A Tour of the Gorgeous Produce at Ota Market in Japan


[Photographs: Doug Foote]

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 delicious tart white strawberries are greenhouse grown in prefectures throughout Japan. They begin to appear at Ota at the end of February, and go for about $1.20 a pop.

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.

Root vegetables are packed in sawdust to preserve their shape and keep their appearance from bruising.

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.

Mountain vegetables used for tempura. These are hand picked, and their uniformity is especially striking in light of the fact that they are wild rather than cultivated.

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.

Sealed packages of wild mountain vegetables. Mountain vegetables are among the best examples of washoku, or pre-Western food, in Japan. As such, they are revered, and have a spiritual connotation.

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.

Perfect tiny white turnips. You can eat these raw or dip them into a sweet miso.

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.

Giant white turnips nearly the size of footballs. The Japanese are way into texture—these are bland, but have a great mouthfeel.

"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."

Chef and seller look over the first Japanese asparagus of spring. Unlike the asparagus from Chile, which can be astringent, or the fat Belgian variety that taste almost like meat, these Japanese asparagus have a sweet, delicate, floral taste.

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.