Tasting the Real Thing at Daio Wasabi Farm in Hotaka, Japan

wasabi statue hotaka japan
Wasabi Statue, Daio Wasabi Farm (大王わさび農場), Hotaka, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

The first recorded instance of wasabi in Japan dates back to the year 981, during the Heian period of Japanese history. Someone wading through the Japanese Alps had thought its leaves looked like those of the mallow plant (in Japanese, 葵/あおい/aoi), consequently wasabi was first written as 山葵, or “mountain mallow.”

Then, during the Muromachi period (roughly 1392-1573), pairing wasabi with sashimi became a thing. Typing that out, I feel somewhat stupid, but in my defense, A) it’s written on the sign below, and 2) I reckon it’s one of the most famous duos in any cuisine today.

wasabi history Japan
The earliest known record of wasabi was from 981!

I know, you’re not here to become an ethnobotanist. You want peak wasabi, right?~~~

As my friend and I were traveling between Kanazawa and Matsumoto (although we went by rail via Itoigawa), I was searching for points of interest along the way. Since neither of us had ever visited a wasabi farm, the Daio Wasabi Farm (English reference page) in HotakaNagano prefecture stood out among the list of recommendations. At around 30 minutes walk from JR Hotaka station, it was a pleasant — and sometimes delicious — diversion from the norm.

Daio wasabi farm map
Daio Wasabi Farm Map

The Daio Wasabi Farm (official Japanese site), which opened in 1915, is purportedly the largest of its kind in Japan. Interestingly, within Japan Nagano prefecture competes with Shizuoka prefecture, also known for its green tea production, for the title of largest producer of wasabi. (link in Japanese)

Maybe naively, I was expecting to be detained by the smell of the fresh wasabi plants, and to see farmers using goggles and masks when handling Japan’s most famous rhizome.

Whoops, wrong on both counts.

wasabi plantation Japan
Water means life for wasabi
wasabi growing conditions
Key to Growing Wasabi: 7 Days Shade, 3 Days Sun

Wasabi plants aren’t huge fans of direct sunlight, so that’s why dark breathable cloth is used to cover them much of the time (in the two photos above, you can see the cloth rolled up).

After walking around the beautifully kept farm, dipping my toes in the frigid spring water, and sampling some gimmicky snacks and drinks flavored with wasabi, my friend and I continued on to the castle city of Matsumoto, just under 30 minutes away by train from Hotaka.

You might be asking, “did you even try fresh wasabi?” But of course. We even bought a steel grater (おろし金/oroshigane) for it (traditionally, wasabi graters were made of sharkskin). Immediately thereafter, we thought, what a pointless idea … on what/at which point would we even grate the darn thing?

Then, I figured, let’s just take it to a random restaurant and see what happens:

Kitamon soba restaurant Matsumoto
Kitamon (北門) Soba Restaurant, Matsumoto, Japan

A simple explanation to the kind waitress at Kitamon soba restaurant in Matsumoto let us sample the true flavor and texture of nama wasabi, or fresh wasabi. Basically, it’s NOTHING like the neon green stuff you’ve been eating.

Go on, give Daio Wasabi Farm a shot.


Do you like wasabi? How about the fresh version?

During My Last Visit to Japan, I Had Poisonous Fish

In the wide world of Japanese cuisine, Shimonoseki, Japan is particularly famous for something particularly controversial:

Shimonoseki - Sewer Cover fugu
Manhole Cover with Fugu Design in Shimonoseki, Japan

Blowfish.  Pufferfish.  Swellfish.  Delicacy.  Jimmy.  No matter what you call it, there are still…plenty of other words to call it.

River pig (河豚).   鰒/フグ, pronounced fuguふく fuku, which means “good fortune” and which serves as a pun on fugu, the official name for the venomous fish.

Hire me to remove the eyes, ovaries, and in particular the liver, and you won’t be around to read my next post.  Nor will I.  I’ll be in jail.  You really need to find the right chef at the right time.  Or, cower out and try the poison-free version.

Shimonoseki isn’t shy about its most famous resident.  I had never tried fugu before visiting that city, but a visit to one of Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores, called konbini, changed all of that:

Shimonoseki - convenience store fugu
Convenience store (konbini) fugu! — There really was a slight tingling sensation after taking a bite

Do Japanese convenience stores keep humans in mind? Fugu, bread stuffed with chocolate and margarine and pocket-sized cans of sake really make you wonder if we are their main source of revenue.  Then again, have you ever had the displeasure of breathing in at a 7-11 in the US?  Those stores must be one of the many layers of Buddhist hell.

For a short history lesson, immediately following the end of the Meiji Era (~1868-1912), Shimonoseki was the first city in the country to allow legal consumption of fugu. It’s not even the region where most fugu are caught; yet, due to its trend-setting stance on allowing people to eat blowfish, Shimonseki became the venomous fish’s main distribution port.

Anyway, let’s take a brief tour of Shimonoseki.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market exterior
Exterior Shot of Karato Market, Shimonoseki, Japan

Japan’s most famous fish/wholesale market is undoubtedly Tsukiji Ichiba (市場/いちば/ichiba = market), located in Tokyo.  However, for a much more relaxing yet equally delicious market visit, check out Karato Ichiba in Shimonoseki.

For which marine product are they most famous?

Take a wild guess.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market fugu sculpture
Is that a float? Imagine that during Mardi Gras

That’s English for fugu, and Japanese for fugu.

canned fugu supermarket
Canned Fugu and Whale Curry in a Shimonoseki Souvenir Shop

Someone went a little overboard here.  Fugu (Japanese-style) curry, boiled fugu in a can, raw fugu in a can, even whale curry tags along…who says Japan and China aren’t alike?


Would you try fugu?  What if it were a birthday gift?

Oden (おでん): Japan’s Wintry Snack

Tokyo - Oden (1)

What’s that floating by the cash register of many Japanese, Taiwanese, and Korean convenience stores?   It’s called oden (おでん), something you will generally see once the colder months kick in.

The big question: What is oden?  It’s a type of hot pot in which fish plays an important role, both in the stock – also known as dashi, made of kelp and katsuobushi – and as a bobbing ingredient.  Eggs, a starch called konjac, tofu, and various pieces of vegetables and meat commonly round out the oden basin.  Another ingredient is called shirataki (白滝) is sometimes part of the oden pot; it is made of the root of the elephant yam, also known as konjac.  This root contains a fiber called glucomannan which makes you feel full for a longer period of time.

Tokyo - Oden (2)

You can even find your favorite oden in a vending machine.  Collect all 1000.

From left to right, ganmo (がんも)- a disc of fried tofu with vegetables; gyuu suji (牛すじ)- beef tendon; tsumire (摘入/つみれ)- fish balls.


Now, we’re going to focus on one member of the oden clan: chikuwa.

Chikuwa (竹輪) is a tube-shaped fish paste cake.

Unusually, I noticed on a Japanese television channel a man playing a chikuwa as a flute.

Tokyo - Chikuwa Oden (1)

Okayama - Chikuwa Oden (2)Coincidentally, a few years later, while on a trip to Okayama I happened to pass by this statue of what else, Chikuwa Flute Man.

Japanese Oumi Beef (近江牛): Kobe Beef’s Ancestor

You may be familiar with Japan’s legendary Kobe beef.  The lofty bovine must be of the Tajima breed, have spent its entire life in Hyogo prefecture, and be treated to massages and a round of Sapporo beers to increase its appetite.  That last part may only be a half-truth, but if you’re into eating meat… I might recommend Sendai beef instead.  Slightly less marbling, but it still leaves you with a melt-in-your-mouth 食感 (shokkan), or mouth feel.

Sendai & Kobe Beef, New York Grill, Park Hyatt Tokyo, Japan

But if you want to dig deeper into the history of prized wagyu (和牛), or Japanese beef, you may want to start with Omi (Oumi/近江) beef.  Omi is the historical name for present-day Shiga prefecture, which also hosted the Japanese capital, in the city of Otsu, for five years.

For centuries, the consumption of meat in Japan had been taboo (especially after Buddhism had spread there in the 6th century), or consumed only by aristocrats and imperial leaders.  Moreover, given that much of Japan is mountainous and/or characterized by long winters, and that seafood was much more readily available (and took up no land, to boot), meat-eating wasn’t a particularly common sight.

To return to the topic, it is said that at the end of the Warring States period (~1467-1590), Takayama Ukon, an ally of Japan’s first unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, presented his victorious war chiefs in Hikone city, Omi province with cattle, thus originating the term Omi beef.

Omi Beef Set Meal, Hikone, Shiga, Japan (近江牛定食、彦根、滋賀県,日本)

Since Japan was effectively shut off to most of the world between 1603 and the 1850s, It would be almost 300 years until meat consumption flourished.  Once the Meiji period began in 1868, as Western countries started cultural exchanges with Japan, so, too were the Japanese introduced to Western clothing, scientific advancements, and food.

Coincidentally, when Omi beef was first exported, it shipped under the name “Kobe beef,” due to Kobe being the closest port at the time.  Only when Shiga’s Omi Hachiman train station opened in 1890 did exports that now shipped through Tokyo adopt the name “Omi beef.”

On May 11th, 2007, Omi beef was officially recognized with a seal of “Japan Geographical Indication.” by the Japan Patent Office.  Consequently, something can only be called Omi beef if it is raised in Shiga prefecture, by the shores of Lake Biwa.

New Tokyo Take-Out Serving Mehari-zushi, One of Japan’s Oldest Snacks

Meharizushi with Shrimp Tempura, at めはりと鶏天みふく

To explain a bit about what Finding Food Fluency can represent, I’d like to introduce to everyone today’s meal, mehari-zushi (sushi becomes zushi, depending on the preceding sound), coming to us from Japan.

Mehari-zushi – 目張り寿司 – is one of the oldest recorded fast foods in Japan, dating back hundreds of years to Kumano city in Wakayama prefecture (source, in Japanese: https://gurutabi.gnavi.co.jp/a/a_613/).  At the time, Kumano was in a state called Kishuu (紀州), which comprises of parts of present-day Wakayama and Mie prefectures.  Mehari-zushi is simply a ball of vinegared rice enveloped in pickled mustard leaf.  That’s right, no fish, no bait, no mayonnaise, just two major components.

The origin of the name is amusing; since the mehari-zushi clumps used come quite big – with each one intended to be a snack for hungry workers – the Japanese name roughly translate as “sushi that makes your eyes open wide,” since opening your mouth wide does the same for the eyes (見張る/みはる).

Although it’s much more common in the Kansai area of Japan (where Wakayama, Osaka, and Kyoto are), a new mehari-zushi restaurant, めはりと鶏天みふく (Mehari to Chicken Ten Mifuku) opened on April 20th in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo.

As a huge fan of Japanese food and Tokyo, I can’t wait for international tourism to restart, particularly in Japan.  Knowing that mehari-zushi aren’t so easy to find in the capital makes me want to add this take-out shop to the endless list of places to try.

Restaurant link: https://www.instagram.com/mifuku_tukiji/
Restaurant location: https://goo.gl/maps/XXEyspFccHwjM9wV6

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