Japan: Plastic fantastic

By Rob McFarland

Sample Japanese cuisine at its toughest at Iwasaki Sample Village. Photo / Rob McFarland
Sample Japanese cuisine at its toughest at Iwasaki Sample Village. Photo / Rob McFarland

It turns out I'm a better cook than I thought. I've just whipped up some delicious-looking prawn tempura in under a minute. Admittedly, it might be a little on the al dente side given it's made of wax but it certainly looks good enough to eat.

Spend time in Japan and you will see countless displays of plastic food samples in restaurant windows. It's a bizarre concept, but that's Japan for you. People like to see what they're going to eat.

It's unclear as to when exactly this uniquely Japanese phenomenon started but Takizou Iwasaki was the man who started the first large-scale commercial venture. Back in 1931 he saw a basic food sample made from wax and had the idea of manufacturing and renting samples to restaurants.

The following year he opened a factory in the small town of Gujo Hachiman in Japan's central Honshu region and started supplying restaurants all over the country. Today, the Iawaski Company provides an estimated 60 per cent of Japan's food displays and supplies models to many international restaurants.

As a tourist, not only can you visit the factory and see an incredible array of scarily realistic-looking samples but you can also make some to take home. It's just about the most fun you can have with hot wax. Well, in polite company at least.

Our guide, a spritely grey-haired man, ushers us to a metal workbench with a central well full of different coloured pots of wax. With rudimentary English and wild gesticulations he warns us to be careful as the pots are immersed in 90C water to keep the wax molten. At one end of the bench are two sinks filled with water at 45C and it is here that he demonstrates making a lettuce.

First, he takes a ladle of white wax and carefully pours it on to the surface of the water where it spreads out and solidifies. Then he adds some green wax.

At this stage it would be fair to say I'm a little sceptical. The white-ish green blob floating on the water's surface bears so little resemblance to a lettuce I'm starting to wonder if it's a practical joke. Then, something magical happens.

With both hands he grips the still soft wax at one end and drags it under the water, crimping it along the edge with his fingers. Magically, the blob is transformed into a giant lettuce leaf that looks so frighteningly realistic, I have to stop myself snatching it and taking a bite. He crumples the leaf into a ball, encloses it with another one and cuts it in half. Voila, one iceberg lettuce. Incredible.

Now it's my turn. Clad in a fetching green apron and with constant encouragement from my attentive and enthusiastic mentor, I also produce a very passable-looking lettuce. I instantly decide to throw it all in and move to Japan to make food out of wax.

Next up is the prawn tempura. We move to the other end of the bench and he carefully drizzles wax from a jug into a sink full of hot water. The wax instantly solidifies on the water's surface, creating a layer of rough, yellowy-looking batter. Then, David Copperfield-style, he produces a plastic prawn and slowly but deliberately shows it to each of us in turn. Wide-eyed, we wonder whether he's going to turn it into a dove or saw it in half.

He pushes the prawn into the middle of the wax and moulds the batter around it, pinching off the excess with his fingers. A quick dip into a pot of cold water and - Alakazam! - we have prawn tempura to go with our lettuce.

Before leaving with my box of lettuce and prawn tempura, I take a look around the gift shop and I'd challenge even the most cynical shopper not to be tempted by one of the thousands of samples for sale. There is everything from icecream sundaes to noodles to juicy-looking steaks, all of which look good enough to eat.

As I head back to the coach laden with plastic sushi, a fried egg and an eerily realistic-looking bowl of strawberries and cream, I imagine the interesting exchange I'm going to have back at customs:

"Anything to declare sir?"

Well, it's funny you should ask...

IF YOU GO

Iwasaki Sample Village: The factory is at 250 Jonancho, Gujo Hachiman, Gifu Prefecture. Open 10am-4pm (sample-making classes available until 3pm). Entry is 350 yen a person; the sample making experience costs 1000 yen a person. Reservations are required.

* Book by fax or email. Fax: +81 575 65 2947.
Email: iwamo250@poplar.ocn.ne.jp.

Recommended reading: Lonely Planet's Japan (10th edition).

More information on the area: See kankou-gifu.jp.

- Herald on Sunday

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