Despite Tokyo’s reputation as a concrete jungle, about 3.3 percent of the city’s land is used for agriculture, with 60 percent of farms located in urban areas. Just a short train ride from Shinjuku reveals hidden pocket-sized fields, rows of vegetables and fruit sandwiched between golf ranges, convenience stores and houses.
The 20-minute walk from Mitakadai Station to Yoshida Noen farm in Mitaka, a suburb northwest of Tokyo, is no exception: Small allotments start springing up with increasing regularity the further one gets from the station. While most rows are currently barren, waiting for warmer spring climes, Yoshida Noen’s fields are already filled with growth, dotted with green fronds and rows of impressively large hakusai Chinese cabbages.
Haruhiko Yoshida’s family has been farming in Mitaka for around 300 years and even though the landscape around his 5 tan (just under 5,000 square meters) fields has changed dramatically over the centuries, he’s continuing the tradition.
Currently, Yoshida Noen is the only organic farm in the Mitaka area, growing 90 different types of crops throughout the year without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Walking through the rows of winter vegetables, Yoshida explains how the farm was organic for most of its history, except for a couple of decades during the postwar years when his grandfather started following government-recommended measures to boost production in a time of food shortages.
However, when Yoshida’s father, Toshio, took over the farm in the early 1980s he quickly reverted back to its organic roots. Rieko, his mother, pipes up from the table where she’s packing and cleaning the day’s harvest, explaining that her husband had horrible headaches when he sprayed pesticides. “I mean, the farm had prospered for decades without any chemical additives, and they put him out of commission each time, so what was the point?” she says. “Plus they’re expensive!”
About half of the produce grown on the farm is destined for restaurants, with many Italian and French restaurants in Tokyo relying on Yoshida Noen to provide unusual crops such as purple chicory, cime di rapa (broccoli rabe) or poireau (leeks). “Our satsumaimo (sweet potatoes), broccoli and edamame are also quite popular, as are our 12 varieties of tomato, although I don’t like them myself,” Yoshida lists off with a grin.
To fit the desires of the wider market, many commercial farmers aim for vegetables that are almost sweet. But Yoshida’s approach is far more natural: He allows his crops to grow with minimal interference, and the vagaries of weather, pests and luck ensure his vegetables taste different each year, with a greater range and depth of flavor than more pampered crops. And the proof is in the pudding or, in this case, the pasta.
Bellying up to the counter at Osteria Giulietta in nearby Sengawa, diners can watch owner-chef Takumu Kato dish up plate after plate of Italian classics, including a mouthwatering, handmade orecchiette pasta with cime di rapa. The blackboard menu proudly proclaims his use of Yoshida Noen’s produce, which crops up in everything from a warm appetizer of steamed winter vegetables down to the mikan (mandarin) powder on top of a toothsome kinkan (kumquat) tart.
“Yoshida’s vegetables are absolutely essential for my dishes, as they are so flavorful and fresh,” the chef says. “Being able to really communicate with the grower about my needs, visit the fields and know that each ingredient is not only organic but also delicious is priceless.” Kato has a row on the farm exclusively dedicated to growing vegetables for his dishes, and Yoshida experiments with growing new varieties for all of his restaurant clients upon request.
Yoshida and Kato often collaborate in family-friendly events held at Yoshida’s farm, such as by making pizzas topped with vegetables attendees pick themselves, to promote understanding about farming, the importance of good food and bringing the farm-to-table experience to western Tokyo.
For more information about Yoshida Noen, visit yoshidanouen.com.