Monday, August 12, 2013

Akigawa Farmers Market: A Review

Akigawa Farmers Market
I met Lionel Dersot earlier this year while researching a story about Tokyo fruit. His website said he offered tours and I was curious to see what I might find. Tokyo is, after all, much greener and more edible than most of us give it credit for, so the little hidden orchards I imagined Lionel would show me didn't seem an impossibility.

While we didn't find orchards we did find plenty of fruit as we walked for three hours that sunny afternoon near Ginza, and we had a great time. Lionel, a Frenchman who has called Tokyo home for more than two decades, is fascinating. If my feet hadn't been so tired and my bag so heavy from all the foodly loot he encouraged me to buy, I would have walked another few hours.

Akigawa market interior with flowers.
During the tour Lionel mentioned a farmers market near his in-laws home that he thought I should see. It was Tokyo's biggest, he said. "And there's a great soba restaurant there," he added. "I'm in," I replied.

Located in far western Tokyo, the Akigawa Market is a JA market that features produce and products from the surrounding fields and farms. And when I say surrounding, I literally mean 'surrounding.' About a ten minute walk from the Higashi-Akiru Station, the path took us past small houses with little gardens up a hill to find big gardens and farms with houses scattered between. Sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, eggplant along with a cheerful selection of flowers grew as far as the eye could see. A few direct sale stands could be seen, too, along with their farmers working away in an already hot morning sun. The mountains that are normally just a hazy ruffle in the west from our western suburb are clear. Lionel tells me that the plateau we now walk on is lined on one side by the Tama River and on the other by the Tamagawajousui, an Edo Period engineering feat that brought fresh water to Tokyo and turned the Musashino Plain where I live into farms.

The best chicken grown in Tokyo.
According to one staffer, this market has been around for nearly twenty years. It looks and feels like a supermarket, but one that features fresh and locally prepared vegetables, baked goods, dried beans, assorted flours, pickles, meats, grains, and preserves. Here I found Tokyo chicken, one of the last remaining poultry farms in Tokyo, that Lionel highly recommended. As we stood eyeing the package of rather pricey meat he said,  "The taste is..." trailing off with a shake of his head and wave of his hands in culinary surrender, "...beyond belief, another realm." I bought it, of course.

To be fair, Lionel is French which I believe wraps his DNA with a heightened sense of culinary awareness, but I could be biased. But he also lives in Japan, a country with an extraordinary food culture, and so I think his delicious food sensors are particularly sensitive. This also means that as his companion that morning I could take advantage of all of that to find the most scrumptious of the scrumptious and get the story to boot. It was a bit of heaven.

"The corn from here is famous. I will buy some," said Lionel, but when we saw the price - 980 yen for a bag - we both stopped short. Luckily, nearby we spotted smaller bags containing just three ears, still in their husks. Maybe the other bag is value-added since the corn came pre-shucked, but three is about the right serving size for our household. And I think having the husks on means it will stay fresher longer.

Caramels from the Tokyo dairy. Yummy.
As we peruse the vegetables, Lionel mentions the Tokyo dairy located not far from here. "How often do you get to drink milk really produced in Tokyo?" he asks. It is, apparently, one of the last if not the last remaining dairy in the city. (It may feel like countryside out here, but Tokyo's greater metropolitan area is one of the largest in the world covering ??? square kilometers.)

Photos of farmers  who sell at the market. 
Photos of farmers selling their produce here line the wall near the entrance. Many of them are old and nearly all of them are men except for one. There's also plenty of empty space in the racks. It's a stark reminder of the fragility of Japanese agriculture with its declining population of farmers and low food security rate.

Awesome locally made baked goods.
Lionel proves a dangerously encouraging companion for me. "Oh, you should buy that," he says of a package of ground walnuts and I can't resist. I don't need walnuts, but when he suggests sprinkling them over a small dish of cold soft tofu with a dash of soy sauce there is no turning back. (It was amazing!)

Food vendors out front sell bento, grilled fish, and omelets to eat while shoppers get their corn boxed up to send as a traditional summer gift to friends and family. Even though my backpack is heavy with loot we opt for a slightly longer route back to the station so I can take a closer look at those farm fields. I add to my list of local crops blueberries, wheat, potatoes, and satoimo.

"I should get a commission," laughs Lionel as I shift the packs weight and I agree. His pleasure in this place is infectious, but it's also his knowledge that makes it so wonderful.

Akigawa Farmers Market
Nearest station: Higashi-Akiru
9am to 5pm
Directions: Turn right out of the station and head up the street that heads up a hill. Turn left on the busy street. Walk another 5 minutes. The market will be on your left.


Unknown said...

Oh I love the descriptions of your delicious tour! That little bit about the walnuts and chilled tofu really caught my eye ... it sounds amazing and I can't wait to try it myself out of some local walnuts in the shell we just bought ^^.

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

I'm so glad to hear it! It was quite lovely, and surprisingly the nuts keep quite some time in the refrigerator. Don't forget to top it off with a bit of grated ginger, too. Let me know how it goes!