Food & Drink

Buzzing about Ginpachi: Rooftop beekeeping in Japan's capital

by Chiara Terzuolo

Contributing Writer

When you think about honey, most people imagine bees zipping through huge flower fields, with beekeepers in full-body netting caring for the hives against a backdrop of rolling hills. However, the nonprofit organization Ginza Honey Bee Project proves that nature can thrive just above our heads.

Also known as Ginpachi, the group was founded in 2006 by a few people interested in bringing nature back into Tokyo. Atsuo Tanaka, one of the organization’s founding members — and current president — says the project started by chance. The original plan was to provide space on the roof of the Pulp and Paper Hall community center, which he managed, to a renowned beekeeper from Iwate Prefecture. “But that fell through, so we ended up diving in ourselves,” he says, during a break from a regular weekend hive cleaning session.

Bare hands beekeeping: Ginpachi co-founder and President Atsuo Tanaka gently handles a frame of honeybees during a hive cleaning session. | CHIARA TERZUOLO
Bare hands beekeeping: Ginpachi co-founder and President Atsuo Tanaka gently handles a frame of honeybees during a hive cleaning session. | CHIARA TERZUOLO

Ginpachi is now entering its 13th year of operations, growing to over 200 members, becoming well-known throughout the Ginza business community in the process. To support the honeybees and push forward with its goal of greening the city, it currently has four rooftop apiaries and 10 bee gardens — collaborations with companies around Ginza filled with pollen-producing flowers, vegetables and fruit plants — sprinkled across the elegant terraces, landscaping and roofs of the neighborhood.

Stopping in to observe the volunteers at work, one of the most surprising things is how completely unperturbed the European honeybees are throughout the cleaning and honey-gathering process. One longtime member explains that, like any other living creature, the bees react to how they are treated. Some of the most experienced members remove honey-filled frames with their bare hands, gently blowing any stragglers out of the way.

Once the frames are removed, the honey is literally spun out of the combs using a hand-cranked spinner to slowly ripple through a net that catches any impurities. The aroma that wafts up from the extractor as it spins is complex and golden, quite literally mellifluous.

The main season for collecting honey is from April to August, peaking in May after the flower-frenzy of cherry blossom season. The color, flavor and sweetness of the honey changes depending on the season and what flowers the bees find on their 3-kilometer forays, which extend all the way to the Imperial Palace gardens. In late August, right at the end of the season, the freshly spun honey is amber and crisp, without many heady overtones.

Ginpachi also aims to educate people and help them feel more connected to — and less afraid of — bees, and it does so in the most effective way possible: through the stomach.

A taste of Tokyo: The color, flavor and sweetness of Ginpachi's honey changes depending on the season and what flowers the bees find on their 3-kilometer forays. | CHIARA TERZUOLO
A taste of Tokyo: The color, flavor and sweetness of Ginpachi’s honey changes depending on the season and what flowers the bees find on their 3-kilometer forays. | CHIARA TERZUOLO

Besides selling jars of artisanal honey at L’Abeille in Matsuya Ginza (from ¥1,600, before tax), Ginpachi frequently collaborates with other Ginza-based businesses, creating a Tokyo-limited farm-to-table cycle. Food going from farm to table in less than 1 kilometer is something usually one associates with rural farms, certainly not skyscraper-filled neighborhoods, but Ginpachi shows that even in the metropolis it can be a reality.

For instance, the honey produced by Ginpachi hives is used in Bulgari’s patisserie to make cakes, which are then sold at the nearby Matsuya Ginza department store. At Bar Takasaka, the master mixes the golden syrup in sakura– (cherry blossom) themed cocktails during the spring. Wagashi (Japanese sweets) maker Gokokuya uses Ginpachi’s fragrant spring honey in a special yōkan jelly, while some of Bunmeido’s famous kasutera sponge cakes are flavored with it. For the budget-conscious, Ginpachi has also partnered for one-off collaborations with major brands, such as Yamazaki Baking.

Honey-lovers can also stop by the cafe on the first floor of the Pulp and Paper Hall, which advertises that the natural sweetener used in drinks and desserts is made just a few stories above the diners.

Although beekeeping remains at the core of what it does, Ginpachi’s work continues to expand to include ecological and food-based projects around Japan. Using rice from fields in Fukushima Prefecture, Ginpachi brings together brewers and farmers from Yamaguchi and Fukushima prefectures to create its own sake. It also works with brewers in Fukuoka Prefecture to create shōchū from sweet potatoes grown in the bee gardens around Ginza.

By establishing urban hives and gardens, Ginpachi shows that nature is not something that exists out of daily reach, and that it already coexists within cities and towns. Planting gardens in unused space not only helps green the area, but could also help revive and give new purpose to old shōtengai shopping streets in rural areas.

Looking toward the future, Ginpachi intends to improve its children-focused outreach, both to kids already interested in insects and those who live in large cities and are more disconnected from nature.

“To change people’s perspective of bees being dangerous or scary, you can’t start by approaching adults, who have already formed opinions. By getting kids interested in bees, and then, by extension, the natural environment they sustain, they will grow up to care about their environment, and can even help change their bee-fearing parents’ minds,” says Tanaka.

With a salesman’s flair, he adds that the best way to help support the organization and bees is to buy a jar or two of honey, a pretty sweet way to aid Japan’s environment and pollinators.

For more information about Ginpachi, visit gin-pachi.jp.

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