after months of frantic researching online, poring over guidebooks, straining to understand language lessons, I arrived in Japan thinking I knew all about the country.
Then I went grocery shopping.
And in a store full of food I couldn't identify and signs I couldn't read, I realized that no matter how many museums, monuments or mountains you gaze upon, you don't really know a place until you've shopped for dinner there.
Trolling the aisles in the tightly packed store, two very young children in tow, clutching a phrasebook, I was amazed by all sorts of things. The pickle selection was otherworldly. The tofu products seemed endless. The sweets didn't all come in the traditional triumvirate of flavors (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry) but instead had red-bean jelly and green-tea-flavored fillings.
Most interesting of all was the produce section, with the sweetest, freshest food I'd seen in a long time. And my favorite part: Above a bin of daikon was taped a Polaroid of a man in workclothes, standing in a field, holding up a radish.
I had never before seen that sort of pride in produce at a store, and I remember still how thrilled I was to see the person who had grown the food I was about to eat.
That was many years ago, and since then, I've seen the growing attention local food has gotten and the exploding popularity of farmers markets, produce stands, community-supported agriculture baskets and locally sourced food at stores, restaurants and food festivals. Now, I don't have to settle for a photo. In many markets, the farmers who have grown the produce or raised the livestock are right there, happy to talk about their fruit, eggs, meat or homemade jams - and eager to share what they know about the profession that is also their passion. As Chandra Christmas of Broken Arrows Farm puts it, farming life was a hard sell at first - "but I fell in love with it."