Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Moments

Erika Dreifus recently tweeted this blog post from Lisa Romeo that varied slightly from the usual year-end reflection concept. Rather than thinking solely about New Year's resolutions, the author suggests focusing for a moment on what was accomplished. The idea struck a chord with me as 2011 has been a busy one with extra teaching responsibilities and an increased effort on writing while still attempting to farm, garden, visit farmer's markets in Tokyo and beyond while studying Japanese and trying out new recipes while perfecting some old ones. It's all been good fun, but it's also no surprise that our winter Hokkaido vacation finds me leaning towards the nap as a favored activity.

Daizu Revolution and Takashi Watanabe Interview
I first met Takashi Watanabe in January at an eco+waza event at Earth Day Market headquarters in Tokyo. Intrigued by his story and the birth of Tozaiba, a non-profit organization bringing people together in fallow fields to grow heirloom varieties of daizu (soybeans) along with a little bit of community, I later followed up with an interview for a Real Time Farms blog post. I don't see soybeans the same way any longer.

Osaka's Odona Farmer's Market
We self-evacuated after the March earthquake to Osaka to take a break from the aftershocks and to see what might happen in those early days. I was on crutches from a dancing injury (don't ask), and it seemed like a safe choice. Not one to let earthquakes, nuclear disasters or a strained Achilles keep me away from vegetable exploration I bumbled my way over to a market I'd missed during our January visit. Wow. My visit to this rockin' market went up a few days later on Summer Tomato.

Satoyama
One of Japan's most unique farming practices is that of satoyama - a farming practice that leaves itself a buffer of half-wild, half-managed land between it and the surrounding wilderness - that offers a viable enough set of sustainable techniques that an international organnization, The Satoyama Initiative, began implementing and studying similar practices and projects around the world. My assignment from eco+waza to cover it was another eye-opener.

Blogathon Year Two
Perhaps one of the most formative blogging experiences I've had yet, participating in WordCount's annual Blogathon shaped my writing life and introduced me to a great community of fellow writers. The challenge of writing a post a day every day for the month of May always sounds easy, but it isn't. Inspiration occasionally runs dry, and a busy schedule of planting and teaching sometimes means a post written in the haze that settles over me just before bed. All that, and I'm looking forward to doing it again in 2012.

Ludlow and England
September found us tromping about with some of our favorite people in the world on their home turf: England. They introduced me to the Ludlow Food Festival, and I am nearly desperate to return in 2012 to sample, meet, sample, and learn. It was just amazing. The resulting pleasure of eating at The Talbot Inn after picking perry pears at Oliver's Cider and Perry were two unforgettable highlights that I shamefully have not written about yet. (I know. Focus on what was accomplished, but I loved doing those two things so much.) Next year, maybe a trip to the Eden Project, the RISC Roof Garden, and another day perry picking would be a dream. The four extra kilograms I put on are worth the risk.

Hokkaido Bike Tour
No big hiking trip this year due to that darn Achilles, so we opted to try biking instead. We folded up our bikes, packed them on a plane, and made our way north. After a glorious week of cat-sitting, we packed our backpacks, unfolded our bikes and hit the road for places like Akeshi, Nemuro, and Hamanaka. It was glorious, albeit exhausting, and I'm hoping to find myself doing it again this summer, too. (The leg was fine, by the way.)

Too Much Other Good Stuff
The list is getting too long, so I'm going to wrap up and get ready to greet the year of the Dragon on our current trip to Hokkaido. The year is ending well as I meet weekly with a good friend working on a first book to talk about writing and goals, and hope to visit farmer's markets again in Aizu Wakamatsu and Sendai to see how farmers in areas affected by the March 11th disaster are faring. See you then!

Got a few highlights of the year? Let's hear it!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Winter Thoughts: Reprise

We are in Hokkaido again satisfying our taste for winter. Three summer visits - two camping and hiking in Daisetsuzan and one very homemade bike tour - left us curious to see what those same landscapes might look like covered with snow. One day after our first cross-country ski at Asahidake, the island's tallest peak, we remain dazzled by the magic of the landscape. While it might be odd for a farmer-gardener type such as myself to adore this season of bitter cold and frozen landscapes, I most certainly do. Here's a 2008 post (pre-Japan and very early blogging days, indeed) setting out a few reasons why I feel this way.

Winter is easily my favorite season. A friend asked me recently as we set out on a cross-country ski adventure why that is the case. Was it because I'm originally from Wisconsin? I theorized that it is perhaps because my birthday is in Winter. (It seems logical that any season in which one receives presents could well be a favorite.)

I like the starkness of Winter, I confess. I like the cold air that freezes my throat and lungs a bit when I breathe it in. I like the contrasting colors of a gentle snowfall that sketches the texture of tree branches and bark so that I feel as though I see them all for the first time. I like the drifts that look like frozen time that the wind deposited. I like the snap of stars on a cold, cold night, and the squeak it makes when I walk. There is nothing so beautiful to me as a moonlit night of still, bitter cold on that white, blue, and black landscape. It thrills me with a sense of magic and life like no other moment.

Winter feels in its frozen grace like life. Perhaps it is the contrast with what we so often think of as representing life - green lush leaves, bright petals waving at passing bees - that appeals to me. It is the potential for life just under the ice and snow, the knowledge that these branches so clear to me now will be obscured by a bounty of green leaves in a few months.

Yet, that does not feel like the right answer, either. And perhaps it doesn't matter. The cold wind fills me with joy when I breathe it in, and comforts me as it sings me off to sleep. The glint of sun or moon on a hillside is pure happiness.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mitaka Vegetable Stand and the Urban Farmscape

Mikiko and Satoru 
Maybe it was the bright white of the daikon or the fat haksai (Chinese cabbage) loitering on the table that first caught my eye, but the result was the same as usual: we stopped for a closer look. Out on one of our urban hikes earlier this week in our Tokyo neighborhood, we found a new vegetable venture.

The Mitaka Vegetable Store, opened just recently by Satoru and Mikiko, does something so simple it borders on the profound. In a day and age when it is easy to find tomatoes from Okinawa, apples from Yamanashi, or potatoes from Hokkaido in the local supermarket, these two showcase produce from the nearby urban farmscape. Carrots, komatsuna, and small red daikon join the aforementioned vegetables to make a small but splendid display of winter produce. Sourced from conventional as well as organic farms (including the organic family farm C-Cafe partners with for its monthly organic buffet), the store sells Mitaka vegetables to Mitaka citizens.

"Mitaka has many good vegetables and farmers, and people don't know," said Satoru when I asked him why they decided to start their business.

And I couldn't agree more. While I love the abundance of Tokyo farmer's markets and the amazing people I meet there, I also often wonder why Tokyo farmers aren't represented. Even in Kichijoji's market, one train station east of where I stood talking with Mikiko and Satoru, there wasn't a grower or producer from the neighborhood that I could find. It seemed mildly absurd to me that one of Tokyo's greatest resources - it's urban farmers and their fantastic offerings - weren't represented.

When I talk to my farmers about this, they say they don't see the point in carting their harvest to a far-away market (it would be at least a forty minute drive even to the Earth Day Market in Yoyogi Park or the UN University Market near Shibuya) when they can sell directly to the community from a vegetable stand

 "We can talk with the customers and build a relationship," they said one day as we harvested haksai for delivery to our nearby Ito Yokado. The surplus that the big supermarket won't take lands at a table just outside the farmhouse gate where it gets snapped up almost immediately by passers-by. Those in the know venture one block over to find us in the greenhouse or field for a chat and to sometimes even choose for themselves. These visits result in conversations about the weather, cooking, family, current events, and even the occasional bit of gossip.

Yet, people are shocked to learn that our farm exists and even more so when they learn that we sell to the local branch of a major supermarket. Many believe the names and photos of farmers often featured on packages or signs in the produce section are simply part of a grand marketing scheme to entice them to buy. I've heard people laughing as they see the tag for our Musashi Sakai broccoli or cabbage, doubtful of its origins. I can't blame them, but as someone who prepared that field, planted that crop, and probably helped with that very harvest it feels a little heart-breaking. (Now that I'm more confident in my language skills, I would probably introduce myself and let them know that in this particular case what they see is true.)

There aren't so many farms left in Tokyo, but I'm a firm believer that we should support those that are still here and keep them in business. Not only are they are unique feature of our cityscape and a living segment of history (farmers were encouraged to settle the Tamagawa plain during the Edo Period to feed the city's growing population), but they are something to bank on for a future in a country with a low food-security rate and declining population of farmers. And there's nothing so delightful as finding a field of eggplant, trellised kiwi vines heavy with fruit, or nashi orchard in full bloom in a sea of concrete and glass.

Mitaka Vegetable Store
Monday through Friday
11am to 5pm
Directions: Exit Mitaka Station from the south side and head down the escalator to the street level. Cross to the left side and walk down about two blocks and look for two enthusiastic people with a great variety of seasonal local produce. (Map and detailed location information soon to follow!)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Joy of Dirty Hands: Reprise


It feels like I'm rooting around in the attic these days, sorting through old photographs and trinkets for fun and nostalgia. The end of the year is almost always a time for reflection, and I seem to be hearkening back to our first days in Japan at the moment. (Early writing again, so bear with me.)  I'm also thinking hard about farming, gardening, food, and writing, and so re-reading posts like the one below (first appeared on this blog on December 19, 2009) and Farmwork Thoughts seems appropriate. Perhaps I'm taking inventory, reassessing, or just plain checking in with myself. Hope you enjoy it, and let me know what you think. -JLB


Photo Note: This photo was taken in March, 2011 while I was on crutches and a few weeks after the earthquake. The garden was the only place I found peace in those days, so it seems a good fit here. 

When I was a kid I hated gardening. My mother asked me to help her in the garden, and I'm pretty certain I whined and was such a miserable companion that she finally found great relief in letting me just stay indoors to read or watch TV. It was too hot. It was boring. It was dirty. And tomato hornworms were just too gross for words.

Gardening is now something I find I can't live without. Our move to Tokyo in March of this year was only feasible in my mind because I had a chance to have a garden. (That first one fell through, but then another and even better opportunity presented itself.) I didn't even have a garden of my own until we moved into a farmhouse in Michigan more than five years ago. There, along an old fence, I dug out the sod in a strip about two or three feet wide and about ten feet long and planted my first tomatoes, beans, kale, swiss chard, basil, parsley, and beets. It wasn't long before nasturtiums and johnny-jump-ups, and a couple bush squash plants were added. The next year the garden jumped the fence - literally and figuratively - to become about four times larger. Popcorn, cardinal climber, morning glories, potatoes, cosmos, chives, and peas joined the green chorus.

Morning found me in dew soaked slippers with a steaming coffee checking the progress of seedlings or just soaking in the thrill of seeing those plants. Before heading into the house after a day at work I'd walk over to the garden to see how the day had gone, and more than once a nice skirt received a swish of dirt from an irresistible urge to weed "just a little bit" before even greeting my husband.

I found in gardening a chance to do something concrete. It put food on our table, in our freezer, on the pantry shelves, and made for some great gifts. Canning tomatoes, drying herbs, and whipping up batches of pesto for winter pasta remains satisfying work. And the task of eating them is work I tackle with relish.

I found great beauty. Thick veined cabbage leaves are one of the most beautiful things I think I've ever seen. Cobs of homegrown popcorn glinting in the sun thrill me to the bone. My own eye for color and composition is still developing, but I confess I don't work too hard at that. I like the increasing madness of my garden as the season progresses.

I made new friends. The praying mantis, the assortment of bees, the birds, and the occasional neighborhood cat are welcome visitors. Not to mention the instant bond that develops with a fellow gardener when we learn of each other's passion. There's nothing better than a good chat about growing vegetables. It's what bonded the Takashi's and I almost instantly despite a language barrier.

It's in my blood. I've written about this before (not for publication), and I think about it more often than not. I come from a long line of farmers (who doesn't, really?), and the joy I find in planting, weeding, harvesting, monitoring, eating from, composting, and viewing the garden (mine and others) courses through my veins. The rolling landscape of hay, corn, horses, wheat, and cows with woods, rivers, lakes, and kitchen gardens the same square footage as many homes in new developments is a part of my heritage of which I am most proud. As I tend my own small plot or work with the Takashi's to tend their fields, my mother and grandmothers and friends and family (here and gone) who've gardened and farmed before work beside me. The joy in that alone wheels me out to the garden and farm again and again.

Gardening and farming presents a chance to explore my own history, the history of others, to find common ground through food and the growing of it. It presents an intellectual and creative challenge each and every day of the year. And an element of surprise in the volunteer nasturtium, the sneaky fresh potato crop. I could write about this for hours, years, and thousands of words, and still not quite hit it right. But when I see dirt still stuck under my fingernails while at my office (I only have so much patience with a nail brush) it reminds me of who I really am and what I love best.

Inspired by the essay contest over at Gardens of the Wild Wild West. This is probably too long, but it was too much fun to stop.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Farmwork Thoughts: Reprise

















This post first appeared in April, 2009, a little more than a month after we arrived in Japan and I started at the farm. While showing a friend around Tokyo's Earth Day Market recently, our conversation turned on the relevance of such markets (it's all organic and fair trade as well as predominantly local) and farmers and why I believe in them so much. And then I remembered this post where I first started tracing some of the thoughts and resulting steps that brought me to where I am now. It's a bit long and a bit rough (early writing, you know), but it still conveys what I feel nearly three years later.

Photo Note: Taken at the farm last year during a workday project sorting togarashi (Japanese hot peppers) for distribution to area restaurants and shops. 

As I work along at a local organic farm planting epic numbers of vegetables - 5,000 cabbage one week and 1,000 broccoli the next - or spreading what feels like endless amounts of manure on fields for eggplant and zucchini, something my friend Amber once said keeps coming back to me.

It was last summer and we were camping in Canada. We were building a fire and setting up camp while the lads muled the rest of our stuff to the site from the car. She was cutting kindling and firewood, and while she sawed she held one end of the branch firmly with one foot while standing on the other. I'm sure I made some attempt at humour, and then we fell into discussion about how we wanted to live our lives. She said, “Doing this, I'm using my whole self - body and mind - together.”

This” referred both to the branch she was cutting and to her work at Ambry Farms. Farming is no easy task in general, but at Ambry they combine horses and tractors to get the job done. One challenge is to find which tasks are better done with what, and then figure out how to do them best. The other challenges (farming has a long list) include fixing whatever is broken, damaged, or so neglected that it takes your whole soul to recognize the flicker of life still lurking in the horse-drawn planter or hay rake. And it can take your whole soul to have faith that that flicker of life is strong enough to be revived.

It was also last summer when I decided to leave my position at a small non-profit. In many ways it had been a dream job for me -  working with volunteers on assorted gardening projects around the properties with a little bit of writing thrown in and all in the name of being helpful to my community - but I could feel hints of burnout. 

So I left. I cried, packed up my desk, cried some more, hugged everyone in the building (no small feat considering the staff numbers about twenty), dropped off my keys, cried some more, and headed out the door. It felt like jumping off a cliff. What was I doing? Was I crazy? What about that degree I'd gotten so I could do this kind of work? We'd just bought a house. My parents would disown me.

But then, I thought about it. I was tired of the commute (45 minutes one way, door to door), and I was becoming tired of the work. The thought of organizing one more event, large or small, made me feel sick to my stomach. It didn't feel right any more. Yes, it was helpful, and yes, it made a difference in the lives of individuals and for the community at large, and yes, I worked with fantastic people not only in my office but all across the city and county. But I was drained.

Luckily, two things were in place. One, we pretty much knew we were moving to Japan the following year. A job was in the works, and we felt it was more than a safe bet that it would be offered. Two, some good friends with an organic farm about two miles away from our home generously offered to make me part of their crew for the summer. Another dream job was about to unfold.

worked at the farm, and loved it. OK, I didn't always love the weeding and there was a day when mosquitoes literally chased us from the back field, but it was the second best summer I've ever had. (The first was the summer I worked at the farm early in our Michigan days, and I was between jobs.) Weeding, harvesting, talking, working quietly, washing vegetables for market, going to market and rumbling home again in the truck was glorious.

Now in Tokyo slinging assorted manures and planting seedling after seedling, Amber's words run through my mind again and again. My arms turn to jelly and my back is sore. I'm sweating like mad while I make sure I've evenly spread the manure or gotten the seedling planted deep to where there is some moisture in the soil. I imagine the eggplants settling into their new home and feasting on what they find to create glossy fruits. I tally the components and wonder what other farmers use, and how their plants will compare. The steps seem so simple – set out the seedlings, crouch to plant, gently press, or spread this then that amount evenly over the field – but behind me and with me is all of the planning and experimentation of multiple generations. New items and strategies and some that are age old. I am lost in the meditation of it all, but simultaneously present for each seedling and toss of manure. My whole body and mind are engaged in this effort from the tips of my gloved fingers to my toes where soil, as usual, has snuck into my shoe.

I come home at the end of the day bone tired, sore, and dirty, but so incredibly happy. It is the joy of a job well done and the good companionship of the farmers. It is the excitement of learning, laughing and working together, and seeing all those plants happily waving back at me from their new home in the field. And I think of the broccoli and cabbage that will come, and how that will feed so many so well, and my joy is nearly inexpressible. Birds hop about, a cat trots across the field, and bugs hum in the trees nearby. What aching back?  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Few More Gift Ideas















As I mentioned earlier, I love giving presents. What's more, I love giving presents that are handmade. Yes, it's more work and yes, it requires a bit of pre-planning (where I often fall a bit short), but a handmade gift often possesses something a bit extra. As I stir the marmalade, knit the socks, or even assemble a tasty package of teas and treats, I'm thinking of the person destined to receive it and all that I think is best about them. Plus, all that bustling means I have a wonderful excuse to eat holiday cookies!

Homemade Gifts – A gift made by hand, whether a pair of socks (mended will do, too), a plate of cookies, or a jar of marmalade, is one of the best ways to capture the spirit of the season. They do require a bit of planning, but once done are as satisfying to give as they are to receive. Homemade marmalades are easier than you think, and perfect for all that citrus decorating the trees just now. Pickles are quite simple, too, as are homemade liqueurs such as umeshu, yuzushu, or even blueberry shu. The liqueurs, though, do need to be started a few months in advance, but now would be a wonderful time to put up some yuzushu for next years' round of gifts.

Handcrafted Foods – If making your own gifts isn't an option, consider heading out to one of Tokyo's many farmer's markets for some season-a-licious treats and more. There you'll find a fun atmosphere in which to sample as well as buy jams, pickles, vinegars, wines, breads, juices, and even some great craft items. Rice – black, red, or white – also makes a unique and tasty gift, as do heirloom varieties of soybeans and miso. Really, the sky (and the carrying capacity of your shopping bag) is the limit.

Classes – Events or workshops are something most of us dream of participating in but always manage to put off for a later day. Classes are a great way to meet people, try something new, and warm up those chilly days with a bit of exercise or a new recipe for a perfect winter dish!

Big Picture – For the person who has everything, including a table heaped with holiday food, why not consider giving a donation of some kind in their honor? Such gifts go a long way toward improving our world and telling the other person it's extra special because they are in it. For a slight variation on that theme, consider purchasing items from Tohoku or those specifically made using fair trade practices.

Photo information: We took this photo in January on a trip to Hida Takayama in the old part of town. Housed in one of the Edo Period warehouses there, this little shop is home to, as I understand it, Tanaka Shinsaku's woodblock prints. Usually made into mokuhangawashizara (wood block on paper plates), here crafted into animal shapes in cloth printed with his designs and stuffed with momigara. Utterly brilliant and beautiful, these would also make excellent gifts.

Got some other good gift-giving ideas? Drop a note and let me know!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tokyo's Farmers Markets: December 17th and 18th

At last, cold weather. Let that bite in the air put a spring in your step as you head out the door to one of the many farmer's markets dotting the city.

The markets are a great source of gifts for those near or far as well as seasonal fruits and vegetables. I should also mention there is no shortage of food carts showcasing yummy treats to warm you up from the inside out. Really, there's no good reason not to go, especially as the Night Market will be swinging it! Keep in mind, too, that later in the month as we near the New Year Holiday these markets most likely won't be running. Grab that daikon while you can! (And that's not a euphemism.)

(Photo Note: Kouko Suzuki of Guru-Guru Farms near Sendai took a moment from talking with her many customers to pose for a photo. Their stand was particularly busy as it was their first visit to the market since the March disaster. It was my pleasure to talk with her, admire her vegetables, and bring home some of their yummy organic brown rice!)

Sunday, December 4 and Sunday December 18
11am to 5pm
A nice sized market held on the terrace just in front of Ebisu Garden Place that will always be special to me for introducing me to dried natto and tea seedpods.

Sunday, December 18
I could go wax on forever about how great this market is and how important it is for the future of Japanese farming. Instead, I'll just insist that folks go and see for themselves what great things the market and these innovative growers are doing.
10am to 4pm, Rain or shine!

Every Saturday and Sunday in December
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, the curry I had during my last visit from one of the vendors was plate-licking good. (I refrained, but only just.)
10am to 4pm

Saturday, December 16
A unique event in the heart of the city that a vegetable loving geek like me wouldn't miss for the world. What better way to get the healthy vitamins and minerals you need to sustain an evening of karaoke and izakaya hopping?
8pm - ?

Every Saturday in December
A recent first visit to this market was well worth the trip for the number of organic growers and getting to meet a Tokyo farmer from just down the tracks in Kokobunji.
10am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in December
Another nice market not far from the sumo stadium in Ryogoku it's worth casing out for the neighborhood as well as the vendors.
11am to 5pm

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Few Gift Ideas

I do love giving presents. My favorite spouse watches our stock of jams, marmalades, pickles, and shus like a hawk to make sure there is enough left in the larder for us to enjoy as I tend to lift jars out on the spur of the moment for sharing. And this time of year, of course, finds me pilfering our stock left and right. It is a double pleasure to see our shelf space open for future jars of goodness and later see the delight on the faces of those receiving the gift.

So, in that spirit I'm going to share a few ideas for gifts that I would love to receive.

Green Curtain Kit – Give the gift of summer shade with a homemade green curtain kit. Easy to assemble – one pretty pot, some seeds, and a bit of netting – all packed up in a pretty furoshiki, the kit is sure to please. Choose morning glories for their heart shaped leaves and brilliant blue blossoms or the classic goya for a curtain that supplies the main ingredient for scrumptious chample. Cucumbers, gourds, watermelon (a little heavy, but so yummy!) or other vining plants make fantastic curtains, too.

Winter Salad Set – If summer feels too far away, why not consider a few winter vegetables? A wide variety of edibles enjoy winter's cooler temperatures and friends will enjoy a fresh taste of the season. Leafy greens such as komatsuna, mizuna, or spinach adore this time of year as do peas, kabu, violas, and herbs like cilantro and parsley. Head over to a nearby nursery for seeds or even seedlings, a cute pot, and give an edible gift that's green in more ways than one!

Handmade Tokyo – A creatively written work documenting a community workshop examining one of the best and greenest things in this metropolis: its gardens. Braiterman and Berthelsen's work combines photography and text to share and explore green spaces large and small and their meaning to Tokyoites and beyond. Arriving in its own handmade wrapper fashioned from cast-off kimono's, there's no wrapping to worry about!

Tokyo Flower Walks – Sumiko Enbutsu's classic should be in the hands of any resident of Tokyo or visitor who happens to be a garden lover. Her seasonal walks range over the city and guide followers of her detailed directions to some of Tokyo's best corners. Clear maps mark the route as well as local points of interest, recommended restaurants, and shops. Each section introduces a particular flower or plant with a narrative description of its relevance to Japanese culture. A great way to explore the city and start developing satoyama sense!

Got some ideas of your own? Let me know and we'll add them to the list!

Photo credit: The favorite spouse took this during our trip home in February while out for a ski on the family land. It was a perfect, perfect day.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Tokyo's Farmer's Markets: December 10th and 11th

By the time this goes up we should have had our first sloshy snow in Tokyo, and I should still be smiling with the thought of tromping about in it until my toes hurt and my gloves dripped with melt water.

Let that be the inspiration you need, too, to get up and out to a farmer's market or food related event around town. There's heaps going on, and let's remember: food makes a most excellent gift! Pickles, marmalade, jam, or just a big bag of rice are welcome presents this time of year (always, really) so don't be shy. Farmer's markets are one of the best places to find super yummy, locally made gifts that will not disappoint!

(Photo Note: Today's picture again comes from Matsushima, a small coastal town just north of Sendai, where I met this lovely woman and her fantastic assortment of vegetables. As usual, I ended up with two daikon in my backpack at the end of our chat. Who needs a gym?)

Saturday, December 10 and Sunday, December 11
A gem of a market hidden away in one of Tokyo's high-end shopping districts offering seasonal favorites in a way that feels homey yet rather boutique-y.
11am to 5pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in December
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, the curry I had during my last visit from one of the vendors was plate-licking good. (I refrained, but only just.)
10am to 4pm

Every Saturday in December
A recent first visit to this market was well worth the trip for the number of organic growers and getting to meet a Tokyo farmer from just down the tracks in Kokobunji.
10am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in December
Another nice market not far from the sumo stadium in Ryogoku it's worth casing out for the neighborhood as well as the vendors.
11am to 5pm

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Toziba's Daizu Revolution















This past August I had the good fortune to interview Takashi Watanabe, founder of Toziba, an innovative non-profit that is one of the most sock-rocking food-farm-community organizations out there. We first met at an Eco+Waza event in January where I was deeply impressed by his story and the motivation for founding Toziba. (I do write for Eco+Waza's website and magazine, by the way.) Munching on early edamame from the farm, I recalled meeting him and decided he'd be an interesting person to interview.

And, so, with the help of a good friend translating we sat down at the Earth Day Market and talked about soybeans (daizu), the importance of heirlooms, and the effects of March's triple disaster on food and how people in Japan are thinking about food. You can read the full article over at Real Time Farms, another sock-rocking food-farm-community organization, for the full scoop.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tokyo's December Farmer's Markets















I've said it before and I'll say it ad nauseum: Winter is Tokyo's season of bounty. My refrigerator drawer overflows with the fantastic greens, root vegetables, and fruit available now at my nearby vegetable stands. We're cleaning up fields (peppers and eggplant most recently) and I'm back at canning again. I'm almost afraid to go to a farmer's market as I know I'll not be able to resist the kaki, apples, yuzu, or the next heirloom daikon or kabu I see. I like to think of it as vegetable therapy, but mostly it's just plain fun. I can't recommend it enough. (Plus, pickles or marmalade make an excellent gift!) Grab a shopping bag and hit the road!

(Photo: Taken on a recent trip to Matsushima, a beautiful coastal town just north of Sendai, these little guys were too adorable to not photograph. Seriously, who can resist rubber duckies and kaki? The town, by the way, suffered comparatively little damage from the tsunami despite being so close to the epicenter. I'd recommend a trip up there any time of year!)

Saturday, December 3
11am to 3pm
A once-a-month outreach effort by the students running a neighborhood grocery featuring fruits and vegetables from independent farmers.


Sunday, December 4 and Sunday December 18
11am to 5pm
A nice sized market held on the terrace just in front of Ebisu Garden Place that will always be special to me for introducing me to dried natto and tea seedpods.

Saturday, December 10 and Sunday, December 11
A gem of a market hidden away in one of Tokyo's high-end shopping districts offering seasonal favorites in a way that feels homey yet rather boutique-y.
11am to 5pm

Sadly, it seems this market no longer exists. I'm in the process of finding out more, and will keep folks updated. It seems a shame, although maybe some of our Mitaka-area farmers could move in and strut their stuff?

Another sad note here as C-Cafe's building is undergoing demolition shortly. The cafe will be closed for about a year, but may resurface periodically for fun food events. I'll keep you posted as I learn more.

Sunday, December 18
I could go wax on forever about how great this market is and how important it is for the future of Japanese farming. Instead, I'll just insist that folks go and see for themselves what great things the market and these innovative growers are doing.
10am to 4pm, Rain or shine!

Every Saturday and Sunday in December
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, the curry I had during my last visit from one of the vendors was plate-licking good. (I refrained, but only just.)
10am to 4pm

Saturday, December 16
A unique event in the heart of the city that a vegetable loving geek like me wouldn't miss for the world. What better way to get the healthy vitamins and minerals you need to sustain an evening of karaoke and izakaya hopping?
8pm - ?

Every Saturday in December
A recent first visit to this market was well worth the trip for the number of organic growers and getting to meet a Tokyo farmer from just down the tracks in Kokobunji.
10am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in December
Another nice market not far from the sumo stadium in Ryogoku it's worth casing out for the neighborhood as well as the vendors.
11am to 5pm

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Eggplant Pickles: Summer's Official End

It feels absurd to write that title near the end of November and just after friends and family in America celebrated Thanksgiving. But there is a grain of truth of in it as the eggplant field still remains at the farm, home to the summer vegetable of Japan.

Since arriving in Japan in the 8th century, it's made itself right at home. The exact road it traveled I don't know, but this is a country that loves it with a fervent passion. The first eggplant of the summer is met with a joy that merits a holiday of its own, and the last of this deep-hued favorite is similarly mourned. Even though it is not my favorite vegetable and summer is nowhere near my favorite season, I well understand the sadness that comes with the end of the season. I am sorry to see one of the grandest of our fields and crops come to a close.

The low slant of light this time of year always engenders a certain nostalgic feeling in me, not in the least I'm sure, because it makes everything around me look particularly beautiful. Every sight takes my breath away as the light perfectly highlights deep red leaves, brilliant orange kaki, the rich green leaves of the broccoli and cabbage as they ponder producing their fruits, and the dazzling blue sky arching over it all. Hurried as I might be on any given day, my steps slow inevitably slow each time I walk through the farm gate to drop off compost or begin whatever task is set for the day.

The eggplant field, beaten up by another unusually hot summer and one of the strongest typhoons to hit the city in years, is scheduled for destruction next week. We've not harvested for sale for at least two weeks, and unusually large fruit now hang from some of the vines while others burst open to spill their seeds in a last shout of glory. Spiders string their webs everywhere to catch the last of the butterflies and dragonflies still moving about these days. The elaborate latticework of poles and bands and string will be removed. Branches will be cut and trunks pulled. The plastic mulch taken up and all this will be composted, pitched, or stored until the next seedlings arrive in the spring.

It seemed only appropriate then to try my hand at a new pickle recipe. I have a limited supply of canning jars here, so this is actually a big decision. (Anyone who cares to send along a box or two of half-pint or smaller jars should leave a comment for my address. I promise to send a sampling of the proceeds.) I found the recipe while searching for something to do with a bounty of red peppers (another summer vegetable that recently closed up shop for the season), and thought it might be interesting. I'm worried about the slime factor, but it could be good. If life isn't about trying something you think might be weird, then it is about nothing at all.

Aubergine Pickles
4.5 cups of water
5 lbs eggplant (about four large or whatever combination of small and large you think)
1.5 cups white vinegar
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
2 tsp pickling or canning salt
6 cloves garlic
- taken from Ball's Complete Book of Home Preserving (courtesy of much-beloved and missed friends at Ambry Farms)

Eggplant Preparation
Bring the water to a goodly boil while quickly peeling and topping the eggplants. Cut them into strips about 3 inches long (7.5 cm) and 3/4 inch (2 cm) wide. Plop them into the bubbling water immediately and gently boil them for about 10 minutes. Every couple minutes press them down into the boiling water to make sure they cook thoroughly. When the pieces are sufficiently tender, drain them and rinse thoroughly with cold water to stop the cooking process. (You are, in effect, blanching the eggplant.) Let them loiter for a moment in the strainer while prepping the jars, lids, and canner.

Meanwhile...
Peel and prep the cloves of garlic so they are at the ready when it's jarring time.

Once the jars are literally moments from being ready...
Stir together the vinegars, sugar, oregano and salt and bring it to a boil over a medium-high heat. Plop in that eggplant and bring it to a boil once again. Then, remove from heat.

Place one clove of garlic into the jar, pack in the hot eggplant pieces, and ladle that steaming brine over the top. Leave a 1/2 inch (1cm) headspace and remove air bubbles. Once that's done, check the headspace again and add more hot brine if necessary. Wipe the rim, put the lid and screw band on, and repeat!

Process jars for 15 minutes in a boil water bath canner.

Caveats
I peeled and topped as quick as I could, but this process, while not as slow as those darn chestnuts, is not fast. The eggplant begins to brown rather quickly, so popping it in the water stops that process while starting another. I ended up doing two batches, so a few pieces turned an unsightly shade while I waited. I'll use them in something else, but yet again, canning shows what a great group process it can be. My advice would be to have at least one more pair of hands working away to get the eggplant ready.

I used cider vinegar instead of white vinegar as that is what is available in my local grocery store.

Speaking of the brine, I recommend tripling the amounts listed here. I ended up with only three pints in the end with lots of eggplant bits left over. Operator error may be the culprit here (it wouldn't be the first time) and I may try again. I would be grateful to hear word from anyone else who gives this a go.

Please be aware that these are not attractive pickles. My husband just asked if they were octopus, which ought to be telling.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tokyo's Farmer's Markets: November 26th and 27th

December approaches and the winter bounty continues. Head on out to one of these most excellent markets to see what the season has to offer. And don't hesitate to share a recipe or two, too. I'm always on the look-out for something new to make!

Saturday, November 26 and Sunday, November 27
A gem of a market hidden away in one of Tokyo's high-end shopping districts offering seasonal favorites in a way that feels homey yet rather boutique-y.
11am to 5pm

Sunday, November 27
I could go wax on forever about how great this market is and how important it is for the future of Japanese farming. Instead, I'll just insist that folks go and see for themselves what great things the market and these innovative growers are doing.
10am to 4pm, Rain or shine!

Every Saturday and Sunday in November
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, the curry I had during my last visit from one of the vendors was plate-licking good. (I refrained, but only just.)
10am to 4pm

Every Saturday in October
A recent first visit to this market was well worth the trip for the number of organic growers and getting to meet a Tokyo farmer from just down the tracks in Kokobunji.
10am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in October
Another nice market not far from the sumo stadium in Ryogoku it's worth casing out for the neighborhood as well as the vendors.
11am to 5pm

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Taken in early November at one of my favorite nearby farm stands, this seasonal bouquet shone like a star. Our bags were full, but there was no resisting its burst of color on that gray afternoon.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chestnut Liqueur ala Tokyo

I am an imperfectionist. At times I refer to it as laziness, i.e. not removing the pith from the yuzu when making yuzushu, and while other times I imply a certain creativity. Really, it's a blatant disregard for direction. Even as I read a recipe I wonder if a step is really necessary or if a particular ingredient could be switched with something I have or can easily find in Japan. Even so, despite faithfully-made shopping lists, I change my mind in a flash as I catch sight of another potentially scrumptious addition, and the original formula carefully concocted by professionals and those much more experienced than I is lost.

Such is the case with my first ever batch of chestnut liqueur. Spotted on Twitter the concept sounded like a perfect fit with my year of shus. How could I not add this one to my little family of blueberry, rhubarb, plum, and two varieties of ume shus?


It was no surprise then that one late October afternoon found me parking my bike in front of a little fruit and vegetable store (yaoya) near the university. I pass it nearly everyday, but almost never stop because I am running late or because my nearby farmstands have filled my larder to the brim. The yaoya owners, an older couple who live upstairs and have a fantastically large (yet small, of course) bonsai forest on their balcony, are often seen puttering about the shop. While she usually rearranges a display, he sits peeling potatoes or, most recently, chestnuts for their customers convenience. It was the latter, of course, that brought me over.

Chatting for a bit about the persimmons hanging to dry in front of the shop (hashigaki), I opted for the bag of unpeeled chestnuts. It seemed like cheating to take the pre-peeled ones. "I'm a farmer," I thought. "I don't need no pre-peeled chestnuts." Besides, the outer shell would make good fodder for the compost bin. (See recipe and caveats below for my current thinking on that.)

Chestnuts, known as kuri or marron here in Japan, are a distinct flavor of autumn. The rich brown shell gives way to a sweet-fleshed nut that turns golden when cooked. Good steamed simultaneously with rice, the Japanese turn them into any number of wonderful desserts that simply knock the socks off your taste buds. Different from the tochi, these nuts come from a shorter cousin. The kuri don't require as much preparation and effort as the nuts from their taller tochi cousin in order to eat, but are just as delicious.

Tokyo Chestnut Liqueur
500 grams chestnuts, peeled*
150 grams honey
200 ml water
640 ml brandy**

Peel the chestnuts.
Easily the most tedious part of the process, peeling chestnuts is never much of a pleasure. Knowing the seasonality of the nut is some comfort as are thoughts of the dish to come. I tried Wright's suggested method of boiling and then peeling, but if I do this again I might return to Takashi-san's simple soak-overnight-then-peel concept. It is ultimately less painful physically and emotionally, and I would not be left with a crumbling mass of sweet chestnut flesh.

Craft the liqueur.
Boil the chestnuts in 200ml of water for about 10 minutes and then drain. Stir in the honey and cook the solution until the honey dissolves. (Wright's directions are a bit different, and it's worth a look for the sake of comparison.)

Place the nuts in a jar and pour the water-honey mix over them but through a sieve. Pour the brandy over them and seal up the jar. Wait.
*Listed amounts are 'give or take' meaning that while John Wright's original recipe called for a specific number I fudged it to suit my needs.
**This number is exact. I wanted the fluid to cover the chestnuts, and so I simply put in the whole bottle.

The Usual Caveats
As I mentioned earlier, if given the opportunity, buy pre-peeled fresh chestnuts. Do not confuse this with a recommendation to use canned or precooked chestnuts, though. It might work, but I believe fresh is best to give the liqueur full flavor.

Soak the chestnuts overnight to loosen the peels. Doing this is much easier than cooking them as there is a great deal less risk of burns (those solid little things really hold the heat!) or cutting off a finger while simultaneously juggling and peeling.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tokyo's Farmer's Markets: November 19th and 20th

Quite a few more markets than last weekend, including the most excellent UN University Night Market. Lots of good stuff to be had as always at all of them, so make a list for the week and make your way. It's a great chance to practice Japanese, learn new recipes, and get a peek into Japan's evolving food scene.

Sunday, November 20
11am to 5pm
A nice sized market held on the terrace just in front of Ebisu Garden Place that will always be special to me for introducing me to dried natto and tea seedpods.

Sunday, November 20
Another hidden gem, but this time over in Mitaka and of some of the best local organic eats around. Wear your elastic-waist pants and make the trek!
11:30am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in November
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, the curry I had during my last visit from one of the vendors was plate-licking good. (I refrained, but only just.)
10am to 4pm

Saturday, November 19
A unique event in the heart of the city that a vegetable loving geek like me wouldn't miss for the world. What better way to get the healthy vitamins and minerals you need to sustain an evening of karaoke and izakaya hopping?
8pm - ?

Every Saturday in October
A recent first visit to this market was well worth the trip for the number of organic growers and getting to meet a Tokyo farmer from just down the tracks in Kokobunji.
10am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in October
Another nice market not far from the sumo stadium in Ryogoku it's worth casing out for the neighborhood as well as the vendors.
11am to 5pm

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Today's photo comes right from our Tokyo neighborhood. A nearby farm sells their produce directly each afternoon, and these radishes were too pretty to pass up.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tokyo's Farmer's Markets: November 12th and 13th

Only a small handful of markets this weekend, but that only means it will be easier to decide where to go! As temperatures drop, dishes like oden, houtou udon, or sweet potato stew sound more scrumptious than ever, and the best part is that all the ingredients are in season at this very moment. Why, it might even be time for a fresh batch of kimchi, too!

Every Saturday and Sunday in November
10am to 4pm

Every Saturday in October
A recent first visit to this market was good fun, and the covered roof means its perfect for damp days, too.
10am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in October
11am to 5pm

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Taken at the Roppongi Farmer's Market in October, these apples got me dreaming of all the tasty ones I sampled during our trip to England. And got me thinking about my yuzu-apple-ginger marmalade, too. You can probably hear my stomach growling from here...

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Himomo Sprouts New Life

The brilliant himomo or ornamental peach tree, a much admired spring bloomer, showed signs of new life recently. Blown down by Typhoon Roke in late September, the farmers left a somewhat tall stump standing in hopes new sprouts would grow.

These little leaves are the first signs of new growth, and since taking this photo two weeks ago a handful more dot the trunk. A quick count of the rings showed the tree was a mere ten-years-old when the storm arrived, which means with any luck we'll work again in her shade again soon.