In Japan, some varieties of fresh herbs and vegetables are either absurdly expensive for their quality or quantity – or simply don’t exist. Basil from York Benimaru is often limp and DOA, and herbs like corriander/cilantro are nowhere to be found.
There is a relatively easy solution to this – grow your own. With Japan’s blazing sunshine during the summer, it is not difficult, nor is it particularily expensive to set up your own min-garden. Growing your own herbs and vegetables saves you money, and they taste great.
It’s also worth mentioning that when you can start planting seeds depends on where you live – In Iwaki you can start planting earlier than you would in Minamiaizu – when the last frost/snow is over is when you can start thinking about planting seeds. But generally speaking we are looking at late April to May time. I planted some seeds later last year though and they all grew fine.
The first step is to decide where you want to grow your produce. A garden is best, but balconies work fine too. If you don’t have a balcony, ask your landlord or contracting organisation about setting up some pots outside on the ground floor. If you have a window sill with good light, you can use this for potted plants. The advantage to this is that you will not get insects and caterpillars munching away on your vegetables.
Secondly, you need to buy some herbs and vegetables. You can often find tomato plants already potted in your local garden centre Komeri, and if you live in the inaka it’s worth checking outside your local shops too – in my town they sell basil in pots outside the local supermaket on certain days during May.
Basil, Cilantro, Zucchini/courgette, and various other seeds can be bought online from Rakuten. It is relatively cheap at 200 – 400 yen a packet, and almost all of these stores will let you pay cash on delivery. You can also buy organic seeds too if you would like to start growing your own organic vegetables.
Last year I bought my seeds from this shop: http://global.rakuten.com/en/store/heiwa/. But it’s a good idea to try and buy all your seeds from one shop, so you don’t pay excessive shipping costs.
Seeds sold in supermarkets and garden centres often indicate what months seeds can be sown throughout different regions in Japan, so it’s worth checking on the backs of packages too.
Next you need to buy supplies: soil/compost, pots and trays, a watering can and plant food.
Soil, even without any Japanese, should be easy to find at your local Komeri. It will look like soil for a start. And it will usually have pictures of vegetables on it. Regular potting soil is “培養土”, baiyoudo. It’s also advisable to buy plant food – the two most common kinds are liquid, which you can often find in your local supermakets (it’s green and comes in a pack of small bottles, or one large litre bottle), or pellets, which are good for potted plants.
Pots are also very cheap, you can get some large ones for as little as 160 yen. Make sure it has drainage holes in the bottom.
The kind of pots and containers you will need to buy will depend on what you are growing.
Basil should always be kept in it’s own pot and not grown with other vegetables or herbs – it will grown incredibly fast during Japan’s summers, and will overcrowd any other plant. The good news is that it grows well in almost any shape container. A good idea is to space a week between planting seeds, that way you can have basil continously throughout the summer and into Autumn. However I found that it grew so fast that this wasn’t strictly necessary.
Cilantro grows best in wide, shallow containers (8 – 10 inches deep). It’s a good idea to germinate it 6 weeks inside before moving it outside. Keep your cilantro in the shade, as Japan’s hot summers mean that it will start to flower if it gets too hot. I found that cilantro is more sensitive than basil, so watering a lot and fertilizing with a high-nitrogen fertilizer (窒素肥料) is a good idea. Also spacing planting a week or so apart will help too.
Courgettes (Zucchini) grow best if you germinate them inside for 6 weeks before you move them outside. If you want to plant them straight outside though, beware that they are sensitive to cold, so make sure the worst of the weather is over before you plant. Buying something like woodchips or leaf-mould to put around the seedlings is advisable too(available from Komeri), this keeps moisture in as courgettes need a lot of water. Liquid plant food is also recommended.
Tomatoes are one of the easiest vegetables to grow in Japan, since you can buy the plants already potted in many garden centres. Japan’s hot sunny days during the summer mean that no greenhouse is really required either. Remember that you will also need a stick (usually a bamboo pole) and string to keep the plant upright as it starts to get taller. Tomatoes grow great outside in Japan, and you can usually find many varieties. Remember that unless you do it by hand, tomatoes need to be outside in order to pollenate and produce fruit. They will also need a lot of watering during the hot months.
You can find out more about conditions for growing specific vegetables and herbs here: http://uktv.co.uk/home/dgiped/kw/211