Shrinking the distance from food source to plate is a trend that is catching on globally. Japan is obsessed with eating – its famous national cuisine (known as washoku) is one of the few in the world to have been recognised by Unesco as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
And while its local self-sufficiency rate is a relatively low 40%, Japan offers those in search of home-grown grub a variety of amazingly fresh and delicious local food sources scattered throughout Japan, from the rich marine bounty of blue fin tuna landed at Ōma off the Shimokita Peninsula to meltingly-tender Kōbe beef guaranteed to set gourmands’ mouths salivating. Here are a few perfect places to start your culinary quest.
In recent years, regular farmers’ markets have been popping up across Tokyo to provide freshly grown and sometimes organic produce. Kicking off the trend was the Farmer’s Market @UNU, so called because it is held every Saturday in front of the United Nations University in the Aoyama district of the city. Here some 40-plus stallholders sell fresh fruit, vegetables, plants and flowers, as well as rice and a variety of other foodstuffs, most of it grown by farmers based in the Kanto plain area surrounding the city. To locate more such markets in Tokyo and across the country read the blog Japan Farmers Markets.
The frigid waters of Tsugaru Strait separating the main Japanese island of Honshu from the northern island of Hokkaidō are grade A fishing grounds. It’s here that plucky fishermen set sail between late August and January from the port of Ōma, a town of 6000 people on the northern coast of Aomori Prefecture, to catch the prized blue fin tuna using the sustainable method of rod and line. These fish typically fetch twice as much as imported tuna at auction and can set record prices at the key first auction of the year at Tsukiji.
You don’t have to spend big, though, to eat the king of tuna. In Ōma, locals barbecue fish heads on the street during the warmer months (don’t come in the depths of winter as many places shut down for that bitterly cold season). At the restaurant Kaikyōsō, easily recognised by its bright green exterior, you can take your pick from various cuts of tuna, including akami (lean red meat), chu-toro and ō-toro (medium and top grade fatty tuna), served sashimi style or over a bowl of rice.
Prime grade beef
For red meat aficionados, nothing compares to wagyu (‘Japanese beef’), which comes from different regions throughout the country. The most well-known variety is Kōbe. The fine layers of fat that are evenly marbled through the meat are what makes Kōbe beef melt in the mouth like butter and taste so good. The cows that produce this top-grade of wagyu are bred in Hyōgo Prefecture, of which the capital is Kōbe – hence the name. Farmers supplement their cattles’ diet with beer in the summer to stimulate their appetite and provide regular massages to relieve stress and keep the animals calm and happy. The sensational results can be tasted at beef restaurants throughout the city, with Kobe Plasir being a particularly well-regarded one since it’s owned and operated by the cattle producers’ association. Here you can sample the beef in two traditional ways: either cooked in front of you by a chef on a teppanyaki grill or as shabu shabu, where fine slices of meat are dunked in a hot pot of broth and vegetables.
An early morning visit to Tsukiji Market is essential for any foodie visiting Japan. The produce sold here – most famously every type of fish and seafood imaginable but also fruit and vegetables – may not be terribly local in origin (indeed many items are transported hundreds if not thousands of kilometers to Tokyo), but it is certainly fresh. Fish is sold so quickly and cleanly at Tsukiji that there is little odour to speak of as you wander the aisles of the wholesale market piled with abundant displays of everything from abalone to glistening burnt orange beads of salmon roe.
The eels of Narita
One final fascinating fresh-food stop that can be squeezed in before returning home is to the old pilgrim town of Narita, which is also the location of Tokyo’s main international airport. Along the shopping street Omote-sandō, which slithers downhill towards to the venerable temple Narita-san Shinshōji, you’ll encounter several restaurants serving the local speciality: unagi (eel). The best place to sample the dish is at Kawatoyo Honten, where the entire process of preparation of this dish is on display. In the doorway at low table sits one of the cooks who spends his day extracting live eels from a bucket and (in a few swift moves) nailing their head to a board, deftly disemboweling, deboning and skinning them. A colleague will then chop the flesh into manageable lengths and thread them on to skewers to be basted, grilled and served over rice in a lacquered box. Smoky and sweetly succulent, Unagi hardly gets fresher than this.