Tour Japan
one bite at a time

Antiques, autos, or a smorgasbord of gastronomic goodies - whatever you want, Tokyo's got it, and most of it's just a trade show away. Saya Snow Kitasei dishes up the big sites where you can get a taste of all Japan - without leaving town.


"Hiiiiii!" a middle-aged woman with a white kerchief calls down to me from her perch behind stacks of bright yellow boxes. "You bought two boxes of my onsen-tamago last year and had them sent to your grandmother." Looking around at the overwhelming crowd of anonymous faces, I feel flattered. But then again, I guess I am still as exotic to this woman who made her first trip to Tokyo only last year, as her onsen-tamago and north country accent are to me. Onsen-tamago are eggs that are steeped in hot springs just long enough to slightly poach them. They are served half-raw and slurped along with a special sauce. She cracks one open onto a small plastic tray and pours sauce onto it. Beaming happily, she passes it to me over the tops of several heads. I tip the dish to let it slide down my throat and thank her. Now laden with several boxes of eggs plus an extra half dozen she insists I take as her gift, I steel myself to re-enter the tide of people.

I look around for an opening in the sea of people, but find none. An old woman wearing a knapsack like an obi and smelling of clothes freshener careens into my fragile cargo, muttering, "Watch it!" A vendor thrusts a skewer in my face and yells over the din at no one in particular, "Try a Fukushima pickle! Fresh from the village of..." Parrying the pickle and others with dango, I stagger out of Fukushima and into Aomori, where I do open my mouth to accept some squid cheese.

This year's Furusato Fair was the eleventh in what has become an annual gastronomic orgy held in the Tokyo Dome. Its purpose is to stimulate the economic development of the provinces by bringing their small food businesses to Tokyo. Fish mongers and fish smokers, bean pounders and bean fermenters, rice brewers and rice creameries from every cranny of the nation stream into Tokyo with truckloads of samples for the three-day trade show in hopes of attracting the attention of Tokyo restaurateurs and retailers. But by my observation, of the 85,000 in attendance on the day I went, about 80 percent are sharp-elbowed grandmothers, and 15 percent their husbands, children, and grandchildren dragged along as packhorses. For many of the vendors, coming to Tokyo is a special trip that only happens once a year. This friendly atmosphere and the liberal samples are markedly different from the food sections in the basement floors of the big Tokyo department stores, where these days you're lucky to discover a few cracker crumbs on a tiny plate half-hidden behind the seaweed. No, this is a real country fair. Furusato means "hometown," and has come to carry all the marketing weight of "home-baked" in the west. As more and more Japanese leave their hometowns to crowd into the Kanto and Kansai areas, their longing for the foods and other products exclusive to their furusato grows ever stronger. If you miss those beautiful sugar candies from Akita prefecture that are so sweet they make your head ache, or the king crabs from Hokkaido, the Furusato Fair is the place to be. The early morning congestion is nothing compared to the gridlock that comes later. But how else could you sample your way from Hokkaido to Okinawa for the price of JY500 admission? For foreigners, it offers an opportunity to travel the full 3000 kilometers that comprise the length of Japan in three hours right-and in a systematic fashion, since the stalls are arranged in clusters representing each of the 47 prefectures and cities of Japan. Complete with ekiben, the box lunches that are sold in each train station along the way.

When I arrive at the 10am opening, the line of grandmothers is already wrapped around the circumference of the Yomiuri Giants' stadium, known as the Big Egg because that's just what it looks like. Inside one hour later, my senses are bombarded with a multitude of sights and smells, from sake to pickled octopus to the amazingly stinky natto that always manages to smell like feet. Or not always, apparently. "My natto is different," claims the red-faced vendor from Miyagi prefecture (the most talkative area, I found). Natto is a sticky mass of fermented beans connected by micro-fibers that connect your teeth to your rice bowl like a suspension bridge. "I let the beans rest for a long time after they're fermented, so they don't smell half as bad. Plus, these make you smarter." A hungry and desperate husband jams my head into the display, so I inhale a good whiff. But then another couple sandwiches me and carries me off between them to the main aisle before realizing that I am not one of their packages and release me. Craning my neck, I can read a tiny sign, "Nara," over an area that looks relatively clear, so I push toward it with hope, avoiding the impassable human bottlenecks wherever sake is being proffered.

Reaching the Nara oasis, I can see why. Where is the food?! There are various leather goods, ties, underwear, and painting instruments, but no...aha! Some people are huddled in a cul-de-sac. Forcing people out of the way, I home in on the subject in the spotlight. "This is kudzu-mochi," a man slurs in Kansai-dialect. Kudzu is the noxious vine that is slowly but surely taking over the forests of the East Coast of the United States. Apparently, Japanese have solved the problem by eating it.

In the nearby Osaka area, a grinning man is handing out samples marked simply "meat." "Delicious!" I proclaim upon tasting it. "What kind of meat is this?" "Horse," he declares. A child knocks into me, causing me to almost spit it up and have to swallow it a second time. "Specialty of Osaka," he says. (If horse is so special, then why no label? Because everyone else knows that a cherry blossom is the symbol of horsemeat and now so do you.) I turn, slightly sick, and head for the north.

Over in Miyagi, a couple is shoveling ice cream made from rice. They have assembled a wide variety of flavors, including sesame, apple, mountain grape, "silk," red wine, sweet potato, pine nut, green tea, cherry blossom, and even vanilla, causing gridlock of the grandmothers who want a sample of each for themselves and their entourages before explaining that they can't buy any now because it will melt. "I'll come back later!" they say believably to the couple from Miyagi. "Try these," the talkative woman tells me and gives me three spoonfuls of different colored rice cream. The exotic flavors mingle together in my mouth leaving a decidedly odd aftertaste. "This one - "silk," made from real silk - is a favorite. It's full of fiber, so it's good for constipation. And you should also try this mountain grape flavor. Oishii, isn't it?" she chuckles. "Here, have some more sesame. You must have forgotten what it tastes like."

At least someone is making money. A fortune, I'd say. Sloshing cups of juice and money are being passed over heads of a desperate crowd that's gathered around a man selling tiny cups of juice for JY100. Sweat dripping from his forehead, he can't pour fast enough to keep back the salt-parched mob that threatens to squeeze him as surely as his apples from Aomori.
299: Pokemania
Pikachu conquers the world by stealth and cuteness
298: Snow time like the present
When, where and how to get your share of the white stuff this winter
297: Helping Hands
The spirit of giving through volunteering
296: Stop the Music
Tokyo's nightclubs under attack
295: Just Do It!
Staying in shape in the city
294: 2 can play that game
The next generation of games consoles
293: Vegging out in Tokyo
Some of Tokyo's meatless oases
292: Multiplicity
The belated arrival of the multiplex
291: After a Fashion
Zita Ohe walks through Tokyo's fall/winter fashions
290: Used and Abused
Second-hand shops in the city
289: Microbrew - a mini guide
Tour the best of Tokyo's independent suds makers
288: The Delusions of a Kabuki Addict
Visit Ginza's Kabuki-za
287: Live and Learn
Studying traditional culture in Tokyo
286: Are you quaking?
Preparing for the big one
285: Sagawa Kyubin guys
Faces behind the takkyubin phenomenon
284: South Park
Christian Storms, creative producer and transwriter of the Japanese South Park
283: A saner Tokyo
Counselling and healing options for Japan's foreign community
282: Trainspotting
The Yamanote Line trivia quiz
281: The Lost World
Graham Hancock, inventor of a new genre of history mystery investigation
Graham Hancock: Transcript
280: Body of Art
Working out with traditional Japanese arts to work out
279: Open all hours
Japanese convenience stores
278: The Rice Stuff
A guide to sake
277: Get out!
Feasting al fresco in the summer
276: The Empire Strikes Big
The force behind Star Wars
275: Don't worry be happy!
A definitive guide to Tokyo's drinking deals
274: Off the hook
Tokyo's Central Wholesale Market
273: Books
Donald Richie, worldwide authority on Japan and Japanese culture
272: What's up pussy cat?
Hello Kitty turns twenty-five
271: Moving mountains for Freedom
The Tibetan Freedom Festival
270: So you think you're safe?
Women's safety in Tokyo
269: Are these the droids you're looking for?
Japan's new robot army
268: From beast to beauty
Catering to the beauty needs of foreigners
267: Perfect TV
Exploring Japanese TV
266: Let's do talk
The portable phenomenon of keitai
265: Get ready to rock!
The third annual Fuju Rock Festival
264: Kichijoji uncovered
A delightfully different day out
263: Tour Japan one bite at a time
The eleventh annual Furusato Fair
262: Golden getaways
Get you out of town this Golden Week
261: Millennium fudge
Can Tokyo survive the Millennium bug?
260: Ueno Park
A walk in the low city
259: Stressed to kill
Lifethreatening stress in Tokyo
258: Oodles of noodles
A day in a life of a local ramen shop
257: Off the shelf
Tokyo city libraries
256: Lord of light
Tokyo Classifieds founder Mark Devlin
255: Are you game
Indoor sports to get your blood on the boil
254: Eat your heart out
Valentine's Day in Japan
253: The way of wagashi
A friendly face in Japanese cooking
252: Face to face with Harajuku
Yoyogi Park street culture
251: What a grind!
In search of the perfect cup of coffee
250: The year of the rabbit
Chinese astrological signs