Hachinohe's markets serve up feasts in the streets

by Winifred Bird

Special To The Japan Times

Two hundred and sixty-two years ago, the feudal domain of Hachinohe was besieged by wild boars. The Wild Boar Famine that resulted, writes environmental historian Brett Walker in his recent book “Toxic Archipelago,” was the result of “the perfect ecological storm.”

That came about because farmers in the domain along the southeastern coast of what is now Aomori Prefecture had recently begun growing soybeans to sell in the shogunate’s capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo).

To cultivate their new cash crop, they would slash and burn fields, then plant and harvest beans from them until yields fell and they moved on to newer fields. In doing this they unintentionally left behind ideal feeding grounds for boars, which dug up tubers in the abandoned plots and rootled the tilled land for worms and grubs.

But the well-nourished, fast-multiplying boars then moved on to eat crops in other fields — and to invade the castle town itself. An all-out interspecies war ensued, with thousands of boars slaughtered by the frantic, starved townspeople.

Nevertheless, Walker writes, in 1749 “the wild boars won their deadly competition with farmers in an undisputed knockout.” The domain — which was already suffering from unusually cold, crop-damaging weather — lost 3,000 people, or about 10 percent of the population, to hunger.

Today, Hachinohe is so full of fabulous food markets that famines and battles with wild boars are nearly impossible to imagine. Food is the heart of this city — though it has some lovely beaches and wonderful countryside (with hot springs) all around in which to roam or cycle, or ski and board in the snowy winters.

Walking through the drab, near-deserted streets at dawn, you might suddenly happen upon an old woman with an immense wicker basket on her back, walking resolutely as if toward some mysterious goal. Then there’ll be another, pushing a metal shopping basket in the same direction. Follow them, and you are suddenly in the midst of hustle and bustle: men unloading Styrofoam boxes full of fish from the backs of trucks, women piling vegetables on curbs, everyone laughing and shouting, beautiful food everywhere. You’ve found the morning market.

Hachinohe has nine markets; if you wanted to, you could go to one just about any day of the year. This is perhaps because the city combines all the elements of an ideal market town: Abundant fishing grounds are just offshore, but mountains full of fruit and vegetable farms are equally near.

With a population of about 240,000, the city is big enough to supply lively throngs of customers but not so big as to make fishing and farming on its periphery impossible. And it’s neither a rich nor a pretentious city, which means the food is cheap and the men and women who sell it friendly.

Tatehana Ganpeki Asaichi, the big Sunday morning market, starts at dawn and ends around 9 or 10 a.m., March through December. About 300 stalls are set up along the Shin Minato wharf, where flocks of seagulls patrol rows of white and blue fishing boats. Already at 6:30 a.m. the aisles are packed with shoppers old and young, along with tourists and families out for a market breakfast.

Although the Shin Minato wharf where the market is held was badly damaged by the March 11 tsunami, it was repaired and running again by July. Fish prices remain higher than usual, though, because tsunami damage has devastated fishing villages in nearby Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, and radioactive contamination has shut down Fukushima Prefecture’s coastal fishing industry altogether.

Nonetheless, everything you could possibly want to eat seems to be for sale here. Farmers come down from the mountains with wooden crates of fruits and vegetables, while fishermen and women in rubber boots and aprons set up table after table of fish, seaweed and shellfish — and the fish in Hachinohe’s markets is spot-tested for radioactive contamination before it’s allowed to go on sale.

There’s fresh sardines and squid and salmon, apples, rhubarb and beets, wild grapes, lily roots coated in crumbly black earth, filter-brewed coffee, chocolate-covered bananas and literally hundreds of other items. In fact, it’s almost painful to be a traveler without a refrigerator close at hand.

Even without a refrigerator, though, you can eat breakfast at one of the many street-food stalls. The morning I visited, I polished off three fat scallops grilled over charcoal, a huge hunk of boiled konyaku (devil’s tongue) topped with garlic miso, and a freshly-fried, scallion-stuffed chijimi pancake — and all that before 7 a.m. I would happily have proceeded to the soba and udon noodle stalls had it been physically possible for me to eat any more.

The best thing about the Sunday market, though, is how happy everyone seems. People smile, banter and act in an open manner that’s truly rare in Japan’s public places. Farmers talk to fishermen, vendors talk to customers, old women talk to babies. They’ll pull you in, too, with friendly shouts: How about some soybeans? Sister, our apples are sweet! Last piece of pickled fish, going now! All of this is spoken in the incredibly thick Aomori dialect, but no one seems to take offence if you don’t understand.

There’s another, even more famous market in Hachinohe, which is held in front of the Mutsuminato train station every morning except Sunday, the second Saturday of each month and the year’s end. This market is aimed more at restaurant and shop owners than regular shoppers, and the focus is fish. It’s known for its racous elderly female fish vendors, who are called isaba no kacha — meaning “fish-market mothers” (you’ll see a cartoonish statue of one when you leave the station).

Before dawn, workers in the warehouses lining the street in front of the station slide up their shutters, turn on their strings of incandescent lightbulbs and begin to set out glistening piles of fish and shellfish brought in from all over Japan. On the unused patches of sidewalk, old women in kerchiefs and woollen sweaters spread out garlic cabbage, apples, burdock and other produce. The main sales are finished by 6:30 or 7 a.m., but the market officially continues to mid-morning.

The fish market, like the Sunday market, is an excellent place to have breakfast.

Just where the shops end and the houses begin stands an unpresupposing little restaurant called Minato Shokudo, open from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. every day the market is on. This is where you should head if you like seafood. Owner Shozo Mori, who grew up in the neighborhood running errands for the fish vendors before school, selects the best of the day’s catch, then serves it up as sashimi over big bowls of fluffy rice with miso soup and a few side dishes.

Mori is a great cook with an extensive repertoire, most of which he keeps off the menu and only prepares for regular customers. If you’re lucky and bold enough to ask, you might persuade him to prepare a local specialty like ramen in fish broth or senbei jiru (rice crackers in soup) for you. It’s the perfect way to start a day in Hachinohe.

Getting there: The Tohoku Shinkansen reaches Hachinohe in 3 hours from Tokyo Station; services hourly. Towada Kanko and Kokusai Kogyo buses operate a 9-hour overnight service from Tokyo Station and Ikebukuro. More details of the area are available at Hachinohe Tourism Information Plaza in JR Hachinohe Station ([0178] 27-4243); or from Hachinohe City Tourism Department ([0178] 46-4040).