Shinagawa Ward in central Tokyo has seen lots of high-rise condos and office complexes sprout up in recent years, especially since shinkansen bullet trains began to stop there in 2003.
But Yoshio Otsuka, who runs a homey vegetable store in the shadow of Shinagawa’s concrete jungle, reflects daily on times past when the area prospered as a vast vegetable farm.
Otsuka also ponders how residents of Edo (as present-day Tokyo was known under the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867) might have savored the area’s now-rare branded vegetables — ranging from Shinagawa kabu (a white, daikon-like turnip with abundant green leaves) to Magome sanzun ninjin (a short, thick type of carrot grown in the neighboring Magome district).
Otsuka started digging into Tokyo’s vegetable history five years ago when an official at Shinagawa Ward Office told him that local people used to cultivate a wide range of vegetables, including turnips, leeks, pumpkins and bamboo shoots.
His probe eventually led him to a pioneer in the field of Edo vegetable research, Michishige Otake, who has for 20 years been tracing the roots of Edo Period veggies known to have once been grown in the metropolis. Otake has so far identified 50 such vegetables, from carrots to cucumbers to burdocks. Sadly, many of them are now extinct.
Otake, formerly a top Tokyo official in the nationwide cooperative Japan Agriculture (JA), says traditional veggies are a rare commodity these days. In the mid-1970s, he explains, as Japan’s economy boomed, Edo Period vegetables — which are pure strains — disappeared and were replaced by hybrid cultivars.
Apparently that was because “experts” back then started selectively breeding the plants to create a steady supply of identical-looking ones for the purpose of mass marketing, distribution and consumption. Consequently, almost all the vegetables in today’s supermarkets are grown from artificially pollinated hybrid seeds, called F1s. Not only are they resistant to bugs, but they also grow very quickly regardless of the season — so saving farmers untold time and trouble. Furthermore, F1 veggies are the retailer’s friend, too, as they are raised and reared to fit into standard cardboard boxes.
“Restaurants appreciate having access to all kinds of vegetables all year around,” Otake said, “because that way, they don’t have to change their menus every season. What this means is, vegetables have gradually become industrialized.”
However, a side effect of this is that farmers have lost control of what they grow. They now buy new seeds from suppliers every season because F1 seeds don’t reproduce well. And seed companies don’t tell farmers how they cross-breed their new varieties of vegetable seeds, as they maintain that’s top secret, Otake said.
Edo veggies, on the other hand, can be propagated over many generations as long as growers are willing to collect seeds from their plants at the appropriate time.
But why is it so important to preserve old veggies? “You don’t know what great genes might be there in Edo vegetables,” Otake says. “I think it’s our responsibility to pass on the seeds because preserving vegetables that grow in certain areas means preserving those areas’ local dishes. If we lose the vegetables, there won’t be any authentic homemade cooking.”
While not scorning the biotechnology that has made F1 veggies possible, Otake certainly bemoans the fact that many people nowadays know next to nothing about those they put on their own table.
“What is called komatsuna (mustard plant) is completely different from the komatsuna in the Edo Period,” Otake says. The traditional form has fewer leaves and longer roots. “Today, most komatsuna on the market is in fact a mixed breed of komatsuna and bok choy (a Chinese green vegetable).”
But what about their taste?
Otsuka and Otake both admit that the old veggies often have a more powerful aftertaste that’s absent in modern equivalents developed to have the widest possible appeal. But they insist that the old-time veggies have many under- appreciated qualities.
“They embody important senses of taste that have been passed on for ages in Japan,” Otake said. “They might not taste so straightforwardly delicious, but they are nuanced into Japan’s food culture — and so we must preserve them.”
To his delight, Otake’s 20 years of Edo veggie research and campaigning has started to bear fruit. These days, he is often asked to give speeches and advice to farmers as people’s interest in purebred vegetables has grown. The tipping point, he recalls, was a 2008 food-labeling scandal involving Chinese gyoza (dumplings), which alerted people to the risk of not knowing where their food comes from, and the risk of relying entirely on imports.
In addition, Otake stresses that the old vegetables all have fascinating stories to tell.
For example, he recounts how it was Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751), the eighth shogun, who gave one veggie its name in 1719 when he visited the Edogawa district for a bit of falconry and stopped at the local Katori Shrine for lunch. There, the priest served him a simple soup and a rice cake, but because he couldn’t find anything else to serve he added a vegetable from his garden to the soup. The shogun loved the vegetable so much that he named it komatsuna, after the Komatsu River nearby.
Otake also tells the story of Nerima daikon (Nerima radish), which, unlike typical daikon, grows to be up to a meter long. He recounts how Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), the fifth shogun, suffered from beriberi, a nervous system ailment that can cause heart failure and is caused by a deficiency of thiamin (vitamin B1). Following the advice of a fortune teller, he built a house in Nerima, then a country district on Edo’s northwestern outskirts, where he recovered after eating daikon he had farmers grow from seeds brought from Owari in present-day Aichi Prefecture.
As such anecdotes might suggest, vegetable farming took root in Edo in the 17th century, with the beginning of the so-called alternate attendance system. Known in Japanese as sankin kotai, this was a practice enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate to control regional daimyo (samurai lords) by requiring them to live alternate years in the capital and their home districts — leaving their wives and children behind in Edo as hostages — in order to drain their finances and keep them in line. While in Edo, however, many daimyo missed the food they ate in their hometowns, so they brought farmers and seeds with them to Edo.
“That’s how seeds from all over Japan ended up in Edo,” Otake said.
Over time, these “alien” vegetables came to be known by the areas of Edo in which they were grown, he explained, adding that as seaside Shinagawa south of Edo Castle had a relatively mild climate, it soon became a major vegetable production area.
Now, though, Otsuka is trying to revive Shinagawa turnip — and his hometown. Since finding out the vegetable is still grown by a farmer in western Tokyo, he has asked him and others to ramp up production because it is no longer grown in Shinagawa and can’t be because no space there is zoned for farming.
In addition to selling some of the turnips at his store in Kita-Shinagwa, he has also tied up with local schools so that children can grow them in school gardens, harvest them, and eat them at school lunches. He has also asked a local patissier, a manju (steamed bun) maker and a gyoza dumpling store to create special confections and other food products using Shinagawa turnip.
“Someday, I would like to see a big patch of farming land created in Shinagawa, where people young and old can grow Shinagawa kabu together, from seed-planting to harvesting,” he said. And smiling mischievously, he added: “It’s really not the job of a veggie vendor, is it?”
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