Ota Market in Tokyo Prefecture is the most unique produce market I have ever visited: few signs, little on display, no crowds of frenzied shoppers, no shouting, no aromas. Like so much in Japan, you need to know where you're going and what you're looking for to have a successful trip.
The market complex is enormous. It takes up eight by six city blocks, covering the distance between Central Park West and the East River in Manhattan. Once you're inside the main building, it's like being at church. The first thing you see is a huge empty space, and off to the sides are stacks of boxes. Want to know what's inside? You have to ask—no one is going to tell you.
I was fortunate to visit both the wholesale and retail sections of Ota with chef Thomas Angerer, the executive chef at Park Hyatt Tokyo, and Nao Kiyota, one of his top vendors. The three of us got onto one of the robotic vehicles, steered by Kiyota-san, and entered the market.
The retail section is comprised of row after row of single-story cement houses. The second floor of each house is an office, and down below is a room in which produce is delivered from wholesale and sold to customers like me. Some of the retail shops, most of which are family-owned, sell two or three high end speciality items exclusively, while others have a variety.
My best advice to you is to read up on what's in season and then go to Ota and ask vendors if they have it. They'll be happy to open up the boxes and show you what's inside, some of which was the most beautiful produce I've ever seen. I was in the market for anything that was hashiri: the first of the season.
And this being haru, or spring, that meant mountain vegetables (used for tempura), fava beans, and red and white strawberries. The white strawberries were tart and had a firm texture, while the red ones, which were the size of plums, were as juicy and sweet as a ripe peach. Uncultivated mountain vegetables, dug out from snow, all had the same size and shape. The food's appearance was as appealing as the taste to come, a uniquely Japanese attribute.
"The seasons vary in Japan," explained Angerer. "When spring begins in Okinawa, it takes weeks and weeks to arrive at the northernmost island of Hokkaido. So you get the same product over long periods of time."
There's no better way to learn about Japanese food than by spending a morning at Ota. Few foreigners visit the market, and when I was there people I met were as curious about an outsider as I was about them. You can take pictures, ask questions, and, if you're like me, pick up one of the famous musk melons, unique to Japan, to enjoy later in the evening with a spritz of lemon and a spring of mint. The juice was spectacular.
To reach Ota Market: If you don't have a car, the Keihin Kyuku bus runs from the east exit of the Japan Rail Omori Station; the Toei bus runs from the east exit of the Japan rail Shinagawa Station; and, there is an express bus from the Keihin Kyuko Heiwajima Station. Travel time is between ten to thirty minutes depending on your starting point.