The Birthplace of Wasabi : Utougi
Wasabi is always found beside sushi. With its strong and unique taste and its light green color, wasabi is dedicated for sushi every day. But many people do not know where it comes from.
Utougi –有東木in Japanese- in Shizuoka city is where people first started wasabi cultivation in Edo period. When the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa ate the wasabi from Utougi, he thought it was too delicious to share with other people. He then decided to prohibit cultivating wasabi outside Utougi.
Utougi is located at the upper reaches of Abe River, which is 50 minutes by car from the center of Shizuoka city. Farmers use the clean water of the river for wasabi cultivation, since wasabi is a delicate product that demands clean water.
When people drive up the mountain, they will come across a store named Utsurogi -うつろぎ in Japanese‐. In Utsurogi, three or four local women cook lunch with wasabi. There are 22 women who work in Utsurogi, and many locals and visitors come there to chat. On weekends, they usually have a Chinese worker who married someone from Utougi, and she can speak in English if anyone needs local information.
Chatting Utsurogi workers. On the right is Tomoyo Mochizuki
Many visitors come to Utsurogi from far away
All the dishes visitors can have at Utsurogi are homemade, and the workers even make noodles themselves from the flour. The lunches are all made with wasabi from Utougi; some of them use the cooked leaves and stem of wasabi besides its well-known roots, which slices are often served with sushi. There are tables outside the store, and it is very nice to listen to the sound from the river while having a wasabi lunch.
A representative of Utsurogi, Tomoyo Mochizuki, says September to December is the best season to have wasabi stems as they grow up well then, although wasabi is produced all year long. In March, wasabi flowers are in full bloom. Visitors can get cheaper wasabi in Utsurogi compared to the market price in supermarkets, because it comes directly from the Utougi farmers.
The particularity of wasabi is that it has sterilizing properties. This is one reason why wasabi is always served with sushi or sashimi, so that raw fish can keep its freshness. “When people are tired and want to eat raw fish, they should eat wasabi too,” Mochizuki said, “even with mayonnaise,” she added with laughing.
When people walk up for a few minutes from Utsurogi, they see the small town Utougi surrounded by mountains, and filled with wasabi and green tea fields.
Masafumi Shiratori is a farmer running Marumasa Wasabi Farm in Utougi. He says there are many kinds of wasabi, and he sells the different ones depending on the stores: the vivid color wasabi for first-class Japanese restaurants, smooth ones for noodle stores and sticky ones for sushi stores. “Wasabi is not only sour, but also sweet and rich in flavor. We should present it differently depending on the situations,” Shiratori said.
He sells wasabi only directly to stores and individuals but not at wholesale markets. He explains that at a market, farmers cannot see the consumers, but if they sell directly to the consumers, they can listen to the comments about their products and they can sell the products that the consumers really need. For example, many of the consumers want the tastiest wasabi even though its appearance is not good. But at a market, farmers cannot sell bad looking wasabi.
“Wasabi is like human for me,” Shiratori said. “They are not something perfectly and uniformly made, they have each different unique points.”
Now, Utougi is facing an aging population problem. Most of the residents in Utougi town are over 60s, and there are no children in the town. Shiratori’s daughter and her husband had tried to continue working at Shiratori’s farm, but when they thought about their child, they decided to move to different area, because they thought it was not good for the child that there was no other children in Utougi. Shiratori is not sure if they will come back to Utougi in the future.
How to go to Utougi?
Since there are only four or five buses to go to Utougi from Shizuoka station every day, it is better to rent a car and drive. Hitchhiking and cycling can be also good options.
Bus schedule for Utougi –有東木- at Shizuoka station
Marumasa Wasabi Farm Website : http://www.e-wasabi.jp/marumasawasabinouenn.html
Utsurogi Website : http://www.okushizuoka.jp.e.nw.hp.transer.com/100sen/spot/000148.html