NAHA, Japan — Who said Japan’s not a foreigner-friendly country?

One of the painstaking chores tourists face in a foreign country is ordering food at a restaurant.

In Japan, there is no need to read a menu. Simply point at a life-size plastic food model displayed for you.

“It helps Americans who don’t read menus written in Japanese,” Consuelo Ferdin, the spouse of a U.S. Marine on Okinawa, said while browsing a local shopping mall near Camp Lester. “It helps me to decide what type of food I want to eat.” She got her first glimpse of food models at the Kansai International Airport in Osaka.

“I saw them and I chose curry with rice, which included a selection of beef or chicken,” she said.

“At some restaurants where no food models are available, I make animal noises,” she said jokingly while impersonating a chicken.

“It is an art,” said Pamela Zaehler, also a Marine spouse who joined Ferdin at the mall. “Before coming to Japan, I saw a TV program in the States introducing Japan’s food models. I thought it was a real good idea.

“Now, here in Japan, they are everywhere.”

The history of food replicas is fairly new. When Japan opened its doors in the late 19th century after 200 years of isolation, Western culture — including a variety of dishes — trickled into the country, said Tatsuya Mitsuji of Iwasaki, an Osaka-based food model manufacturer.

“By the beginning of the 20th century, dishes such as spaghetti, hamburger and omelet were introduced, but Japanese people in those days had no idea what kind of food they were,” he said. “Displaying a real dish at the window, however, was costly because they had to be replaced every day.”

Thus, wax food models were invented.

As time went by, wax was replaced with synthetic resin, material that lasted longer and was easier to work with, Mitsuji said.

“The type of resin and coloring we use to make a genuine-looking and most-appetizing food model is our company secret,” he said.

At a food model factory in Naha, Satoshi Yara pulled a fresh-from-the-oven green goya, an Okinawan bitter squash, out of a mold. At a corner desk, using a paintbrush, he touched up the color to make the vegetable look even fresher and more vivid.

“After we take an order, we visit the restaurant and watch how the dish is cooked,” said the owner of Sangetsu, the only food model factory on Okinawa. “We then take photos and study them before making the replica. The model has to be exactly the same as the dish served at the restaurant — the portion, the shape and the color.”

Some dish models take only 15 to 20 minutes to complete, but others require days until satisfactory ones were made, Yara added.

Making food models requires good preparation, he said as he opened drawers packed with sliced mushrooms, diced potatoes, green peas and corn — all nonperishable.

“If we don’t put our heart in it, no good food models are possible, just like cooking,” he said.

As he talked, Yoko Kuda was busy baking cookies, coloring and coating them with poppy seeds.

“Strange as it may sound, I can even smell the real thing when a good piece is made,” she said.

Lately, the clever imitations are expanding their market to the field of medicine. Yara’s factory takes orders from hospitals, schools and municipal governments. Dieticians found it helpful to use the food models for their special diet training for people who had diabetes, hyperlipaemia or high blood pressure, he said.

“They said that visual samples help people to get an idea what types of food and how much they should eat,” he said.

Downstairs of the factory, Sangetsu, is a space to display the art of replicas. From a large hors d’oeuvre to a bowl of soba noodles to ice-cold draft beer, show cases are filled with mouth-watering food. Miniature replicas are made into refrigerator magnets and key chains for sale. Yara said that among many local people, Americans occasionally visited his shop.

“One American lady who came last year picked up some bread models,” he said. “She told us that she was planning to mix them with real ones at a party dinner.”

How to get to Sangetsu

From Kadena’s Gate 2, turn right at the Goya intersection and drive Highway 330 south to Naha about 45 minutes until you pass the Omoromachi monorail station. Proceed with the highway and immediately after passing a bridge, turn right at the intersection where a gas station is. Sangetsu is a few buildings from the gas station on the left. Parking space is limited.

The store is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and is closed Sundays and Japanese holidays. It also is closed for one or two Saturdays a month. For information on Saturday operation, call 098-866-1024.

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