Last week a subset of the GID cohort visited Fukuoka for a Design for Disaster Relief workshop. On our second day there, a typhoon made it rain and we stayed indoors, exploring the underground malls of Fukuoka in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. It was an excuse to see part of the city I don’t usually allow myself when traveling: glitzy malls and expensive department stores. Although I don’t usually like malls, I admit Japan does them well. The lighting is hospitable and in the summer the air conditioning is a welcome break from the hot humidity. And, of course, we got to stay dry. We were also being led by a local towards some hidden surprises. First among these was the best cappuccino I’ve had in this country. It was made by a Frenchman in the basement level of a department store surrounded by womenswear. No wonder our guide had made a snide comment about Starbucks the previous day; coffee in Fukuoka is fantastic!
The second surprise was in the department store’s upscale food hall. In a mini-courtyard stood a series of stalls with regional projects from Kyushu. They ranged from fruits and root vegetables to sake, and even pottery. We learned that these were not your average farmer’s market farmers. Most of the people there had come from areas affected by the previous year’s devastating rain and landslides, and their coming there was the result of a bottom-up effort to draw attention to and promote economic growth in their regions. In one case, the rain had ruined the rice crops, filling the delicate rice fields with muddy water. Someone realised that it was possible to replace the rice crops with a more study vegetable, a type of leek I had not seen before. But since it was not economically viable for just one small scale farm to do this, and since the rice loss was widespread, several farmers from the region bounded together to change crops so that they would grow enough to sell in town. This kind of story of a community coming together to recover was a thread through the entire market. It was evident alongside the enterprising spirit of the people at work. When speaking to the department store’s buyer, he mentioned he felt it was the store’s mission to promote a platform for locally sustainable vendors such as these, but admitted that in this instance they had come to him. Among them was a sake brewer dressed in a white jacket with kanji characters. I was told that she was one of the (if not the) only women at the head of a joint rice plantation and sake distillery. (Usually the sake distilleries buy rice from other farmers instead of planting it themselves). She graciously gave us some to try, including unfiltered sake, which I had not tasted before. Though delicious, it is not common in stores because it goes bad in a few months, and the bottles were kept in a fridge wrapped in newspaper.
One of the goals for this market was to shift the mentality of customers from buying out of charity for the area’s disasters to buying out of a perceived high end quality. In their words, pity runs out eventually, but if the products from these regions are known for their specific quality, then they will always be in demand. When it comes to highly valued produce, this is not a stretch in Japan, where nicely packaged fruit can sell for upwards of JP¥10,000 (about U$100). In fact, I had heard about exorbitantly priced fruit before arriving, but didn’t really believe it until I saw for myself the perfect melons inside purple velvet boxes at my local supermarket in Tokyo. I have since learned that part of the reason for these high prices is that often these fruits are intended as gifts. Instead of a nice bottle of wine or champagne one might get for, say, a housewarming, it is not uncommon here to bring a box of strawberries instead.
Seeing local businesses rise up to meet the challenges of a market with cheap imports and globalised everything has been a recurring theme of my time in Japan. This market was extraordinary because it was both an example of how a community of local farmers and craftsmen can recover after a natural disaster, and of how these small businesses can stay relevant by putting themselves in the very centre of urban capital: the high end department store.