Each department store is crammed with shops carrying a dizzying array of high-quality groceries, perfect for a quick picnic lunch or a snack before hopping the train to the airport.

Depachika = depa (short for depaato, or department store) + chika (basement)

Why is there a Japanese word for "department-store basement"? Step into one and you will immediately comprehend the import of such a word.

Every Japanese department store worth its hand-harvested sea salt will have its own depachika, some of which encompass several floors, and all of which are crammed with individual shops carrying a dizzying array of high-quality groceries. These immaculate shrines to consumption contain all manner of raw and prepared foods, ranging from fresh baby sardines on ice to delicately scented lavender-and-vanilla macaroons. Shoppers could spend a fortune on the finest shade-grown green tea from Fukuoka and seasonally-themed wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), or simply roam the maze of shops for a feast of the visual variety.

It is probably wise not to visit with hunger pangs, as a glance at the gleaming pastry counters or trays of crispy tempura will elicit them anyway. Aisles snaking between the various shops and counters lead to bountiful displays of cakes, shiny unblemished fruits, packages of pickled vegetables and marbled cuts of marbled wagyu beef. But the ubiquity of department stores around Tokyo also make depachika convenient places to pick up a bento box for a quick picnic lunch that feels as decadent as it is inexpensive. They are also fantastic spots to spend your last stash of yen before hopping the train to the airport. Pick up some gorgeously packaged petits fours, crunchy rice crackers or dried shredded squid for the folks at home, and pick up a couple of onigiri (rice balls) for an in-flight snack.

In cosmopolitan Tokyo, fierce competition keeps the depachika on top of lucrative gourmet trends. The debut of a heavily touted cream puff can mean hours of queuing for the ensuing months-long feeding frenzy. There is even a website (in Japanese) tracking current food fairs, limited-time bargains and special-guest vendors, so that OLs (office ladies) can snap up gourmet deals on their way home from work.

Time your visit for the hour before closing - usually around 8 pm - when prices are significantly slashed on everything from packaged sushi to perfectly ripe Asian pears. Or simply stop in to stare at the artistically arranged counter displays and nibble at the samples.

Tokyo's top five depachika:

  • Isetan (3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku) - Commonly recognised as the best in Tokyo, Isetan is the best depachika for taming a sweet tooth.
  • Daimaru (1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku) - Centrally located at Tokyo Station.
  • Takashimaya (2-4-1 Nihonbashi, Chūō-ku) - Another venerable giant in the heart of Tokyo.
  • Mitsukoshi (4-6-16 Ginza, Chūō-ku) - In the Ginza shopping district.
  • Seibu (1-28-1 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku) - This depachika is the biggest in Tokyo and worth a wander for sheer scale.

The article 'The depachika of Tokyo' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.