I’ve always wanted to go to Tokyo, and this seals the deal. Huge thanks to Joan for giving us a glimpse of the local food movement direct from Japan.
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Farmers Market Update: Tokyo
by Joan Lambert Bailey
First thoughts of Tokyo usually do not include farmer’s markets. Yet, this megalopolis balances its abundance of concrete, neon, and skyscrapers with a healthy dose of green spaces large and small that in the last few years have begun to include a handful of western-style farmers markets. A burgeoning local food movement fueled by food safety concerns as well as a cultural penchant for local, seasonal foods draw growers, producers, and eaters together in ever-increasing numbers to mix and mingle over tables brimming with seasonal fare.
Heading down to the weekly United Nations University Farmers Market is to enter one of the city’s larger hives of fresh, local foods. An easy (albeit slightly uphill) walk from hopping Shibuya, the market attracts growers and producers from literally all over the country. (“Local” here often means not only the city or region the market is located in, but Japan itself.) On our most recent trip we met vendors from the northernmost island of Hokkaido, as far south as the island of Kyushu, mountainous Nagano, and the Izu-Hanto Peninsula. Many also come from as close as Chiba, a fantastically beautiful growing area just southwest of Tokyo, as famous for its rice and vegetables as it is for it’s surfing.
The day we went a spell of cool rainy weather had just broken and bursts of sunshine seemed to sprout shoppers in every corner of the market. Lined up two deep at nearly each of the more than seventy stalls arrayed under white awnings in front of the university, the atmosphere buzzed with good food shopping. Vendors offered up a mix of the last of the summer – eggplants, okra, nashi (Japanese pear) and edamame – alongside the first tastes of fall and winter – kaki (persimmon), chestnuts, apples, sweet potatoes and early winter greens. The first of this year’s rice harvest as well as new miso, honey, jam, green yuzu, grapes, and satoimo (taro) helped fill out the days selection, too. It’s easy to find enough ingredients for a week’s worth of meals. (I confess that I usually overdo because I can’t resist a good-looking vegetable!)
On our first turn about to see what was on offer I stopped to visit Ryohei Watanabe of Farm Campus, a new CSA where members purchase a cross-section of rows of assorted seasonal vegetables with the option to work the fields themselves. Along with brochures about his CSA, Ryohei offered up moroheya – a tasty and nutritious leafy green, lovely winter squash in all sizes, Chinese greens, okra, green peppers, and eggplant. He’s toying with the idea of planting late season sweet corn, an experiment I’m anxious to hear (and taste) the results of when the time comes. Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist the squash, and so a medium Yukigesyo was the first purchase to land in my bag.
Down the lane a bit, just past a beautiful display of blue, red, and yellow potatoes from Hokkaido, I ran into KOGA Ecological Club. A student group from Kokugakuin University, KOGA members work with aging farmers in a shiraku (hamlet) in Chiba. Learning farming from preparing fields for harvest to selling the harvest at market, they offered chestnuts, samples of newly harvested boiled peanuts, as well as kodaimai, an heirloom rice distinctive for its easy growing as well as its red coloring, and togarashi (Japanese hot peppers). Clearly enjoying themselves, this table drew in a bevy of customers for their infectious enthusiasm as much as their tasty wares. Caught up in it myself, I added chestnuts, kodaimai, and togarashi to our upcoming menu.
Swinging around to the other side of the market past stalls selling rock salt, mushroom spore filled logs for home growing, and fresh bread, I stopped to sample the steamed buns filled with sweet potato from Shikisaisai in Fukushima. An all organic farm run by a young couple, they alone could have filled our larder for the week. Reasonably priced bags of newly harvested brown rice and big shapely sweet potatoes dug just the day before joined the usual combination of later summer and early winter vegetables. This first taste of the year’s limited sweet potato harvest (high heat paired with drought conditions are making for a very limited supply of this signature fall crop) made it inevitable that two of them would get added to our menu for steaming with that evening’s rice.
Just next to Shikisaisai, the Sunny Products booth offered up a myriad of vegetables along with some tasty looking eringi, one of the many seasonal mushrooms swinging into their peak just now and considerably cheaper than the famous matsutake. Like a handful of other vendors at this particular market, Sunny Products is a distributor rather than a grower. Carefully labeled items let customers know the name of the farm and its location, and staff are able to discuss a particular grower as well as share recipes. It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that the eringi journeyed home to our table, too.
Circling back around, I ventured over to a particularly nice looking display of kaki (persimmon) near Farm Campus’ stall. Perhaps the fruit of the season in Japan, kaki trees can be found in urban and suburban areas as well as outlying areas heavy with fruit. This booth served up three varieties from Aichi and Fukuoka Prefectures – long and chubby, round and fat, and square and stout – with slightly differing levels of sweetness. Tasty fresh, dried, or even soaked in sake for extended periods of time, the kaki never disappoints. I came away with one of each to compare for myself and for a colorful dessert option.
Read more about How to pick a persimmon
What we bought:
- Yukigesyo Winter Squash
- Kodaimai Heirloom Rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Eringi Mushrooms
Tips and Insights
- The UN University Market runs every weekend on both Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Most vendors come both days, but not all. It’s worth the effort to try and come both days or switch back and forth from week to week.
- Every third Friday of the month a Night Market is held. Food vendors, live music, and farmers make for a unique evening out in the city. Even on the chilliest of evenings it’s not to be missed!
- Not all vendors, of course, speak English, but smiles, a general show of interest and a sincere “Arigato!” (thank you) at the end all go a long way for a positive food shopping experience.
- Not all vendors are organic or necessarily farmers. Some are distributors, like Sunny Products, and others are Tokyo relatives of the growers. Asking where the food comes from and how it got to Tokyo is fine, and the majority of vendors will have brochures or business cards with a website listed, too.
- Bring an extra shopping bag as well as a small notebook. If you’re like me, you end up buying more than you thought, and it’s easier to remember the name of a new fruit or vegetable if you can jot it down. Plus, a recipe often follows, and you’ll get so many good ones you should be prepared.
- Plenty of interesting food carts are on hand, too, selling everything from coffee and pastries to full meals – vegetarian, organic, and meaty – with accompanying tables and chairs.
- A few craft vendors are also present selling beautiful handmade goods that make excellent gifts for anyone (including yourself!) on your list.