I have now settled into my third day in this frenetic, bustling metropolis called Tokyo. I am even starting to become less intimidated by the train system which interlaces the city with precise timetables and standing room only cars where people eat, read, drink and sleep. We are off to see a few local organic markets and then visit one of the biggest retailers in Japan. They want to learn more about organic and we are just the ambassadors for the job!
There are several small chains dedicated to serving and selling organic. Natural House is one of them. It has a large selection including fresh produce, deli, traditional bento, natural cosmetics, and medical herbs. I was pleased to see familiar brands such as Nature’s Path there. The Japanese culture values packaging and many of the fresh produce items were wrapped and packaged like small gifts. One trend that has not yet hit the US are products made with fertilized eggs, from mayonnaise to pasta the fertilized egg craze was in full feather.
Once again we confronted the chaotic hordes of dashing commuters and boarded a train to the headquarters of AEON, one of the largest retailers in Asia. Their shareholders had recently adopted a mission to include more health and wellness products, making it a theme for their stores. Included in this initiative are increased sales of organic items. We were there to review the organic standards, U.S. and Japanese organic equivalency and examine trends and statistics from the U.S. What happens in the states usually follows suit here a year or two later.
The company wants more of their employees to understand the basics of organic agriculture. Then they can then begin to educate the Japanese consumer on its benefits.
We gave two educational sessions to over 200 employees. It was a tad grueling standing for four hours while speaking through an interpreter, but the questions were engaging and also revealing: consumers in Japan prefer locally grown and how can organic be presented as a trusted alternative? How do you market and package organic products? How can we effectively educate consumers? Isn’t price a deterrent? These are the same concerns facing U.S. retailers today.
Most of the attendees found it engrossing, and I was glad they weren’t nodding off in their chairs. I witnessed a fair amount of people sleeping, especially on trains. On the train platform I asked someone about this public sleeping custom and she explained that many people ride the train for hours to get into work each day, so they catch a wink while they can.
Navigating our way from the Tokyo metro to the bullet train was a mad dash of sprinting and cavorting through a mass of humanity all weaving and bobbing to their respective platforms. We barely had enough time to reach ours before the train pulled, in loaded hastily, and pulled out of the station promptly. Japanese trains are notoriously on time. This was good in that our trip to Kobe would be punctual but it left us without the opportunity to partake in of any Japanese fare.
I was famished in a foreign land once again. To my culinary relief I spot a cheerfully outfitted young woman pushing a food cart down the aisle. Amidst the slumbering passengers she was happily exchanging yen for bento boxes and seaweed snacks. There was even a little sake on board!
I select a bento box not really knowing what surprise awaits me inside. After unwrapping my gift of (what I expect to be) railway rations I am stunned by the beauty and assortment of fine fresh ingredients neatly assembled inside my box. Several gracefully formed mounds of aromatic rice, pickled radish, baby corn and steamed cauliflower await me! Kabocha squash and shrimp mélange are also included beside rose-formed nougat of mocha dessert. I eat with chopsticks and savor every morsel like a native. I couldn’t help but notice many of the passengers were slumped over in a swaying nocturnal reverie that only a train can produce. Soon I am nodding off alongside my compatriots dreaming of the next stop, Kobe…is that the place famous for Kobe succulent beef?
Another mission, another meal awaits me tomorrow.