Ben Hills

As pilgrimages go, it has hardly been a harrowing journey. Lanson in club class on the 747, hot towels proffered by the hostesses on the exquisitely punctual Kintetsu train, a stroll through the sleepy meadows of Nagano prefecture on the flanks of the saw-toothed Japanese Alps. But then this is a quest for a grail of a different sort – not the religious mysteries of Lourdes or Compostela , but the gastronomic secrets of wasabi, that little cone of searing green horseradish paste that lurks in ambush among the strands of grated daikon beside your plate of sushi or sashimi.

And here, near the pleasant little town of Hotaka, is the world capital of Wasabla japonica (as the botanists call it), a wasabi theme park that celebrates the humble root in much the way Coffs Harbour worships its Big Banana, Adaminaby its Tremendous Trout and Nambour its Enormous Macadamia Nut. The Humungous Horseradish?

Daioh Farm (named after a multi-headed monster which lurked hereabouts back in the Japanese Dreamtime) is a pleasant half-hour walk from the local railway station, through fields where newly harvested rice hangs drying on the clothes-lines, past orchards of persimmon where glittering dragonflies helicopter over swirling ponds of rainbow trout. Here and there is a bamboo windmill barely a metre tall – the underground vibrations as its sails spin round are said to scare off the moles which love to munch on the daikon -Japanese giant radishes.

As you approach Daioh, you notice some intrusions on this peaceful pastoral scene. Enormous tour buses with names like Highland Express crammed with camera-toting tourists thunder past along roads barely wide enough to bear them. Mr Wasabi, the farm’s manager Hiroshi Ono, is proud to declare later that Daioh attracts 1.3 million visitors a year – more than the Ise shrines, Shinto’s most sacred place. The Emperor Akihito was one of them, so was the film director Kurosawa who made the movie Yume (Dream) here.

The wasamania began harmlessly enough in the ’20s when a typhoon and plague devastated the Shizuoka region south of Tokyo, where most of Japan’s wasabi was grown. An enterprising Hotaka nashi pear farmer by the name of Yuichi Fukazawa decided there was more money to be made out of roots than fruits, and started an experimental plot of wasabi.

The place turned out to be ideally suited to the plant, whose main requirements are copious supplies of crystal clean cool water at a constant 10-13C summer and winter. Today, more than 100,000 tonnes of icy water diverted from the alps courses every day through the beds of gravel in which the wasabi plants are anchored.

The farm has grown to 15 hectares, which doesn’t sound enormous until you consider that in land-starved Japan, fields are measured in tsubos, a tsubo being the area of two sleeping mats. Daioh is 45,000 tsubos, or (boasts the PR brochure) 11 times the size of the Tokyo dome, which sounds even more impressive.

The wasabi itself has a brown gnarled root typically the size of a man’s thumb (though it can grow to a half a kilogram or more) that looks as though it belongs to the ginger or ginseng family. It is native to Japan (although it is now also cultivated in Taiwan and Korea) and is first recorded in a herbal dating from 918.

It has been prized throughout Japanese culinary history both for its medicinal and gastronomic properties – the 16th century shogun Ieyasu, who had something that looked like a wasabi in his coat of arms, forbade its export. It was long a favourite of the Buddhist monks on their frosty mountain-top retreats who were banned from eating not only meat, but onions, garlic and just about anything else at all tasty that might distract them from their devotions.

Here in Hotaka, it takes two years to come to maturity which (claims Ono)makes it far more flavoursome than the inferior roots from Shizuoka. It has fleshy stalks and leaves like hollyhocks, and in the spring it produces tiny white flowers – gourmets flock to Hotaka to eat the flowery foliage, steamed and sprinkled with soy and bonito shavings.

Although Daioh produces 300 tonnes of wasabi a year – the biggest crop in Japan – it is not sold in the markets, but supplied to exclusive restaurants and sold through the farm’s own outlets – $10 will get you a 50 g root. And what they don’t do with wasabi here, you wouldn’t want to know about.

There are wasabi ramen (noodles), green and sinuous, fiery wasabi pickles, wasabi salad dressing, and – last year’s creation – wasabi sui mai, green chinese dumplings with a filling of chicken and pork. All were palatable enough at a little banquet at one of Daioh’s two restaurants – helped along by fresh wasabi, grated with a special tiny stainless steel grater.

The fresh stuff seems richer and more pungent than the powdered wasabi most Australians are used to – Ono wrinkles his nose and declares this product counterfeit, made of ordinary horseradish and spiked up with chemicals, colouring and preservatives. Fresh wasabi doesn’t leave you with that acrid sensation as though a dozen darning needles have been plunged into the bridge of your nose.

So far so good – but then I was urged to try the wasabi cheese, the wasabi ice-cream, the white chocolate flecked with wasabi, and the wasabi kastera, the Japanese version of a Dutch sponge cake. To wash it all down – a glass of wasabi liqueur which can best be described as like swallowing a torchlight procession. At least I will never suffer from sinusitis again.

And while digesting all this, you can browse through the wasabi shop -wasabi teatowels, wasabi placemats, T-shirts extolling the virtues of wasabi, those little hanging half-curtains you see over the doors of Japanese restaurants – emblazoned, of course, with wasabi. You can have your photograph taken sitting on the giant bronze wasabi statue, or wander through the museum of wasabi where a wasabi clock plays Annie Laurie on the hour. When it comes to kitsch, Daioh leaves the Big Banana for dead.

There is, of course, a serious side to all this. Daioh is involved in research into the pharmaceutical and the horticultural side of Wasabla japonica. “We want to take the message of wasabi all over the world,” says Ono, with the zeal with which Walter Raleagh might have urged Elizabeth I to try just a tiny pipe after dinner.

As well as the usual claims of low blood pressure, good digestion and long life which seem to attend just about anything you eat in Japan from horsemeat sashimi to boiled baby bees, it seems wasabi does have a couple of unusual properties. It is prescribed in hospitals as an appetite stimulant. Less expectedly, the Midori Juji pharmaceutical company has discovered that wasabi is a bactericide, and is experimenting with it as an environment-safe treatment to stop shells and seaweed fouling fishing nets.

As far as the propagation of the wasabi is concerned, Ono says that Japan prohibits its export for some reason – it is even believed that roots have been smuggled into Los Angeles hidden in the bellies of tuna. But the seed is another matter – Daioh has been involved in establishing the first wasabi plantations in New Zealand, and is interested in rumours that Tasmania is keen to start an industry.

At $10 for a root the size of a thumb that could be a very valuable export

Though, cautions Ono, it may not have the quality of the Daioh stuff.

Nor, needless to say, the razzamatazz.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Tuesday 26 November 1991
Edition: Late
Section: Good Living
Sub section:
Page: 5
Word count: 1366
Keywords: Japan
Caption: Illus: Mayu Kanamori of Balmain, Sydney, with the giant bronze wasabi at Hotaka, Japan