The other day I was talking to my father about my three-year-old daughter, Hana, and inevitably the conversation turned to strawberries. Firstly, because they are Hana’s favorite food, the one magic choice that always works, the one food item that we can never run out of. Secondly because I have now been in Japan long enough to consider any conversation that doesn’t turn to food at some point as being not a proper conversation.
Then my father asked me the most obvious of questions that still caught me totally off-guard: “So, what do strawberries taste like in Japan?”
It’s not that it’s a silly question, there certainly are regional differences in strawberry flavors in Europe, so it makes sense to inquire about the situation in Asia. It’s also not that the taste of Japanese strawberries is so complex, exotic and umami that I’m lost for words. It’s just that I had never had any. I like them just like any other sane human being, I’m not some strawberry-hating freak. However, Hana’s appetite for them is so insatiable that I can’t get my fingers in. And when she is off to preschool or bed, having strawberries on my own feels like cheating. Like betraying my own flesh and blood.
“The closest I got to having fresh strawberries recently was the strawberry vinegar cocktail they are selling at Dean & DeLuca. It wasn’t horrible, but it also did not make me wonder why there hasn’t been a big, worldwide Strawberry X Vinegar boom yet”
The closest I got to having fresh strawberries recently was the strawberry vinegar cocktail they are selling at Dean & DeLuca. It wasn’t horrible, but it also did not make me wonder why there hasn’t been a big, worldwide Strawberry x Vinegar boom yet. I was still longing for the good, old, more sweet than vinegary strawberries that I vaguely remembered from my childless years.
So, did I sit at home and whine about it? Maybe write a cranky column how I can’t get no strawberry satisfaction? No. Instead I tried, and I tried, and I tried, and I finally got some. I had to travel far outside of my urban comfort zone, about one hour by train. I even took my wife and daughter as well as a selection of family friends, because I was sure there would be enough guilt-free strawberries for everybody.
In Aihara, at the yasai no ie (vegetable house) you can pick your own berries at ¥2,000 for half an hour. The catch is that you must consume them on the spot, no take-out. Basically, it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet that offers nothing but strawberries. Usually I am against the all-you-can-eat concept, it seems to illustrate everything of (or at least a lot of) what is wrong with humankind. But I was so starved for strawberries, I didn’t care. I was ready to turn into an animal for 30 minutes.
Of course, you are not paying ¥2,000 for the fruit you harvest, but for the quality time you spent doing so. If you calculate the fee solely against total strawberries, you will have to eat the equivalent of three to five regular supermarket packs before breaking even, depending on your choice of supermarket, and assuming you buy the reasonably priced version, not the extra-shiny ones in the extra-fluffy packaging. Eating that many in half an hour is insane, even for a man turned animal.
So, I enjoyed walking the long rows of green as much as devouring the occasional juicy snack. I was glad they made it easy for us amateur pickers by elevating the strawberry beds, so nobody had to do any actual work. As my daughter’s father I feel I already spend enough of my time crouching down and picking up stuff from the floor.
For my wife it was a nostalgic trip, since she is from the general area. She would point out that she is from Machida, which Aihara is officially part of. Except for the people from Machida it’s not. There are a lot of Aihara jokes circulating in big, bustling Central Machida. One of them is that it’s always colder in Aihara.
I didn’t say it’s a particularly funny joke. Yet I so much wanted it to be true. It gets pretty hot in the vegetable house. Stepping out for a break once gave me the illusion of cooler air for about two seconds, then the reality set in: The day we had picked for picking was the day the temperature had picked for climbing up to 28°C, in Machida as well as in Aihara (we checked).
Still, I finally got to have my strawberries. But please don’t ask me how they tasted. I was too excited to pay attention. Hana says they were good. And that’s all that matters in the end.