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transper_1pic.gif Aichi's Fresh Market Culture

Text and photos by Everett Kennedy Brown


Many of the shops are family run

How better to experience the life and culture of Aichi than by visiting its many fish and vegetable markets? Amidst a potpourri of local foodstuffs and the lively banter of residents bartering with vendors, stopping now and again to exchange words with friends and neighbors, one can intimately experience the prefecture and its people. In this issue’s Discovering Aichi we take a tour of several local markets and discover what makes Aichi unique in its culinary and cultural traditions.

Our first stop is the Yanagibashi Wholesale Market, located just minutes on foot from Nagoya Station. Here amidst an assortment of some 400 shops and fishmonger stalls we catch a glimpse of the old world charm the city is famous for. While being one of the largest cooperative wholesale markets of its kind in Japan, Yanagibashi also maintains a tradition of Nagoyan life that dates back before the Edo period (1603–1868).

Even today local fishermen continue to bring to market their morning catch of live octopus and eel, kuruma shrimp, and over 15 varieties of fish directly from their boats. It is a bustle of activity that begins in the early morning hours before dawn, when giant tuna weighing upwards of 150 kilograms are unloaded from special freezer trucks. By 6:00 a.m. the aisles of fishmonger stalls are already peopled with discerning chefs from Nagoya’s finest restaurants inspecting the day’s catch in search of delicacies to grace the city’s dinner tables.

The sights of the marketplace are something dazzling to both the senses and the imagination. Amidst the bustle of fishmongers, butchers, and buyers, there is a harmonious flow of human movement that expresses the choreography of traditional market life. In fact, there is an expression in Japanese to describe this “no need for words” sensibility. It is called a-un-no-kokyu. A direct translation into English is something like, “when one person inhales the other person exhales.” The phrase expresses a harmony of thought and movement that is a distinctive quality of the market’s life.

For the visitor, a walk among Yanagibashi’s many interesting shops is also an excellent opportunity to find unusual and hard-to-find objects that make excellent gifts for those back home. In fact, if you ever wanted to make sushi or other Japanese foods, the market has all the necessary accouterments—specialty sashimi knives, bamboo sushi rollers, teas and seaweeds, traditional Japanese spices and seasonings, as well as many varieties of ceramic and lacquer dinnerware. Everything related to Japanese cooking is here at wholesale prices.

South of Nagoya we visit several farmer’s markets in the historic city of Handa, famous for its traditional miso, soy sauce, and vinegar production. In fact, the second largest vinegar producer in the world is located here: a company that was instrumental in the development of sushi culture over 200 years ago, by introducing the use of vinegar to cooked rice and raw fish.

Amidst a scenic backdrop of canals and Edo period factories and warehouses the city is undergoing a farmer’s market revival. The business days of the markets vary, but practically every day one of them is operating. We drop in on two: Sampachi Ichi (Three-Eight Market), which opens on every day of the month with a three or eight in it, and Funa Ichi (Two-Seven Market), which opens on days with a two or seven. Going first to Sampachi Ichi, the oldest market in the downtown area, we find dozens of farmers selling a cornucopia of local produce.

This market has become a locus of community spirit. It is an opportunity to meet friends and neighbors and exchange the news of the day. Grandparents often stroll around with their grandchildren, stopping at the numerous food vendors along the way to sample the local traditional delicacies. One of the most popular shops is run by Masuo Jinno, who sells a kind of rice dumpling called dango in Japanese. The small white balls made from rice flour are dipped in a special sweet and salty sauce and are popular among young and old alike. On a good day Jinno-san sells upwards of 1,000 dumplings.

“I’ve got customers who’ve been enjoying my dumplings for 30 years,” he says. “Mothers will bring their children and tell them they grew up eating them.”

Another popular food in the market is okonomiyaki, a Japanese-style pancake filled with vegetables and small pieces of octopus. Tamae Saito, aged 76, has been selling okonomiyaki in the market for close to 50 years. “In the old days it was different,” says Saito-san. “Customers used to come around 4:00 a.m. wanting to get the freshest vegetables picked that morning.” While the sellers maintain their traditions, the lifestyle of the customers has changed. The market opens at 7:00 a.m. and lasts until around noon, but most customers drop by between 9:00 and 10:00.

As is true in much of the world, many people in Handa have moved to the suburbs. Funa Ichi, the newest market, has opened in a suburb to meet the needs of the people who have moved into the area. It too is a place of congeniality, like Sampachi Ichi downtown. Sakayuki Fujita, a second-generation fruit vendor, comments, “More consumers these days are concerned about what they eat. By knowing who grows the fruits and vegetables that go on their dinner table, people are assured they are getting quality.”

Many of the farmers are growing vegetables with little or no chemicals, and that makes a difference in taste too, according to Fujita-san. “It doesn’t matter whether the shape and look of the vegetables are different,” he adds. “Some children even come to the market with their mothers looking for caterpillars on the green vegetables. They take them home as pets and watch them grow into butterflies.”

A journey through Aichi’s local markets is not only a delight to the eyes and taste buds; it can also be a learning experience. Stopping to chat with the local people, one comes to see how they value not only their local culture and community but their natural food resources as well. It is also an opportunity to try Jinno-san’s famous rice dumplings.



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