Monday, October 1, 2012

Sapporo Farmers Market Review

Sapporo Farmers Market Entrance
Even when I'm on vacation, I gravitate to vegetables. If we stumble across a stand while hiking (urban or mountain) or bike touring there is no question that a pause will be made. And there is no question that the local produce, jam, honey or crafty item will make it into the backpack. We like to eat and luckily for us, we travel in Hokkaido when gardens and farms are hitting peak harvest.

The Sapporo Farmers Market scene, however, has remained elusive. I've vegetable toured in Higashikawa and spotted a handful of stands here and there, but Sapporo gets understandably spurned for more time with good friends near Asahikawa and subsequent hiking trips or bike touring adventures.

Yet, Hokkaido is one of Japan's agricultural powerhouses. Famous for its vast tracks of land (by Japanese standards), large farms, huge vistas, dairy farms, rice fields, as well as some of the country's best seafood, I thought farmers markets would abound. As Hokkaido's largest city and one of the main portals to the rest of the island, Sapporo should be full of markets full to overflowing. One website showed me a city dotted with markets – at least six! - that promised some good vegetable hunting plus a whole lot more. This would be my year.

Well, not exactly.

It turns out that the markets did exist for a good two years; however, interest on running them waned, and now there only one market is left: the Sapporo Farmers Market at the Hokkaido Shrine.

“One hundred years ago the Maruyama district of Sapporo had a morning market every day,” said Kanayama, the market manager. “It was called Maruyama Asaichi. But now, there's only this one.”

Set just outside the main entrance to the Hokkaido Shrine, the Sapporo Farmers Market is small but comprehensive and easy to find. Organic and conventional growers offer up the season's harvest each month while local producers of jam, honey, and assorted Japanese pickles set out a tasty spread of their own. Nearly thirty vendors come, some from as far away as Niseko and Tokachi (roughly 1800 km), each month from June to September to sell their wares to an estimated 1,000 visitors who are a mix of locals and tourists.

Niseko Green Farm's beautiful beets.
Unlike Tokyo farmers markets that begin somewhere around 10am and finish at about 4pm, the Sapporo Farmers Market begins bright and early at 7am. Aiming to catch a group of older folks who gather nearby in the cedar grove as they finish their morning exercises, the strategy seems to be working. We saw a number of people pedaling away with bicycle baskets brimming with daikon, carrots, tomatoes, and much more as we pulled up. My only concern with our 8:30am arrival was that these energetic seniors would have nabbed all the good stuff, which in one case they had.

“I wish I had some carrots to offer you, but they just sold out,” said Denis of Niseko Green Farm, an all organic operation he's been running for upwards of four years now. His journey from Holland to a Tokyo restaurant to running a farm in Fukushima Prefecture to Hokkaido where he farms and skis sounds confusing at best. But seeing him behind the table talking with customers about his produce makes the logic apparent. Explaining a new variety of pepper or tomato to a skeptical looking customer is all part of a days work at the market, as any vendor can say. It's the opportunity to connect with people directly that makes all the difference.

Hitoshi Fujita's amazing pickles.
Hitoshi Fujita makes a point of using Hokkaido ingredients for the Japanese pickle recipes he and his daughter concoct in their Sapporo kitchen. The garlic, he explained, was from Aomori, but “the rest came from farmers like this one.” He gestured to a man in the next stall selling tomatoes, eggplants, and brilliant orange salad squash that drew customers like moths to a flame. “His vegetables are in here,” Fujita said pointing to a package of colorful pickles in his display. He opened the bag on the spot to offer me a sample of the sweet-sour crunch made the decision to purchase some for our afternoon train ride to Wakkanai easy. A tomato pickle made with apple vinegar gave the salad squash a run for its money, but in the end that cheerful orange proved too endearing to refuse.

“Most people learn to make traditional pickles from their mother who learned it from her mother who learned it from her mother. But that doesn't happen any more, so my daughter and I decided to do it now. Our recipes are a mix of traditional and new things so young people eat it then,” he said with a smile.

Takuya Kobayashi and his happy crew.
Takuya Kobayashi's table nearly groaned with the harvest brought in for the occasion. Moroheya, kuushinsai (a kind of Chinese leafy green), okra, garlic braids, cucumbers, and an assortment of tomatoes were just a few of the vast number of items grown at Harukichi Farm in Ishikari. Four staff at least – all young men and women – kept the table restocked and helped customers make their purchases.

Kobayashi, another organic grower like Denis of Niseko Green Farm, started farming about nine years ago. When I asked him why he became a farmer, his face turns serious. “It's difficult to explain,” he says. I can't catch all of the vocabulary, so he simplifies the story some. At university he learned what was happening ecologically in the world, and decided he needed to do something.

“My home was a farm so I decided to do it,” he said. When I ask if they ever need help, he smiles broadly and says, “Help is good. Just email.”

Toneru Yama Honey - Hello, sweet stuff.
Toneru Yama Honey has a pretty little table of jars full of golden light, and a book of herbs open in front. A small bouquet of herbs and wild flowers sits just behind the jars of honey. Less than a year old, they only have two hives in Nishiku at the moment, but from the looks of how sales went they may need to expand.

“The honeybees need us,” said one of the staff when I ask why they started. She and two friends studied books and found a local teacher to help them. “If we want vegetables, we need bees. If I want to have a life, a living, then I need bees.”

I continued my rounds of the green tents to get a good look and, to be honest, drool a little. Early August is prime corn season here, and there's heaps of it to be had. But that means peeling and shucking, and a train isn't the best place for that. Hokkaido's cooler climate is similar to my American Midwest, so I see many of my all-time favorites looking luscious and lovely and reasonably priced. My husband firmly denies that eating beets raw on the train is a good idea. I finger the purple and green leaves sadly before opting for a carton of red, green, and orange tomatoes instead. Lovely ceramics, candles, and hand-woven scarves can only be consumed with my eyes. We're bike-touring for another eleven days. Space is at a premium already in our packs on the trailer.

Sapporo Farmers Market
Hokkaido Shrine, Maruyama Park, Sapporo
June through September
Second Sunday of the month
6:30am - 11am

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