At the train station announcers called, Matsumooootoooooo, over and over again, as a Japan Rail employee issued tickets to Hotaka, with Japan’s largest wasabi farm.
It was overcast in Nagano Prefecture, hot and muggy despite the elevation of what are called the Japanese Alps. Hotaka, now part of the bigger city of Azumino, is on a plateau between two mountain ranges, and Mount Hotaka rises to 10,000 feet.
Hotaka is like many Japanese mountain towns—worn but functional. Houses sit tight against narrow roads, and vegetable and flower gardens, pines, and cedars grow in backyards. The city bus narrowly avoided cyclists headed out to the farm. We passed a temple, two large casinos, and rice paddies to the horizon.
Daio Wasabi Farm is on the Sagawa River, a kilometer from Hotaka, so that its water can be diverted through the plants. We got there early and were almost alone. By noon 50 cars and several tour buses filled the small lots. Visitors seemed to be mostly Japanese families with children, and the elderly, and they paused at the front gate to have their pictures taken, pretending to wrestle a large fiberglass wasabi root or making peace signs and funny faces. Later the buses disgorged a flight of German tourists.
Wasabi root has been a legendary thing to some of us, since any we get in the States with our sushi is almost certainly horseradish. I have always wanted to try the real thing for comparison.
The Daio farm was physically larger than I thought it would be—37 acres following the sinuous curve of the river—and walking around it in the heat and rain gave an appreciation of its scale. The plant itself is a rhizome and grows in pebbly soil. Clear, cool water, a couple of inches deep, flowed through the leafy plants at a good clip. The root (actually a rhizome) takes a year-and-a-half to mature.
Most of the crop was shielded from the summer sun with black netting that kept the temperature stable. When harvested, the root pulled up a cloud of soil that washed away. Every bit of the plants was processed for use by four workers in a small building.
The Sagawa River flowed along the edge of the property. Long grasses waved in it, and mats of the grass washed downstream in the strong current. The water was very clear, with a milky cast. Hydrangeas were in bloom and waterwheels turned. Akira Kurosawa shot a segment of Dreams here.
A tasting room near the entrance sold packaged food products, and a food court sold wasabi-laced items, such as a steamed bun called wasabi oyake, said to be a specialty of the Matsumoto area. Oyake was chopped seasonal vegetables and tasted like Moo Shu. An 87-year old man sat with us on a bench under an awning. His sister had come from Tokyo to visit, so they were making a day of it. He was eating a wasabi ice cream cone and made it look so good so good that my friend Frenchy got one too.
Sawa Wasabi is the real stuff. The potent part looks like a small pineapple and is grated on a sharkskin or stainless grater. An employee let us try it. The paste was not that hot and had a greener and more spring-like, almost grassy, flavor than horseradish.
Hatake Wasabi is a different cultivar, grown in moist dirt that takes less preparation, but it is considered inferior and sells more cheaply.
European horseradish is also grown in Japan, but the Japanese say they do not feel it goes with their food. It is used sometimes as powdered wasabi in snacks, like the popular wasabi peas.
The farm’s master grower, Shigetoshi Hama was in his office, and we talked through Translate. The farm began to be developed in 1915 by laborers who dug and leveled the land, and built a ridge to hold the water in. It did not begin full-scale commercial sales until after the war. There are 20 workers now, with year-round work.
Daio grows 130 tons of wasabi per year, Hama said. At $160 per kilo for the root end, the farm’s wasabi (by my calculation) made $9.5 million per year, before tourism, services, and other sold products, such as chopped stems and leaves used in prepared pastes. The market for their wasabi is totally in Japan now, he said, and would probably never go overseas again. (It is perishable, though I cannot say that was all he had on his mind).
Hama called himself “the wasabi ninja.” He was a journalist 40 years ago, he said, but trained himself in wasabi farming and had worked at Daio for 34. He said the farm was actually his first love, from a visit 55 years ago. Every morning he goes out in tall boots, with his knife and grinder, and makes sure the plants are in sun or shade as needed. He says wasabi must be eaten fresh; its sweetness is lost when packaged.
As he spoke, I thought I heard him say Basho. When I asked, he said Basho was not a ninja like him, but he quoted a Basho haiku at me. I (and Translate) were not sure, but it might have been:
Have their shelter for a night:
Within the bush clover.
Frenchy and I stood a long time in the steaming heat and occasional rain next to a rice paddy, waiting for the city bus. Frenchy said, “I don’t want to knock down any old ladies to get on that bus, but if I have to….” We were all talking grass, waving in the winds of fortune.