuru made all over the country, displayed in plastic packaging hanging from floor-to-ceiling wires, or in faux butcher cases and replica fish counters. “It’s kind of like they’re selling you a dream of the food,” she said. “It’s empty, you can’t eat it, but you see it, and then you get the feeling of wanting it.” She followed the samples at Ganso to a small factory, where workers mixed paints, then negotiated the matte pink of raw, aged fatty tuna, and the sheer, pale yellow of a curl of pickled ginger. “It was a funny reminder,” she said, after treating the pieces like art objects, “that they’re all made out of plastic, they’re all made out of the same ingredient, from the lettuce to the doughnut right next to it.”
When I asked Yuta Kurokawa, a representative for Iwasaki, what’s hardest for sample makers to recreate from the food world, he mentioned the shades of deep green found in fresh leaves and vegetables, but also the warmth of just-cooked foods — the sizzling edge of a pork cutlet right out of the pan, the steam escaping from a bowl of rice. “Samples look cold no matter what,” he said.
This is true — they have no smell, no taste, no temperature. But every so often, a sample will do something that real food cannot, directing you to a single moment in the life of an ordinary dish and keeping you there, allowing you to take it in completely, and from every angle. It might be the second the egg was cracked for a bowl of tamago kake gohan, or the second after it, as the egg fell from the cook’s hands into a bowl of rice. The sample won’t allow the egg to pass into the oblivion of hot rice. It will hold that moment for as long as you like.