Some of the best eating in Tokyo is next to a No Eating sign. In a department store, that is. Looming like aircraft carriers, these stores, called depato— the city has more than a dozen major ones—are bustling, self-contained civilizations, mixing locals and visitors. But it’s downstairs where they really come alive. The vast space of each store’s depachika (basement foodhall) is filled with refined gourmet grocers, both Japanese and European; their glass cases teem with a Willy Wonka–like array of pastries, fruits, meats, fish, molded-jelly desserts, whiskies...all ready to be devoured. Fruit is grown to exacting standards and colors (strawberries pearl-white, apples as big as grapefruits), and seafood is as intimi- dating as it is delicious (Babylon sea snails; tiny, spicy wakasagi smelt). Just be prepared for lines and make sure to eat your finds in your hotel room or upstairs: Most depato have a rooftop garden with tables.
It’s Tokyo’s oldest department store, dating to 1673. Of the four around the city, we liked the one in Ginza. Take home the “gift fruit” ($216 muskmelons, $100 cherries), found just off the elevator of basement level two. Arrive before 10:30 A.M. to avoid the lines. Nearby at Johan Paris, the chocolate bread has been a favorite since the Parisian baker opened his stall in the ’80s. For lunch, try the handmade noodles from the Hakone Akatsukian soba shop upstairs. 4-6-16 Ginza, Chuo-ku; mitsukoshi.mistore.jp.
The most comprehensive of Tokyo’s food halls opens at 10:30, when some locals grab lunch. Snack on wide-ranging samples given out by friendly attendants, from German cheeses to matcha confections. French pastries are abundant, and indeed the Pierre Hermé macaron towers are impressive. But buy local: bento boxes, botamochi dumplings, kasutera sponge cakes (try Fukusaya’s), and yakitori. 3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; isetan.mistore.jp.
The 185-year-old store has four outposts in the city, in Tamagawa, Shinjuku, Tachikawa, and Nihonbashi. At the latter, white-gloved elevator operators bow and beckon you to an incredible selection of produce (say, 11 varieties of cucumbers) and fresh fish (sardines, whole salmon from Hokkaido). Go for the snacks: fried quail eggs, fish-shaped waffles, takoyaki (octopus-filled fried dough balls), and every imaginable kind of crunchy bean chip. 2-4-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku; takashimaya.co.jp.