The Art of Sampuru: Contemplating Hyper-Realistic Sample Food Displays in Japan
I never outgrew the childhood fascination with "fake food". (Or "mini" plastic representations of anything.) You know what my favorite thing about my first church was? The spiritual peace and enlightenment? Hell no! (We were Catholic.) It was the delight derived from the kid's play area, because unlike my thrifted kitchen with the missing pieces (which I loved dearly, don't get my wrong) their play kitchen was deluxe (all a kid could pray for) because it had the attached refrigerator filled with detailed replica food! There were eggs in the fridge's side-door, a kid's sized roasted chicken (so, perhaps more of a cornish hen), fruits, vegetables, condiments. There was a microwave, and a coffee pot. All of it was endlessly enchanting and for some reason my roommate Marianne and I still freak out for replica food and kitchen items. It's more than nostalgia at work there. (And yes, I do have to stop myself from taking my nephew's fake food toys. He, too, regards a fake chicken and coffee pot with wonder. I can see the youngest nephew's going to grow up a cursed, pensive artist-type, too.) As bright and beautiful as those plastic wonders were, they have nothing on sampuru; the art of fake food displays in Japan.
Throughout Japan, restaurants will have hyper-realistic displays displayed outside the establishment, usually well lit, within a glass case. Propped up and labeled like individual masterpieces, these samples allow you to see what the order will look like and help you decide what to choose. I used the sampuru displays to select what I'd like, it's excellent if you can't read Japanese because you can take a picture of the window display, show it to the waiter or waitress, and they'll know exactly what you want.
The photo I used to make my order is above. It was, of course, delicious.
I've seen these displays for even tiny, out-of-the-way eateries where locals gather. These fake foods are ubiquitous, so you'd think there are manufacturers making general ones for common Japanese foods (ramen, soba, sushi, etc.) that restaurants can order via a catalog of some sort? NO! These dishes are tailor made to each restaurant, lovingly hand-crafted by artisans to be exact replicas of the restaurant's food! The art world has taken notice, declaring this craft an art form with the induction of a Sampuru piece in the Victoria and Albert museum in London! It's no surprise, especially considering how each piece is carefully sculpted from polyvinyl-chloride to resemble an eatery's dish to the letter, vegetables are sculpted, then chopped up and displayed just like a restaurant would serve the food. (You can almost taste it!)
Sampuru (adapted from the English, Sample) represents several ideas to me. The first is what it reveals about Japanese dedication to craftsmanship. Artists flock to Japan to visually-devour the well-tuned sense of design. An island nation with limited resources had to use what it had for maximum efficiency. Less is more for good design ,and Japan has some of the best designs in the world. Second is the industrious attitude and dedication to business; knowing exactly what your potential meal could look like via an extremely expensive (one restaurant may spend over 1 million yen ordering an entire plastic sample menu) investment/art piece is taking the customer experience to the next level.
Sampuru also represents tradition, these displays often have "Japanified" food items from around the world, but how these beautiful objects are created is a closely guarded secret. The plastic food reproduction industry makes billions of yen per year (according to conservative estimates), so part of this is trying to keep the business highly profitable by eliminating competition and keeping trade secrets. But another element is the very Japanese concept of pride and tradition that's still alive and well post Edo-era. A country that makes good business practice an art form, and in turn, makes an art form profitable for the business? That's one I'll always admire!
"Being good in business is the most fascinating type of art" - Andy Warhol
I have a special connection Pop Art as a marketer/advertiser/graphic designer. The Pop Art movement said what we create to make sales is no less an art form than anything made to hang on a wall, that ad-art and pop culture at large is also worthy of academic contemplation. It has its detractors, but these amazing pieces of food are a good argument against them. These are made solely to make sales, but they are made with the utmost care and detail. Artistry goes into good quality business. Popular art is even anthropological, making statements about society and life as we live it, leaving an imprint for future study.
I can't imagine the glee I'd feel exploring any of the counterfeit food factories described in this article, but at least I got to capture some sampuru in the wild. You can also buy some gorgeous fake foods on various items here and really, at many different "Chinatowns" or asian markets. These photos don't do the hyper-realism of this fake food justice, it's an incredible illusion in person and "free" lifestyle art/pop art for visitors to peruse with wonder.
(You can see evidence of my kitschy fake-food obsession here and here (4th photo down). I wish I still had the gorgeous fake Pho I bought from a Vietnamese shop in Philadelphia's "China Town." All the more reason to go back for another one!)