From the “leaning tower of pizza” to a fish that cuts and cooks itself, creating plastic food sculptures becomes an art in Japan, featured in an exhibition this week in Tokyo.

The pieces reach the same level of detail as the noodle soups and crispy plastic snacks that have long been displayed in Japanese restaurant windows, called “shokuhin sampuru” or simply “sample food items.”

The “sampuru” are common in ramen establishments, a hearty noodle soup, or in family restaurants in this country that a century ago began using wax models to promote its menu to an expanding middle class.

“Normally we have to follow the instructions of the clients. We take their ideas when we make the pieces,” explains the artist Shinichiro Hatasa, 57.

But “you can use your imagination”. “How it ends is totally up to you,” he adds.

For the exhibition, Hatasa devised a corn sunning itself on the beach.

Other creations include a fried shrimp with four breaded legs that walks like a tiger on a mountain of cabbage or a game of Tetris made with chicken.

Also a traditional Japanese breakfast dish consisting of fermented soybeans called “natto” spirals upwards like a powerful tornado. The sculpture is obviously called “nattornado”.

In total, there are about 60 sculptures on display, some simple, but others that show all the skills of the artists.

“They’re not real, but they look so real. It’s wonderful,” says Reiko Ichimaru, one of the attendees.

– “Burgers are for beginners” –

All models are handmade by specialists from the Iwasaki group, the leading company in the production of “sampuru” which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.

At their factory in Yokohama, near Tokyo, artisans first make molds of ingredients for dishes prepared by restaurants.

Then begins meticulous work to decorate the samples and make them look as realistic as possible, from drops of moisture on a cold glass to subtle bruises on the surface of a fruit.

“Fresh products are more difficult to make. Fresh vegetables, fresh fish. Cooked products are easier” because the colors are less complicated, explains factory manager Hiroaki Miyazawa, 44.

“Burgers are for starters,” he adds.

Sample food is a multibillion-dollar business in Japan, though it has also been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which has cut demand for restaurants.

The “sampuru” producers hope that soon tourists will be able to return to the country to revitalize the restoration, but while using their skills in other sectors.

Thus, Iwasaki artisans have made replica bananas with different levels of ripeness so that factories can use them to train new workers.

They have also received requests from IT businesses that, for example, want joke Wi-Fi routers for their presentations.

And while, on display, the most original designs delight children and adults.

“I think the number of restaurants using plastic sample food is decreasing,” says Yutaka Nishio, 52. “It’s interesting to preserve this as an art. It’s really fantastic.”

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