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Fermented foods are such an integral part of the Japanese diet, it’s easy to take them for granted. From traditional salty-savory cooking seasonings to pungent pickles and fizzy-sweet rice cultures, the sheer number and variety of products is remarkable.

This breadth only really sinks in when you visit a store on the scale of Hakko Department, near Shimokitazawa. The shelves of its shop are packed not just with the usual miso, shoyu, nattō, sake and vinegar, but also many less widespread regional specialties.

There’s shottsuru and ishiru, both varieties of fish sauce; tamari, a type of soy sauce made from soybean kōji rather than wheat; tofuyō, cheese-like Okinawan fermented tofu; and saltless sunki pickles from the mountains of Nagano Prefecture. These, along with many other traditional foods teeming with microbiological life, are the raison d’etre for Hakko Department.

Ferment on the go: Hakko Department’s bento come branded with an anthropomorphic kanji character. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Ferment on the go: Hakko Department’s bento come branded with an anthropomorphic kanji character. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Half retail store, half cafe, Hakko — the Japanese word for “ferment” — Department is the brainchild of Hiraku Ogura, a self-styled fermentation designer, whose work ranges from hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up miso-making workshops to heady musings on anthropology and “more-than-human” ethics.

All this provides plenty of food for contemplation as you seat yourself in the cafe for a simple, wholesome lunch incorporating many of the products available in the store. There are usually two or three choices, such as the popular “fermented hayashi (hashed beef) rice” (¥950).

There will also be a noodle dish. Recently, one option was an excellent bowl of Yunnan-style mixian, light rice noodles served in a clear broth seasoned with ishiru, a fish sauce traditional to the Noto Peninsula of Ishikawa Prefecture, and topped with shreds of steamed chicken, roasted peanuts and fine-chopped negi scallions. This was served as a set menu (¥1,200) with various kinds of miso relishes, plus a dab of fiery kanzuri, a potent chili paste made in Niigata Prefecture.

Or you can order a full set lunch meal (¥2,500), featuring steamed dim sum, along with noodles and dessert. Hopefully the longer dinner menu will also be reinstated, once the coronavirus situation permits.

Hakko Department also offers a considerable selection of fermented beverages. The bottles of sake, Japanese natural wine, craft beer and shōchū arrayed in the fridge can all be bought to take home or consumed (for a supplementary corkage fee) in situ.

But take some time before you are satiated and laden down with purchases to check out the surrounding area. Hakko Department forms part of the brilliant Bonus Track development that has sprung up on the land where the Odakyu Line used to run before it was buried deep underground.

It includes numerous small cafes and bars, a bakery and a bookshop, even a second-hand record store, all housed in simple, low-cost prefab housing and run by the kind of youthful independent operators who can no longer afford to set up in the gentrifying streets of Shimokita. Best of all, there are lots of outside tables, some even enclosed in plastic to keep out the threat of rain and/or viruses.

Bonus Track, Daita 2-36-15, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 155-0033; 03-6413-8525; bit.ly/hakkodepartment; shop open 11 a.m.-7 p.m., restaurant till 4 p.m. (L.O.); restaurant closed Wed.; lunch from ¥950; takeout available; nearest station Shimokitazawa; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; Japanese menu; little English spoken

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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