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