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.
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 Hotaka, Nagano 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.
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 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:
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?