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Anyone who has traveled around Japan has likely marveled at how many farm plots dot all but the most urban areas. A trip on any shinkansen will offer the passenger fleeting glimpses of rice paddies and gardens that lie, green and lush, amidst Japan’s office towers, houses and apartment blocks.
Gardening and farming are integrated into modern Japanese cities and suburbs because they have always been there; it is the cities that have grown up around them. Besides the fact that the Japanese love cultivating plants in general – not to mention eating them – the country’s arable land is extremely limited, no more than about 15 percent of the archipelago. Farming must be done wherever it is possible.
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Add to this the Japanese attitude, often based on more than mere chauvinism, that foreign-grown food is not as good as home-grown, and the desire for locally-grown produce makes perfect sense in Japan. The current vogue for what has been dubbed farm-to-table, or farm-to-fork, would seem to be a perfect fit for Japan. Call it farm-to-hachi (chopsticks). Or use the Japanese local name chisan-chisho, which roughly means “local production for local consumption.”
That said, Japan, as a modern country with a passion for quality as well as convenience and food safety, has its own industrial farming chain, a well-established series of steps along the chain of food production that make farm-to-table dining a rarity even here. But a handful of restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto are beginning to do what Americans would call “cutting out the middle man,” eliminating as many steps as possible from the farm – or, rarely, from the sea – to the restaurant table.
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Most prominent is in the town of Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, on the west coast of Tohoku, four hours from Tokyo. Tsuruoka has been designated by UNESCO as one of only 18 Creative Cities of Gastronomy worldwide, and the only one in Japan. Here, the city encourages farmers and chefs to work in concert to preserve and promote indigenous crops and their use in gastronomy.
Farm-to-table restaurants in Japan include Soholm Cafe+Dining in Osaka, known for its daring chefs and devotion to local ingredients, the two We Are the Farm restaurants in Tokyo, and Noz by T.Y. Farm, a more casual eatery that focuses on “exotic” western vegetables like kale and arugula. It recently opened a branch in Shinagawa, Tokyo.
The latest entry on this small list of restaurants is Kigi, which will open next month in Chiyoda, Tokyo. The elegant restaurant, which like the others will focus on fresh vegetables, hopes to make its name by also focusing on fish, which it’s representative says will make it one of only two restaurants in Tokyo that serve fish the same day it was caught. Kigi’s chef is Noriyuki Nakagami, whose passion for freshness comes from his upbringing in his family’s country restaurant.
Another remarkable example is Hiiragitei, an izakaya in Kyoto’s ancient, fashionable Gion district, where the family of three – husband, wife, and grown son – serve a delicacy that’s rare even in Japan. It is, in fact, literally rare: Hiiragitei serves several forms of chicken tartare, a dish that would send restaurant health inspectors around the world into a frenzy of ticket-writing. Salmonella is nothing to be trifled with. But at tiny Hiiragitei, each chicken is selected daily, slaughtered under exacting conditions, and then transported and prepared carefully. This is an extreme example, as virtually no vegetables or even meats carry the dangers of raw chicken; but it shows how careful management of the food supply chain can deliver high-quality ingredients.
Another facet of this farm-to-table trend serves another growing need of the modern gourmand: the desire to feel close to the land, to the sea – to the sources of all food, of all life.
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Some Japanese are bringing those sources of food right into their own lives; not just their home gardens, but even into some offices. A shining example is the Pasona Group, a recruiting firm in which indoor farming is literally integrated into its headquarters. Using proper lighting and advanced irrigation techniques, Pasona’s nine story office tower in Tokyo features 20 percent of its square footage dedicated to farming: A rice paddy in the building’s lobby, with more than 200 different varieties of vegetables and herbs growing in conference rooms and other offices. Even the building itself is sheathed in greenery, giving the entire operation an exceedingly low carbon footprint.
But the most impressive aspect is that the company gives its 1,500 employees some time every day to tend to their crops, which are then harvested and served in the company dining room. The psychological and dietary benefits of this office-to-table farming are clear to nearly everyone at the organization, and is a dazzling demonstration of Japanese ingenuity.
The Japanese have always considered food, and farming, a crucial aspect of Japanese life and society. The 21st century sees the country, and its restauranteurs, taking full advantage of its natural gifts, cultural efficiency and the overarching Japanese passion for quality.