Think you know a thing or two about wasabi? Yes, that green blob of paste placed innocently alongside your sashimi, or hidden in ambush in your piece of tuna sushi. Some know wasabi as a bumpy root-looking thing. Many will refer to it as a kind of Japanese horseradish. Most people just know that the stuff can set your nose on fire.
This unassuming and potent plant can make Tabasco taste like tomato juice. But for many people, their knowledge of this ubiquitous condiment stops there (and, from a survival standpoint, rightly so).
And so it was with me. I spent years eating sushi and burning my nose before realizing I didn’t know much about this spicy little devil either. Then I visited the Daio Wasabi Farm in central Nagano.
Just a quick trip from the popular castle town of Matsumoto, Daio is a sprawling display of meticulous farming methods and pristine natural resources. Crystal-clear spring water feeds the land through a network of meandering streams. Sculpted rows of pebbles divert 120,000 tons of spring water every day to provide the countless wasabi plants with the perfect growing conditions. In summer, the river-like fields are covered with black tarps to protect the wasabi plants from the sun’s destructive rays. In the cold of the northern Alps winter the spring water remains a constant and crucial 13 degrees Celsius. And all year, you can explore the place for free.
Black tarps keep the sun off the delicate wasabi plants in summer.The quiet atmosphere and the gentle walking trails of the Daio farm make for an eminently enjoyable—and unique—side trip into the Japanese countryside. The free maps available at the entrance to the grounds may suggest a few walking routes, but pick your own direction and discover the place for yourself.
Wasabi: Japan’s Secret Spice
Okay, these aren’t secrets, exactly. More like little-known facts. Either way, knowing what goes into the growing and production of wasabi will make your appreciation of it that much more. Even if you refuse to touch the stuff.
It takes 15 months to grow wasabi. All the planting and harvesting is done by hand. At Daio, 19 employees cultivate and harvest 300,000–400,000 plants every year, producing 130 tons of edible green fire—about ten percent of Japan’s annual output.
Harvesting wasabi by hand – the only way to do it
Wasabi doesn’t get any fresher than this!The part of the wasabi plant used to make the stuff for your sashimi is the stem, not the root as many mistakenly believe (including, for a while, me). But the rest of the plant does not go to waste. Stop in the wasabi shop to see and sample wasabi’s versatility.
The material of choice for grating wasabi is shark skin. Pick up a genuine $30 shark skin grater of your own in the gift shop for that authentic wasabi experience at home. (Getting some fresh wasabi to your kitchen is an entirely different matter.)
By the way, did you know that wasabi loses its aromatic zing soon after it is grated? This can be a blessing or a disappointment, depending on your point of view. Wasabi masters will also tell you wasabi has a sweetness to it, which also quickly wanes once the stem is ground into that distinctive paste. (This may be something that has to be experienced to be believed!)
Daio: A Working Masterpiece
The grounds of the farm once resembled a muddy wasteland. Check out the old photographs in the wasabi museum to the right of the farm’s main entrance, or the large picture on the wall outside the shop, to see what the place looked like 100 years ago when the locals were just beginning the ten-year process of turning the muddy land into what it is today.
Daio Farm’s Muddy BeginningsDaio Wasabi Farm is Japan’s largest, covering 15 hectares. Fresh wasabi, along with countless wasabi-injected products, including crackers, soba noodles, sausage, dressing, juice and chocolate, are available for sampling and purchase in the gift shop. Outside you can find wasabi burgers, wasabi croquettes, wasabi ice cream and wasabi beer. Up the path you’ll find the Daio Restaurant with a full menu of wasabi-tinged dishes.
Wasabi croquettes, wasabi burgers and more.
Wasabi ice cream?!
Wasabi ice cream!If you are lucky you may spot some of Daio’s hard-working wasabi harvesters at work. Or you may see them through the large picture windows of the “wasabi factory,” separating the leaves from the stems from the thin stringy roots. You might even be able to try your hand at making wasabizuke, a blend of chopped wasabi leaves, upper stems and sake kasu, a by-product of the sake-making process. Inquire at the information desk.
The Daio Farm has also been the setting of several movie and television productions, perhaps most notably Akira Kurosawa’s 1989 film Dreams. The waterwheel mills you see along the stream near the northern edge of the grounds were built specifically for the film. Your best chance at getting a good photo of them is to board a glass-bottom boat. (Warning: for the 15-minute, 900 yen tour you’ll be expected to help row the boat. Seriously.)
From as early as May to as late as October the wasabi fields are covered with long black canopies to protect the plants from the sun. You can still get a good look at the intricacies of wasabi-growing, but if you are planning your trip to the Azumino-Matsumoto area specifically to see the greens of the wide-open wasabi stream-fields, consider coming in the spring—when the cherry blossoms may also be blooming.
From Matsumoto to the south or Nagano to the north, take the Shinanoi Line to Hotaka Station. Daio is about 2.5km to the east. The way is well-marked for those who choose to walk. The taxi drivers need to hear no more than "Daio Wasabi" to know where to take you (for around 1,200 yen). The friendly folks at the information desk can help you get a return taxi as well.
But the most enjoyable option (in this writer’s experienced opinion) is renting a bicycle from RTY, not a hundred meters from the train station steps. Sometimes one of the guys will be right there outside the station, ready to put you on a bike and point you in the right direction. Their service always comes with a smile, but for an extra laugh tell them Kevin sent you.
Rent a bicycle, just steps from the Hotaka Train Station
Take in the Azumino countryside and the view of the Northern Alps on road to Daio.
- Entry to Daio Wasabi Farm is FREE!
- Open daily 9:00am – 5:00pm (4:30pm Nov–Feb)
- Tel: 0263-82-2118
- Address: 3640 Hotaka, Azumino City, Nagano 399-8303