North of Tokyo in Saitama
The Suburb of Saitama
Driving through the suburbs of Tokyo, the roadside is dotted with familiar sites such as: an auto body shop, a town barber and clusters of modest suburban houses, each with a lone fruit tree in the front yard. It could be a stretch of road in Ventura County, but the Japanese characters advertising cell phones and televisions, and the fruit trees, heavy with ripe persimmons, make it distinctly Japan. Saitama to be precise, a smallish prefecture north of Tokyo that houses a large population of suburban commuters that crowd the city-bound trains each weekday morning.
Before Tokyo’s voracious appetite for land and affordable rent spilled into Saitama, before the nation’s largest soccer stadium – slated to house the 2020 Olympic soccer matches – was built there, the area was predominantly farmland. It is this farmland that provides sustenance for the Kanto region. During the Edo period, sweet potatoes became a specialty of the region and today, they remain Saitama’s most popular crop along with leeks and komatsuna, a Japanese mustard spinach. Today, driving through a canyon to the small town of Nagatoro, small patches of leeks still decorate the lawns and gardens that butt up against the main thoroughfare.
Floating on Arakawa River
I am not in charge of the agenda today and thus I find myself, in Nagatoro, on a wooden riverboat wearing a yellow life vest floating down the milky green Arakawa River. Our guide, with long hair reaching his shoulders and knee-high neoprene galoshes on his feet, steers the boat past waterfalls and striated slabs of bedrock dubbed Iwadatami, which translates to tatami mat of rocks. He heaves his body from left to right, using only a long wooden pole to herd us around rapids, swollen from the recent rain.
The river is tranquil and rife with a distinctly foreign beauty – the unsettling color of the water, the banks lush with unfamiliar fauna — it’s nice, but I’m here for the food.
Above the rocky shore where we exit the boat, a block of open-air market stalls lines a stone pathway. We pass by a gentleman, his white hair hidden beneath what looks like a shower cap, packaging fresh tofu behind a wall of glass. His shop is broken up into clusters – horizontal refrigerators filled with fresh soba and udon noodles and wooden shelves supporting countless bags and flavors of rice crackers. There are cellophane bags filled with beans of varying sizes, colors and shapes – some fermented, some dusted with sugar. There is fish – both dried and preserved in brine. Two women in kimono offer us green tea, which is rejuvenating after the brisk river ride. We are behind schedule, and our tour-guides unceremoniously usher us out of the shop. So we carry on, past vendors who smile curiously and bow as we pass by, no doubt wondering how a group of five Americans ended up in a town this hard to find.
I see a small storefront, sandwiched between a stall serving heart-shaped sembei (rice crackers) and a shaved ice stand. The storefront is decorated in dark wood, with only a small window facing the street. Sitting on the window ledge are several flavors of manju – a popular Japanese confection typically made of rice flour and filled with adzuki bean paste. I pick one up to examine it and immediately the owner comes out the side door to greet me. Her smile takes up a third of her face. She has warm eyes and deep, well –worn wrinkles, like crisp lines engraved in stone. She is barely five feet tall and speaks quickly to me in Japanese, her arms animating her sentences. I point to the most basic manju on the window ledge and she nods excitedly. She calls to her son who appears behind the window and continues to speak to me in Japanese. I nod and smile, not comprehending her sentences, but understanding her passion. Behind the window, her son opens a worn Styrofoam box and fishes out one pastry, the size of a baseball, wrapped in plastic yet still warm from the steamer. I hand him 110 yen and turn back to his mother. We bow and exchange “arigatos.”
Slowly, I walk back to my group, unwrapping the warm confection. I climb onto the bus, collapse in my seat and take a bite. Warm crepe-like batter sticks to the roof of my mouth as a bite down through the bean paste. This is comfort food. I sigh blissfully as I take another bite, knowing I’d never be able to taste this again.