Off-base markets produce fresh alternative on Okinawa

Travel
Photos by Alexander Mutuc
Photos by Alexander Mutuc

Off-base markets produce fresh alternative on Okinawa

by: Alexander Mutuc | .
. | .
published: December 02, 2017

I heard about a small market named the Banana Stand somewhere near Kadena Air Base with a “decent variety” of affordable produce. When I finally found the grey building, however, I realized this was a gross understatement.

Yasai Batake market, more commonly known as the Banana Stand, turned out to be so much more. It was tightly flanked with fruits and vegetables of every kind. This store is a produce lovers’ paradise.

If you frequent the commissary or even off-base stores such as Aeon Mall or San-A, you know that fresh produce can be expensive on Okinawa. Fruits and vegetables can drive up the grocery bill – and not always justifiably when you consider the quality. But local produce markets are the exact opposite. They provide locally grown produce as well as produce from other countries in the region with consistent quality and lower prices.

The “Banana Stand” is one of these local markets, smaller than most but offers perhapes the greatest selection of, yes, bananas.

It was early in the day when I grabbed my basket and began weaving through the short aisles, so there were not many shoppers. The lack of traffic was nice for the store was quite dense. “Goyas” (bitter melon), carrots, onions and numerous other goods lined my sides.

First, onions, which came in a bundle of three priced at 128 yen ($1.28). A cheap fee, especially when compared to the commissary’s price of $1.39 for just one onion. I progressed down the aisle picking up apples, cucumbers and some potatoes, all of which were significantly cheaper.

At last, I moved onto the bananas and saw how the store got its name. Bananas hung in massive bunches from the ceiling; others were stacked in mountains on shelves. I picked out a bundle, which were yellower than bananas from the commissary or even off-base supermarkets. It contained 12 bananas for only 400 yen – about $0.33 a banana, a stark contrast to the commissary’s $0.70 per banana.

But how is it possible for this small establishment to beat its competitor’s prices and still make a profit? Enough profit, in fact, to have been in the industry for over 14 years. A staffer who said she was the owner’s daughter, Misa Uemura explained.

The store buys in bulk from a larger market in Urasoe, which only sells to businesses on Okinawa. The Urasoe market is a massive hub for the farming community and also oversees the importation of non-native goods like onions – which come from China – and surprisingly, bananas, – from the Philippines, she said.

Defense Commissary Agency officials declined to comment for this story on where produce sold at commissaries comes from. But there are factors involving overhead that may shed light on the comparison.

The Banana Stand employs seven people, is a fraction of the size of the commissary, deals solely in produce, and uses no refrigeration and comparatively little electricity for lighting. Camp Foster commissary employs over 50 people, supplies all kinds of groceries, and foots the bill for large refrigeration units as well as electricity for lighting and air conditioning in the largest building on base.

For numerous big sales, a massive selection of American groceries and convenient location, you can’t beat your local commissary. But concerning fruits and vegetables, Okinawa’s produce markets, including my favorite, the Banana Stand, are just plain better – in cost and in quality.

If you too find yourself a little frustrated with the large bill from the commissary’s produce section, then a local produce market should be your next grocery stop.

The Banana Stand is just one. There are numerous others scattered around every base such as Green Leaf, outside Camp Foster. The Facebook group, “Farmer’s Markets of Okinawa,” provides directions to more than 35 such markets. Look them up.

Yasai Batake (The Banana Stand)

  • Hours: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday
  • Yen only
  • Directions: Go out Kadena Air Base’s Gate 2, turn left at the first light (under the tunnel); 2.1 kilometers, turn right at the light (staying on Route 85); 0.8 km and turn left onto Highway 329; 0.6 km, the market is on your left in a large concrete building next to a bicycle shop.
  • Wheelchair accessible.
  • Tel: 934-3120

Green Leaf

  • Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
  • Yen and credit cards
  • Directions: Go out Camp Foster’s Spot Gate (Gate 4), turn left onto Route 130; 0.4 kilometer, turn left at the light (at the dead end); turn left turn onto a side street by Ishigakijima Kitchen restaurant; 0.2 km, take first right down side street; the market is on the left.
  • Wheelchair accessible (but a 3 inch curb).
  • Tel: 098-923-0298