Monday, February 10, 2020

Heirloom and Open-pollinated Seeds in Japan

Smoke Signals, an heirloom popcorn, whose seeds I save and replant.

Since moving to Japan eleven years ago, one of my greatest challenges as a farmer-gardener has been to find heirloom or open-pollinated seeds. The majority of seeds available are not GMO (genetically modified organisms) as Japan, at this point, doesn't accept this material. Most seeds, though, are F1 varieties.

F1 Varieties
In plant breeding, F1 is the name given to the first generation of a cross between two true breeding parents. For example, if I decide to cross an Amish Paste Tomato with another heirloom variety tomato such as Emmy, in hopes of getting a golden paste tomato, the resulting generation of fruit is F1.

In order to get that tomato of my culinary dreams, I will choose members of that first generation after the cross that are headed in a direction I like, such as early ripening, medium-sized fruit, and good taste, and save their seeds. The next spring, I will plant them and repeat the process of choosing, saving, and planting again and again until I get the tomato I want. (It is nice to note here that home gardeners eat their mistakes. Mistakes at large companies get tossed.)  The whole process can take anywhere from seven to ten years, but the result is a vegetable that I like, that is tailored to my soil and climate, and that I can share with neighbors, friends, and even total strangers who perhaps daydreamed about a golden paste tomato.

So, what does it mean that the seed package says F1? Well, it means that the seeds in that envelope are the first generation result of a cross of two parental lines. It means that you will get whatever the package claims: a striped cherry tomato, an easy-to-slice cucumber, a seedless watermelon. It also often means that the plant will perform well. This is a nice side benefit is called hybrid vigor, the tendency to show results superior to either parent, and it can result in higher yields and faster growth.

However, seeds saved from these F1 hybrids will not grow true. Seed can be saved and the results eaten, but it won't be the same as that first one. It is in the second generation that other traits can emerge. For example, the cherry tomato will not have stripes or the cucumber will have a tough skin or some other trait that may not be awful, but won't be what you expected. Patient gardeners can hack their way through the hybridization process to get something they might want. Those who want to try their hand at that should check out Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe.

Open-pollinated Varieties
Open-pollinated varieties are those that are pollinated by human, insect, wind, or some other force of nature. Because of this lack of control of who they cross with, open pollinated varieties have more genetic diversity. This means that plants will vary somewhat from year to year as they mix and mingle over time. The advantage is that if you save the seed from these plants over time the variety becomes adjusted to your micro-climate, your soils, and your farming and gardening habits.

Seeds saved from these plants will grow true unless they cross with different varieties in the same plant family. Then, you have F1 plants. If you don't want that to happen for some reason, then you will have to keep families separated by a certain distance. For example, my kales, norabos, and other greens freely share pollen. Since they are all essentially from the same family, I'm getting something a little different every time. It's a big patch of F1s, but I'm not particularly fussed. If I was saving the seed to sell or wanted to pass down as true a strain as possible, I would grow them a safe distance from their cousins.

Heirloom Varieties
Heirloom varieties are plants - flowers, vegetables, herbs, and fruits - that have a history in an area, region, community, or family. They are always open-pollinated varieties, although not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. The seeds are saved from year to year to year and passed down from generation to generation. These varieties have survived and been passed down because they are reliable, taste good, grow well in that particular climate, and are integral to local or regional foodways and traditions. (Foodways are, according to Merriman-Weser, "the eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.") Like the open-pollinated varieties mentioned above, if you save the seed, heirloom varieties will grow true. (Remember the isolation distances, though!) If you plant, for example, an Amish Paste tomato, save the seeds, and plant them the next season, an Amish Paste tomato will grow.

Finding Japanese Open-pollinated and Heirloom Seeds
Japanese heirloom seeds can be found in Japan through two main organizations. Tane no Mori specializes in organic seeds of traditional Japanese vegetables, but also European and American ones. This seed company is popular with many organic growers and producers. They also run a number of events and a monthly market near their home base in Saitama Prefecture.

The largest selection, though, is available from Noguchi Seeds. Also headquartered in Saitama Prefecture, Noguchi Seeds offers the widest selection of traditional varieties I have found yet. Many are Edo yasai (Edo or Old Tokyo vegetables varieties) that were once common and even famous in the Tokyo but are now now well-known at all.

A number of groups and individuals also save seeds, and whether these are heirlooms or just nifty open-pollinated varieties is a question to ask the person offering them. One group I would recommend is Share Seeds. They have events for learning how to save seed, swapping seed, and more.

Other sources I use are asaichi (literally translated as morning market, these are traditional farmers markets) and western-style marketsmichi-no-eki (roadside stands) and chokubaijo (vegetable stands), and many organic festivals also have seed swapping booths. Flying somewhat under the radar are groups like this one in the Shonan area quietly going about the work of preserving varieties and are most likely quite willing to share seeds with a friendly enquiry. It's worth asking!

Saturday, February 1, 2020

February Farmers Markets in Tokyo and Yokohama

MomoG Farm at the UNU Market with his amazing veg.
Note the popcorn in the upper right. No slouch!

A new year is well underway, and farmers markets are up and running around Tokyo and Yokohama. I'll be posting more about my thoughts and ideas for this space, but for now, here is a schedule of where the best seasonal fruit and veg hunting is to be had. Enjoy and hope to see at the marekt!

Saturday, February 8 and Sunday, February 9
Market of the Sun (a.k.a. Taiyo Marche) professes to be one of the largest, and it is certainly a good one. A short walk from Tsukiji Market and its wonderful surrounds, this market is worth a visit for its lovely selection of foodly and crafty items that rivals the goodies found at the UNU Market.
10am to 4pm
Step out of Kachidoke Station at Exits A4a or A4b and look for the tents.

Koenji Farmers Market
Saturday, February 15*
Spotted a handful of years ago while riding the Chuo Line, this little market is still going strong and has grown considerably based on a recent visit. A cluster of red awnings in front of the Za-Koenji Public Theatre marks the spot where friendly folks with good food and interesting stories await.
*A wee bit of a best guess here as they haven't updated their blog yet. Do check before making the trip over there. I haven't been wrong yet about the date, but there is always a first time for everything.
11am - 6pm

Oiso Farmers Market
Sunday, February 16*
This little gem of a community shindig is one of the best things going outside of the Earth Day Market. Started a handful of years ago, it blossomed into a full-on monthly festival that just happens to feature Shonan area produce in its fresh, seasonal form as well as pickled, dried, and prepared-hot-in-a-bowl varieties. In summer, it transforms into a night market, while year-round a much smaller version takes place every Saturday. Lee's Bread alone is worth the journey. Read my full review at Outdoor Japan's Traveler Magazine.
9am - 2pm
*Be sure to check their Facebook page for updates!
Oiso Port Building

Nippori Farmers Market
Saturday, February 15 and Sunday, February 16
This charming market in the heart of old Tokyo abounds with a sense of community and friendliness as well as good food. Lively, particularly on Saturday, Nippori runs with a theme of chisanchisou (local production for local consumption) and aims to feature more farmers and growers from the surrounding areas. However, regular vendors still include most excellent Tohoku growers and some of the best steamed manju in the world.
No map, but just head out the East Exit and look for the green awnings.
10am to 5pm

Yokohama Kitanaka Marche

*No market scheduled until March.*
One of the best markets going in the Yokohama area, and it's perhaps no coincidence that they are only moments away from Baird Beer's Bashamichi Taproom. Started by the same folks who created the Market of the Sun, the Kitanaka Marche to be growing steadily with tasty offerings of fresh seasonal veg, fruit, baked goods and preserves. Read my other review over at Outdoor Japan's Traveler Magazine for the full scoop.
10am to 4pm
Bashamichi Station, Exit 2*
Note that the market has moved, so come out of the station, turn right, and take the next right turn. Keep walking past the construction site and keep an eye out for the white tents running along next to the river.

Kichijoji Harmonica Yokocho Asaichi
Sunday, February 16
Early birds on Tokyo's west side should count themselves lucky to find this little market in the warren of shops just north of the station. While fruits and veg are a bit lacking, the market is big on craftsmen and women doing interesting work, excellent baked goods, miso, rice, and other tasty treats. It's worth noting that a number of places offer breakfast deals in the market!
Look for my review in Outdoor Japan's Spring Traveler!
7am - 10am

Kamome Marche
Saturday, February 22
Set on the upper level of the Yokohama Bay Quarter, this little market offers nice variety given its size. Vendors from Yamanashi, Yokohama, and other parts of Kanagawa brave the steady ocean breeze and offer everything up from fruit to wine to fresh vegetables.
11am - 5pm

Kamakura Farmers Market
Every day
This market is an absolute treasure of a small local affair featuring Kamakura heirloom fruits and vegetables raised in or nearby another one of Japan's former capitals. Head in early to get the best selection and pick up a loaf of Paradise Alley's charcoal-infused bread while you're there. They also make an excellent cup of coffee.
7am until sold out

Ebisu Market
Every Sunday
A small handful of years ago, the Ebisu Market became a weekly Sunday event. Part of the original Marche Japon movement, this market carries on with a nice selection of regional farmers, seasonal veg, baked goods, and the addition of arts and crafts. It does bill itself as all organic, and there are some; however, I recommend asking vendors to be sure. I also recommend a trip to Afuri Ramen to fortify yourself with some of the best yuzu tsukemen in town.
11am to 5pm

UN University Market
Every Saturday and Sunday
A massive weekend affair that started out as the flagship market for Marche Japon busted out on its own a few years back. Now one of the most happening places on the weekend, the market features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Winter vegetables can be found here, but produce offerings do vary in amount by season. There is a most excellent selection of food trucks whipping up everything from salad to zingy curry to roast chicken and falafel! Oh, and don't forget the craft beer truck, too!
10am to 4pm

Hills Marche Farmers Market
Every Tuesday and Saturday
The Ark Hills Marche in Roppongi is perhaps one of the best things going in this part of Tokyo. Originally created to serve residents of the nearby high-rise, it is a bountiful and booming event. Don't miss the chance to meet a grower from Tokyo's very own Kokobunji, take in a little music, and sample a variety of other seasonal delights.
Saturday, 10am to 4pm
Tuesday, 11am to 7pm**

Yurakucho Farmers Market
Every Saturday and Sunday
Smaller than the UNU Market, the Yurakucho Market takes its cue from the antenna shops located nearby and features a particular region of Japan each week along with an excellent selection of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Growers from nearby Chiba, Kamakura, and Saitama do come weekly, though, with some excellent treats.
11am to 5pm
Directions: Turn left out of Yurakucho Station and cross the courtyard toward Tokyo Kouku Keitan. Look for the fun under the overhang!

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