Monday, October 29, 2012

Hamamtsu's Lovely Little Organic Farmers Market


Two of the four varieties of squash at the Hamamatsu Organic Market.
Two weeks ago I found myself in Hamamatsu, a city south of Shizouka but still a bit north of Osaka, and along the coast. My spousely one was presenting at a conference and I thought I'd tag along. Exploring Japan is one of the thing's I love to do, especially if I can sniff out a farmers market.

A coastal town in Shizouka Prefecture, Hamamatsu sits roughly between Shizouka City and Kyoto. Those who have traveled that way via shinkansen will have zipped by catching glimpses of the city's castle rising above the city sky-line on one side and seaweed fields in shallow ocean waters on the other. It also happens to be famous for eel, gyoza, and musical instruments.

Junko Suzuki, Hamamatsu's market manager
And, if Junko Suzuki has her way, the organic farmers market she manages will soon get added to that list.

"I want this market to become famous," she said during a phone conversation the night before the market. I smiled at her earnestness. Such passion in a market manager is a good thing for the growers and producers, the customers, and the community the market is a part of. I instantly liked her for it.

Another group Suzuki belongs to, Imozuru, meets regularly at the Shizouka Prefecture offices to talk about organic foods, a healthy lifestyle, and alternative health care.  As one of the group's leaders, Suzuki caught the attention of prefectural officials looking for ways to support their declining population of farmers. They asked if she might like to organize a farmers market. She said yes without hesitation.

A little more than a year later, the Hamamatsu Farmers Market, the only all organic farmers market in the prefecture, looks to be doing well. As Suzuki and I chatted the next morning before it officially opened, and before the farmers finished putting the final touches on their displays, cars began arriving. Soon the space under and around the tents was filled with customers jostling to get their hands on a squash of choice or battle for the last clutch of fresh eggs.

The calm before the storm.
The eight farmers and producers I met that Sunday morning were a mix of young and old, quiet and boisterous, but all brought along some of the nicest looking vegetables and foodly items I'd seen yet in my travels. Tables groaned with a bounty that bespoke September. The last of the summer sweet corn (gone in a flash before I even made it once around), four kinds of squash (none of which I'd ever seen before), sweet as well as spicy peppers,  potatoes, edamame, okra, freshly harvested ginger with it's long green woody stems still attached, carrots, satoimo, gobo (burdock) and red as well as white sweet potatoes.

Ishizaki-san's adorable squash.
Ishizaki-san's table featured an adorable squash known simply as Nihon Kaboucha. Its orange-brown skin and moist texture put me in mind of butternut squash, but with a sweeter flavor. I immediately decided to tuck this rogue member of the Shishigatani family into my backpack for the trip home. As we discussed his bags of dried beans, I learned he'd arrived here about ten years ago to work at a nearby agricultural university. Three years ago he began growing for himself. "Now I'm here," he said shyly before he commenced giving me a recipe for the beans.

Inoue Farm's stall just next door overflowed with a variety of vegetables and a nice selection of homemade pickles. Their spicy pepper mix remains my one regret as it was tangy and zippy with the right amount of kick. Why I didn't purchase it I'll never know, but I was lucky enough to snag one of their jars of sweet cucumbers before the crowd swept them all away.  I was sorely tempted, too, by the tsurukubi, a winter squash the likes of which I've never seen before. Long and sinuous with a smooth skin again the same color as butternut, it is another native to the region with a similar texture and taste.

I drifted toward the back, away from the thickest of the crowd, to Hikari Nouen's table where I found white eggplant, white squash, and a variety of other season vegetables. Senjin-san estimated he and his wife have been growing organic vegetables for more than twenty years. However, Hikari Nouen raises not only tasty food items, but farmers as well. Supported by Shizouka Prefecture, Senjin-san's farms teaches new farmers the ins and outs of daily farm work and the business of organic growing. Direct sales, farmers markets, and a weekly box scheme are part of his diverse sales that supports his business, not to mention a variety of community education and outreach activities.

Makiko, a young farmer in training at Hikari Nouen, said she decided to participate because she wanted to eat delicious things every day. Originally from Kanagawa Prefecture, she came to Hamamatsu to learn the trade. Her previous job at an organic supermarket taught her about the vegetables, but she didn't like the stress.

"I have become very healthy," she said as she draped one of the tsurubiki squash about her neck like other people might a favorite cat .

Satayo Takashima
Another new farmer fostered at Hikari Noen was Satayo Takashima, a self-described new face on the farming scene here in Hamamatsu. At twenty-three she was easily the youngest vendor present, but already with the hands of someone who spends much of her time working the soil. (One saving grace of going to farmers markets is that not a single vendor bats an eyelash at my permanently dirt-edged nails and finger tips.) She works nearly two hectares of land at Hikari Nouen on her own. A little bit shy, her ginger and potatoes, all that was left by the time I found my way to her table, spoke for themselves. Brightly colored and robust ginger sprigs landed in my bag before I could even think twice. She recommended eating it raw with miso to really savor the flavor, a technique I've come to favor.

Ishida-san of Koboriyanonu to Tetsu, though, offered another form of ginger, too, that proved irresistible: ginger jam. As I listened to him discuss possible uses of it with another customer (drizzled over tofu, swirled into tea, stirred into yogurt, served over hot rice, etc.) I decided it had to come home with me. Farming for more than ten years, Ishida-san began his farming career at his grandfather's farm in the hills near Hamamatsu. There he does everything by hand - from sprouting rice seeds he saved from the previous harvest to ensure their organic integrity - to weeding his vegetable fields to harvesting to drying the rice and kaki in the fall.

Inoue Farms measuring out the goods.
My last stop for the afternoon was Mabuchi-san's table. By the time I arrived there all that was left were his sweet potatoes. The usual reddish-purple variety were on  hand, but I also found a white variety called koganesengan, a gold variety I'd never met before. Like his story, it was too intriguing to pass up.

Mabuchi-san began farming when he was thirty-three-years old, after a vagabond life where he searched for a more harmonious lifestyle than conventional life offered. His hunt led him down many a path, including a year-long stint on a kibbutz in Israel and some time working as a shinkansen repairman. But it was farming at last that spoke to him, particularly a form of natural agriculture called tansojyunkan from Brazil that focuses on effective carbon cycling.

"I don't use fertilizer. If I learn from the plants what I need, then I don't need much at all," he said. "We have to live using our hearts and minds," he said clasping my hand before saying farewell.

By 11:15am the tables stood mostly empty and cars stopped pulling into the lot. As I bid Junko a fond farewell, she and the farmers gathered on the front step of the community center for a quick meeting. I'd not made it to the seminar on the second floor, this time on the benefits of acupuncture, but thought I should leave something for next time. I adjusted my backpack of squash, beans, pickles, and assorted forms of ginger and made my way to the bus stop. It was heavy, but I knew the next week was going to be particularly delicious.

Hamamatsu Organic Farmers Market
Second and Fourth Sunday of each month
9:30am to 11:30am*
Bus #30 from Hamamatsu Station to Isami Bashi (about 25 minutes; 340 yen one way)
Map
*Go early for the best selection!

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