In a city the size of Tokyo, it’s all too easy to be unaware of where your food comes from. Most of what we eat is shipped in from far away, not just the extremities of the country but from all around the world. Japan’s overall food self-sufficiency rate is bad enough — a mere 38.3 percent as of 2010. The figure for the metropolis must be almost down to single digits.
So it is encouraging to see the rising popularity of farmers markets in recent years. Probably the best known is the one held at weekends outside the United Nations University in Aoyama. Others pop up with increasing frequency around the city in basements, car parks, waterfront malls and plazas in front of inner-city railway stations.
Sometimes the term “farmers market” is a misnomer. The stalls may sell farm-fresh produce — often of impeccable organic provenance, with mud still attached — but relatively few are operated by the same people who actually grow it. Even so, cutting out the distributors and supermarkets along with the chemical sprays can only be a cause worth supporting.
More than anything, though, there is a feeling of community, the sense of being connected and able to chat with the folks who dug the daikon, wove the akebi vine baskets or knitted the hemp-fiber beanie hats. Very few people go to the markets solely to purchase provisions and then walk on. There are people to talk to and stories to be heard, as well as food trucks to eat at.
Part of the appeal of farmers markets is that they are temporary, operating only at intervals, usually weekends. But what if they were permanent? They would probably look a lot like 246 Common.
The concept of this new market is brilliant. An empty plot of land, in the heart of upmarket Aoyama just a few steps away from the Omotesando Crossing, has been transformed into a sophisticated, buzzy encampment of produce stalls, bakeries, handmade kiosks, camping trailers, food trucks and outdoor bars.
For the next two years this prime real estate facing onto Aoyama-dori, which would otherwise be lying fallow due to the slump in property prices, will buzz with the farmers market sense of community that its name evokes.
In fact, there are only two produce sellers. The other enterprises range from excellent artisan bread to Himalayan rock salt, Ethiopian rose products, mix-and-match plastic sandals and a stall specializing in reading glasses. There’s even a tiny radio broadcast booth.
The main focus is on food stalls. All the usual genres are present and correct, including ramen, yakitori chicken, curry rice, soft-serve ice cream and delectable takoyaki octopus balls — this last served from a wonderful retro-looking kiosk.
There are also more eclectic ideas. Where else in town can you find a classic silver Airstream camping trailer serving South Indian dosa pancakes stuffed with such un-Indian fillings as lox and cream cheese or beer-garden German sausages?
Officially opened at the beginning of August, 246 Common still feels like a work in progress, with new stalls due to open over the coming weeks. But already, the covered seating area is busy with an appreciative crowd taking advantage of the balmy summer evenings.
246 Common, 3-13 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5459-3362. Nearest station: Omotesando (Ginza, Chiyoda and Hanzomon lines). Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. www.246common.jp. Read more on farmers markets in Japan at www.farmersmarkets.jp and www.japanfarmersmarkets.com.
For Tokyo’s expat community, the National Azabu store in Hiroo (www.national-azabu.com) has long been an essential source of imported groceries. So when it closed last autumn for much-needed refurbishment, there was considerable anguish and concern.
The good news is that it reopens today — bigger and brighter but in the same old location, and once again offering the full range of Stateside specialties and international flavors that give life in Tokyo a taste of home.