Hokkaido is packed today. There are people everywhere crowding the aisles, snapping up the boxes of chocolate-covered potato chips, sifting through the packets of dried seafood, piling little tubs of yoghurt into their baskets.
You get the feeling Hokkaido is busy on most days. This prefecture is famous across Japan for its fresh produce, for the bounty that's grown in its mineral-rich volcanic soils and harvested from its cold, clean waters. Japanese people know all about Hokkaido, and that's why they're here today.
They're not, however, in Hokkaido proper. They're in Hokkaido the shop, Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza, an "antenna store" in central Tokyo. So much that's good about Hokkaido, so much that's famous about this island prefecture, is stacked on the shelves of this busy store. There's a stand at the front dedicated to Hokkaido's iconic Royce chocolates; a machine in one corner spits out insanely good soft-serve ice-cream; a refrigerated section on one wall is stocked with Hokkaido's famous seafood products.
The residents of Tokyo call in here to pick up these local island specialties. Some of those shoppers grew up in Hokkaido and miss the produce of home. Others just want to get their hands on the best stuff.
And this store isn't unique, either. It's actually one of many antenna stores in Tokyo, one of a huge network of shops, each dedicated to a particular Japanese prefecture or city, each a showcase that allows an area to peddle its wares and promote its attractions. Sometimes the local specialties on offer are stationery or items of clothing; sometimes it's merchandise from the local baseball team. Mostly, however, antenna stores stock the thing Japanese people are truly obsessed with: food.
Take the Nagano antenna store, in central Ginza: it has beautiful fruit, apples, pears and yuzu that look like little works of art. It also has a sake tasting bar, and a place to sample wines from the prefecture's fledgling local industry. The Toyama store, in the Nihonbashi neighbourhood, has a huge range of smoked fish, lovingly packaged, high-end and expensive. The Hiroshima antenna store sells boxes of make-your-own Hiroshima-style ramen.
Most of Tokyo's antenna stores also have restaurants attached, where imported regional chefs whip up local specialties – the top level of the Hiroshima store is an okonomiyaki restaurant, where chefs fry up towers of noodles and cabbage topped with oysters and squid. Some stores have travel desks too, with information on what to do in their prefecture, where to go, where to stay.
For those who live in Tokyo, these antenna stores mean always being able to get hold of the country's best seasonal produce, always being in touch with local specialties. For foreign visitors these shops are a way to tour Japan in its entirety, to travel to any prefecture you like and sample its specialties without ever leaving Tokyo.
In fact you barely even have to leave Ginza. This upmarket shopping area in central Tokyo is home to the bulk of the city's best antenna stores. Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza is here, tucked into a small area called Yurakucho. There's also an Akita store here, famous for its sake. There's an Osaka shop with great craft beer, a Hakata store with excellent local pickles, a Wakayama outlet with dried fish, and the Washita shop with tropical fruits native to this southern island outpost.
It's the best of Japan, stacked on shelves, placed in fridges, bottled and packaged and sealed and canned. It's a whole country set within a few city blocks. And Hokkaido is the perfect place to start.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Tokyo Convention and Visitors Bureau.
ANA flies daily from Sydney to Tokyo Haneda. See www.ana.co.jp or call 1800 081 765.
The Keio Plaza Shinjuku has beautiful rooms in the perfect location, walking distance to Shinjuku train station and other attractions. See www.keioplaza.com
For a full list of Tokyo's antenna stores, including where to find them, see www.bento.com/r-antenna.html