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Our Voices - International CSA Symposium 3

In Kobe, a Toast to Local Food

February 23, 2010

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By Jim Sluyter


Said with enthusiasm, it’s a sort of toast to good food in Japan.

We’ve used the expression a lot since landing in Tokyo, on our way to the International Symposium on Community Supported Agriculture. We are not always sure what we are toasting, but it’s part of a great and fine tradition.

Our initial, two-day tour of small Japanese farms, a market, and a sake brewery was, in fact, filled with tradition. But so was the breakfast we enjoyed at our Tokyo hotel, before we got on the bus and headed for our tour and for Kobe, site of the symposium.

The hotel’s breakfast buffet offered Western fare, of course, but it had a Japanese version of a Grand Slam, too, including rice, miso soup, seaweed, vegetables, and more. It was all labeled, and everything we tried was excellent.

During the tour, we stayed at a sort of inn or lodge in a small village. We left our shoes and everything else recognizable at the door. We slept in small rooms on futons (short for ‘hard as a rock’) on the floor. A communal shower also had a big communal hot bath.

We ate kneeling on pillows at low tables. Our dinner reflected our hosts’ great pride in the area’s local food.

But first: dinner speeches. These take some time, since the speakers (the mayor, the sake brewer, and several more) spoke Japanese, which is translated to English and finally to French. URGENCI, the organization staging the CSA symposium, started in France, and French remains an official language of the global gathering.

The dinner was “family style”: huge bowls of steaming chicken and vegetables, small plates and bowls of vegetables, tempeh, nori rolls (going by some other name), big serving dishes holding skewered pork, chicken, fruit, sushi, and more. The food is presented almost as a work of art.

As we dug in, we were grateful for two things: We know how to use chopsticks, so we could wave off the forks offered to us Westerners. And we were sitting near a gregarious Japanese man who wanted to explain everything (but knows only a bit of English) and a French woman who knows Japanese, so we could find out what he was saying.

Soon we knew what most of the food was and we learned how to eat or serve it. We discovered that the stringy little items that look for all the world like fried red worms (which seems plausible) are mushrooms, and very tasty. We learned about the big chunks of boiled daikon, and about all the other locally grown vegetables, one by one.

It was a fine party, raucous with conversation and laughter. We practiced the custom of never filling your own glass of beer or sake: it is bad manners. But it is equally bad manners for your neighbor to let your glass get too low.

“Kanpei!” [Cheers!]

Jim Sluyter is reporting from the International Symposium on Community Supported Agriculture, in Kobe, Japan. Jim leads the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Get Farming! project. Reach him at jimsluyter@mlui.org.

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