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A giant chef's head – he looks a lot like the Italian pizza-box guy – watches over the action from a rooftop in Kappabashi-dori, the tightly packed Tokyo shopping strip known as Kitchen Town. You can get just about any food-related item you need (or don't need) here: These hundred or so culinary pro shops are where the city's 160,000 restaurateurs come to buy equipment and where international food nerds lose their minds. If you've got even the slightest yen for kitchen collectibles, you're at serious risk of being upgraded from pack rat to pack whale. I'm tempted by stacks of colourful bowls, compartmentalized bento boxes, ceramic teacups, forests of chopsticks and different-sized batons of charcoal for yakitori. A knife store, with a wincing array of ceramic utility knives, tuna-fileting swords and steel cleavers for chopping soba noodles, tells me they will engrave my name on a blade while I wait.

Sampuru pasta with mussels The area is also a source for sampuru, the detailed food replicas showcased in so many restaurant windows in Japan, visual shorthand for what's served inside. The Ganso Shokuhin Sanpuru-ya showroom is a kaleidoscope of fake dishes, from nigiri sushi fridge magnets to trompe l'oeil bowls of ramen, chopsticks magically hovering in the air. Done well, the facsimiles are remarkably real: Shrimp has just the right sheen and promise of juiciness; uncooked meat is striated with luscious fat; a slice of tomato, seeds suspended in jelly against a rosy pulp, is so obviously perfectly ripe. While not all equally artful – the cheap candy-coloured desserts are garish, and, depending on its shape, cooked beef can go terribly wrong – they're a source of fascination in Japan, the subject of reality shows, countless tchotchkes and DIY workshops.

"Recently, it has been recognized as a part of Japanese culture that can make people amazed and impressed," says Takashi Nakai of Iwasaki Be-I, the country's largest manufacturer of fake foods, as he ushers me up a winding staircase behind the till. In Ganso's second-floor atelier, I join a group of giggling ladies and one barrel-chested father with his 10-year-old daughter – he's impassive, but I can tell he's loving this – for a hands-on model-making session. Sampuru artisan Katsuyoshi Yamashita, who is waiting for us behind metal vats of warm water, little pots of colourful hot wax at his side, indicates that we should put on aprons so he can show us his craft.

Sampuru sashimiFor tempura, the yellow wax has to be poured from half a metre high so that it flecks the surface of the water to recreate the crisped effect of deep-fried batter. Loosely gathered up, it is shaped around a faux filling; there is lotus root, a wedge of pumpkin, green pepper or sweet potato, but almost all of us choose the shrimp. Making iceberg lettuce is sleight-of-hand stuff. I gently spoon the hot white wax into a vat of warm water, and it starts to float as it touches the surface. Mr. Yamashita adds a layer of green along the base and gets me to drag it with the back of the ladle, stretching the two shades together. With his words of encouragement and a little manual adjustment, I shape it into a rough rectangle. I take that by the edges, dip it down under the water and slowly pull it up into a long sheet textured with natural-looking ridges. Everyone makes impressed sounds as the delicate sheaf is extracted. Then Mr. Yamashita instructs me to cradle and fold, gently tilting it to one side and the other, until it forms a loose ball. Don't squeeze, he says, never squeeze. One advantage of wax is that it's true to life inside and out. He slices the lettuce in half with a knife to show me the folds of those crunchy glistening leaves. I am duly amazed and impressed.

Sampuru toastSampuru – from the English word "sample" – really took off after the First World War as a way to explain Western foods to the Japanese public. The first model created in 1932 by Takizo Iwasaki – "the father of plastic food," according to Mr. Nakai – was an omelette (omurice, served with fried rice and ketchup, remains a popular design). Items range from hambaagu (bunless ground meat, often in demi-glace) and Napolitan (spaghetti with tomato-based sauce) to classic Japanese dishes, the assorted sashimi platter being one of the toughest to recreate. Raw ingredients are a real challenge to render convincingly, Mr. Yamashita notes. Until the mid-1980s, he explains, wax was the material of choice. Nowadays, most models are made from PVC; they won't melt in the heat and are less labour-intensive. The sculpting, colouring and finishing details still demand a lot of skill, and displays can cost thousands of dollars. Sometimes artisans work from photos sent in by a restaurant, but often dishes are prepared and couriered, with moulds made immediately from the real thing. Still, Mr. Yamashita tells me that some owners, believing a restaurant is only as authentic as its fake food, still insist on handmade wax models – a tradition this shop is trying to maintain.

Nods, bows and waves, and they send me off with my takeout container of shrimp tempura and lettuce tucked under my arm, emblazoned with warnings in Japanese and English. Mr. Nakai even points to the words to be sure I get it. "This is not edible! Do not eat!" Got it: This fake food never gets old.

Getting There

Air Canada operates the most flights to Tokyo from Canada, with daily non-stop flights from Vancouver and Toronto, as well three weekly flights from Calgary.

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