We spent this new year, as is our custom, in Kamakura. We helped to toll the joya-no-kane bell at our favorite hillside temple. At a little shrine under a steep, wooded cliff, we made our ritual hatsumode obeisances. And then, needless to say, we feasted in auspicious style.
We slurped hearty toshikoshi soba noodles, rolled and chopped by hand. We sipped piping-hot amazake, the sweet, slightly cloying flavor of the malted rice balanced by a judicious sprinkle of powdered cinnamon. We grilled mochi (sticky rice) that was still warm and pliable, fresh from being pounded at Okuni, a long-established wagashi shop. And we imbibed resinous taruzake decanted straight from the barrel, with which we toasted friends and strangers alike.
For the first three days of the new year, the local authorities close all roads in central Kamakura to outside traffic. While day-trippers clog the main thoroughfare between the JR station and Hachimangu Shrine, the locals like to amble through the less-trod streets around the periphery of town. It’s a rare opportunity to once again appreciate what makes Kamakura such a desirable place to live: the tranquility, the sense of community, and the security engendered by that protective ring of green hills on three sides, the ocean guarding the south.
But what makes this place so special for us — and for anyone who likes to eat well — is that here, like nowhere in the metropolis, you can provision your kitchen with food that is truly local.
It’s not hard to find, either. The place to start is the city produce market, just a few short steps from the station and the tourist shops. Here, at first light every day, local farmers set up their stalls, offering an array of vegetables that they planted, tended and harvested themselves.
In winter, their trestles groan under the weight of cauliflowers, turnips, taro yams, daikon and hakusai (Chinese cabbages). At the end of December, they bring in less common vegetables, such as kyo-ninjin (long, dark-red Kyoto carrots) or yurine (lily bulbs), for the celebratory osechi ryori meals eaten on the first few days of the year.
Recently, some of the farmers have also begun experimenting with more unusual vegetables. Bulbous kohlrabi, purple mustard greens, arugula (rocket greens) and even exotica such as Egyptian molokhiya greens, Thai lemongrass or jalapen~o chilies.
During the summer, there will be salad greens aplenty; watercress harvested from mountain streams; and wonderful vine-ripened tomatoes (French chef Alan Ducasse is on record as saying that a Kamakura tomato he was given on a recent visit was the equal of the Mediterranean tomatoes he uses in his Michelin-starred restaurants).
It is wonderful to know that your vegetables may have been dug or cut on the morning of the day they are sold. But it is an even greater pleasure to be able to buy produce from the people who actually grew it. It gives a sense of connection with the soil of the place, what the French call its terroir.
This is equally true when it comes to the seafood. In summer, the bay is little more than a pleasure zone for city dwellers seeking sun and sand. The rest of the year, though, it is reclaimed by the fishermen, who haul in their catches or peg out to dry the wakame seaweed they have cultivated.
On the long beach known as Shichirigahama, there are huts where you can buy freshly netted shirasu (tiny fry, similar to whitebait), which are sold in bags, semidried so they keep better, or fully dried in crisp rectangular sheets known as tatami-iwashi.
Just a short stroll away in the opposite direction lies the fishing port of Kotsubo. This narrow inlet in a fold of the hills is officially in Zushi City, but it operates as a self-contained fishing community, complete with its bustling little fish market, right in front of where the fishing boats are pulled up on their slipways.
For such a small place, there is always a great selection of seafood. Not all of it is local. They often have maguro (tuna) offloaded at the tip of the Miura Peninsula, or buri (yellowtail) from the Sea of Japan. But the core of their business is the catch from nearby waters.
You can usually find tai (sea bream), aji (jack), tobi-uo (flying fish) and suzuki (sea bass), along with various kinds of squid and shellfish — the local specialty being sazae (horned turban). They keep tanks full of live flatfish (hirame or karei), and there are always trays of lesser fish, ugly species rarely spotted on supermarket shelves.
This market is actually privately run, staffed by three generations of an extended family. The men take care of lugging and preparing the seafood, while the womenfolk handle the money. They can be brusque to the point of rudeness to outsiders — especially the gawkers who get in the way or prod the fish, but also to customers (even well-shod Kamakura housewives) if they forget to bring plastic bags to put their purchases in.
But that is a small price to pay for that deep sense of connection. You have bought your fish just a few meters from the water in which it swam. The market folk are part of the fishing community.
There is growing interest in Japan in the Slow Food movement, but mostly this centers on the idea of leisurely eating, as often as not in Italian restaurants. That is missing the point.
The true ideal of Slow Food is to eat locally, to support local artisans and farmers, and nourish a sense of connectedness with the soil. For those living in Kamakura, that does not seem to be very difficult.
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In the neighborhood
Kamakura does not lack for restaurants and cafes, especially in the streets leading to Hachimangu Shrine. Most, though, are geared toward the tourist hordes, for whom dining is not an important part of visiting Kamakura and who head home when evening falls. Nakamura-an is a notable exception. One of Kamakura’s longest-established soba shops, it is cramped and invariably there are lines outside. But the noodles are simple and satisfying, hand-chopped in the hearty Shinshu style, and locals know that by midafternoon you can walk straight in and order.
Nakamura-an, 1-7-6 Komachi, Kamakura-shi; tel: (0467) 25-3500; www.nakamura-an.com; Open 11:45 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Thursday.
Subscribing wholeheartedly to the Slow Food movement, A Riccione is a spinoff of a Milanese ristorante of the same name. Many of the vegetables they serve come from their own market garden. You can’t get fresher than that.
A Riccione, BM Bldg. B1F, 2-12-30 Komachi, Kamakura-shi; tel: (0467) 24-5491; www2.ocn.ne/ jp/~riccione; Open 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; closed Wednesday (except on holidays).
One of the most popular new eateries in Kamakura is Cobakaba, a small, casual cafe-restaurant near the farmers’ market with stripped pine decor, a young, friendly staff and a menu of Japanese home cooking and sandwiches. Invariably it’s full.
Cobakaba, 1-13-15 Komachi, Kamakura-shi; tel: (0467) 22-6131; Open 11:45 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Thursday.
Follow the aroma of fresh-baked focaccia, and you will arrive at Paradise Alley, a laid-back cafe-bakery right inside the market. Here Junpei-san and his cohorts serve up simple but righteous lunches of soup and salad, with a backing track of hip, rootsy music. Just 2 years old, Paradise Alley is already a pillar of the local alternative community.
Paradise Alley, 1-13-10 Komachi, Kamakura-shi; no phone; open daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Cafe Life Force is another welcome new arrival, serving up a creative and health-conscious menu featuring fresh, local vegetables, with organic wine and sake. Owner Kenji Shungo has converted an old shop to create a space that is equal parts chic and mellow.
Cafe Life Force, 2-5-19 Yuigahama, Kamakura-shi; tel: (0467) 25-5359; Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 6-11:30 p.m. (last order); closed Wednesday and 4th Tuesday of the month.
Kamakura can now boast its first proper espresso bar. Sugiyamadai Works is a small but loving recreation of a Florentine caffe-bar, where the locals gather in the morning for authentic cappuccinos and cornetos (Italian croissants).
Sugiyamadai Works, 1-2-19 Omachi, Kamakura-shi; tel: (0467) 25-3917; www.sugiyamadai-works.com; Open 7 a.m.-1 p.m. & 3-7 p.m.; closed Wednesday and Tuesday afternoon.
Surely the most stylish place in the city to drink is The Bank. Housed in an old stone building on Yuigahama-dori (yes, it was once a bank), this retro-chic little bar serves up cocktails, single malts and more, plus a surprisingly wide range of delectable snacks, both hot and cold.
The Bank, 3-1-1 Yuigahama, Kamakura-shi; tel: (0467) 60-6170; Open 5 p.m.-1 a.m. (3 p.m.-1 a.m Saturday & Sunday); closed Monday, and 3rd & 4th Tuesday of the month.