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Irresistible food models in front of restaurants in Japan are true-to-life imitations — which are becoming souvenir favorites of international visitors. From fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, desserts and cakes, to cooked meals like ramen, curry, tempura, broiled fish, and sushi, all items in this model feast are handmade.
Some say food models were first created during the early Showa period (1930s) for an Osaka restaurant that demanded food replicas to promote its menu. Models that clearly showed real meals served seemed to attract more customers, leading to popular displays in front of many shops. Now, elaborate models show delicious details of foods served by each restaurant and are custom-made by virtuoso food model craftsmen.
These models look so real that some people may try to eat them. The secret of this realism is how artisans make molds of real food and colorize the models to appear even more appetizing than the real thing, says Katsuji Kaneyama, a 40-year career food model-maker.
“Models are mostly made of vinyl resin and wax with oil paint, usually in more than a single color. We don’t just use simple white paint for white foods such as mochi (Japanese rice cake) or vanilla ice cream but add a bit of brown, black, or yellow paint to create an exclusive white color that matches the food.
“Only subtle color can express food softness and texture. I tell young staff members to go back to the original if they’re not sure. But you gain expertise in this work, so you can judge which colors to mix immediately after looking at the real food. Good artisans can make the colors they need, quickly.”

Food model artisans have honed the ability to create not just realistic but sensational displays that stimulate the viewer’s appetite. In the 1970s, noodle food models started to show the action of raising noodles with chopsticks or a fork. Ever since, some models have continued to “capture the moment” of delivering food to the diner’s invisible mouth, whetting our appetites.
Now, Mr. Kaneyama is especially fussy about cold drinks. His models of cold beer feature tiny water droplets on the mug, so viewers can’t help craving a cold drink.
“When I see and hear reactions — ‘It’s so real!’ and ‘Looks delicious!’ — I feel inspired to create even better displays. Making tasty-looking models is like cooking, although the materials are different. Understanding ‘recipes’ and tricks is very important. The final process of the work — serving the food — is important in cooking and in creating models since results have to look fantastic. Whenever I watch TV cooking shows or eat restaurant meals, I use those experiences in presenting my works,” he says.
According to Mr. Kaneyama, the supreme goal of food model artisans is simply reproducing the client’s exacting sales points. He says, “Craftsmen are not artists. Their work is to satisfy the customer’s requests. And, at the same time, they have to produce good-quality things, as quickly as possible. Ever since I was young, I’ve wanted to try to clearly visualize in my head what should be made while teaching my body the work process before starting it. Some international customers say Japanese are dexterous. But after all, experience and effort count most in this work.”

[photo]Katsuji Kaneyama

Katsuji Kaneyama

Born in 1960 in Hachiman-cho, Gifu Prefecture. When Mr. Kaneyama was young, he aimed to become a food model craftsman in the specialty industry of his birthplace, trained in his craft, and became independent. He now receives orders from around Japan, is in charge of model production for various cuisines and foods, and constantly challenges himself by taking new orders and creating entirely new models. At his hands-on atelier called Sample Kobo, he shares the techniques and appeal of food model-making with visitors from all over the world, aiming to pass on his legacy to the next generation.