Root of Wonder

Daio Wasabi Farm has mastered the art of cultivating one of the world’s most finicky plants
Story by Mari Taketa. Photos by Steve Morin.

Smile when you’re grating wasabi,” my guide gently admonishes. “They say it comes out better that way.” I loosen my grip on the pale green knob I’ve been working. It’s the first time I’ve touched fresh wasabi, the spicy condiment flecked into pats of fish and rice at exclusive sushi bars, so I’m smiling already.

So are other lunchtime customers at Daio Wasabi Farm high in Japan’s Northern Alps, on a broad plain ringed by snowy peaks. Like me, they’re intently grating their own toppings for fresh wasabi rice bowls. We’re luxuriating in this moment of indulgence: Wasabi is one of the most expensive crops on the planet. “If you grate it roughly, it’ll turn out coarse and runny,” explains my guide, Shigetoshi Hama. “If you’re happy and relaxed, it’ll be smooth and creamy.”

It’s a good thing I have a guide—and not just for lunch. Daio is a wasabi farm in overdrive, its fields rimmed by wasabi-themed restaurants, wasabi souvenir shops, wasabi pickle-making classes, a wasabi museum, kiosks selling wasabi tea and wasabi soft-serve cones, even wasabi-green teddy bears. On this Sunday in late spring, fifty tour buses will pull into the parking lot, mixing chatter in English, Chinese, Korean and German with the Japanese of families whose cars fill the other half of the lot. At thirty-seven acres, Daio is the world’s largest wasabi farm, producing a tenth of Japan’s entire crop—almost all of which ends up in the bellies and shopping bags of its 1.2 million yearly visitors.

Daio Wasabi Farm’s fields are blessed with pure running water that begins as snowmelt in the northern Japanese Alps then percolates through layers of earth before resurfacing replete with nutrients.

That its creators achieved this with a plant so finicky it grows in only a handful of places on the globe is a minor miracle. That this plant is the juggernaut behind a thriving theme park is mind-boggling. Scooping a wet morsel from the pile on my grater, I swipe it across my tongue. The sensations spill over themselves: a fleeting fruitiness followed by a round, nuanced pungency that shoots up the sinuses—and a moment later it’s gone, with no lingering heat. Like the flavors of fresh wasabi, the answers to the unlikely riddle of Daio Wasabi Farm reveal themselves in layers.

The first thing to know about fresh wasabi is that you’ve probably never had it. The spicy rootstalk is a rarity in most of Japan, where the familiar tubes of squeezable paste in people’s refrigerators list horseradish as the main ingredient, followed by sugar and a trace of real wasabi. At most sushi bars it’s a similar artificially colored paste that’s pinched in a pile next to your nigiri assortment; where premade sushi rolls by on conveyor belts, this is what you can scoop onto your soy saucer in unlimited quantities. Fake wasabi—a singular, sinus-searing, eye-watering flavor note—is free of subtlety.

Where the real thing appears, there’s always a show: Sushi chefs will grate a stalk on dried sharkskin just before it’s served, or, as at the restaurants at Daio, a fresh green knob will be presented with a grater. This is not so much an invitation to manual labor as an emblem of regard. The flavors of fresh wasabi are as ephemeral as the cherry blossoms that float across Daio’s fields in April: One moment they’re alive and the next they’re gone.

Here’s the second thing to know: Wasabi is the “princess and the pea” of the plant world. Most of Japan’s crop thrives in cooler climes, where humidity is low, temperatures swing widely between noon and night, and an abundance of silt-free, nutrient-rich mountain water flows at a steady temperature of around fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Factor in that a single plant takes fifteen to eighteen months to grow from seed to harvest, and you’ll understand why wasabi is so rare. In Japan a kilogram of fresh stalks can wholesale for five thousand yen; in the United States they fetch up to $200 a pound. In Shizuoka, the prefecture most famous for growing wasabi, stream-fed fields spill down mountainsides in small emerald terraces. Not so on the Azumino Plain surrounding Daio. In the shadow of the Japanese Alps, the land here captures snowmelt after it has run down the craggy peaks to forests below the snow line, where leaves and moss and other composting elements draw the water into the soft earth and through layer upon layer of sedimentary and volcanic rock until, years later, it fills a subterranean basin beneath the plain. On the eastern side, near the juncture of three rivers, Daio sits at the lowest point of this plain. That’s where its story begins.

“Irasshaimase! Welcome!” A hawker in a wasabi-green shirt bows at visitors streaming into the entrance. Giant tubes of Daio’s premium grated wasabi flank him on each side, as tall as his head; smaller versions of the real thing are for sale in the gift shop along with wasabi chocolate, wasabi cheese, wasabi miso and wasabi wine. “How about over one hundred kinds of wasabi souvenirs, right here? Or our famous wasabi soft-serve ice cream—made with real wasabi but without the sting—and only available here!”

Things aren’t what you might expect in this heartland of Japan’s storied rootstalk. On a plaza ringed with kiosks, wasabi is everywhere—in a dizzying cornucopia trumpeted by hawkers and banners. Couples tuck into wasabi burgers; men quaff green wasabi beer. On benches lining the plaza, just about every other person is licking a swirl of pale-green soft-serve. A woman in an apron hands me a cup of wasabi shiitake tea. I’m debating between a freshly fried wasabi croquette or a wasabi pork sausage smeared with wasabi mayo when Hama-san, my guide, steers me to the far side of the plaza.

True wasabi (as opposed to the green-dyed horseradish usually served with sushi) is one of the world’s most expensive crops. Part of the reason is that it grows only under very specific conditions, where there is clean, cold water.

The fields come as a relief after the theme-park sensory overload. They lie between grassy embankments, profusions of leafy stalks planted atop parallel rows of carefully raked gravel. The geometric lines carry the eye down the arc of the small valley with an effect not unlike the meditative rock gardens of Zen temples. The afternoon sun glints off crystalline flows between the rows; when you look closely you can see spots where water burbles up.“There are thousands of springs,” Hama-san says, waving his hands across the tops of the plants. He is the farm’s historian and the curator of its small museum. “Tens of thousands.”

Here is Daio’s origin spot. The field is the first of the farm’s four, but as Hama-san tells me, it wasn’t happenstance that planted them atop a constant supply of cold, flowing water. A century ago, without drainage or irrigation, the land was poor, and farmers eked out livings with small pear orchards. Where springs bubbled to the surface, some grew wasabi under the pear trellises—a fact not lost on Daio’s founder, Yuichi Fukazawa. A farmer himself, Fukazawa knew that wasabi commanded fifteen times the cash value of pears. Somewhere in his eight years of researching agricultural tracts and studying wasabi farms up and down the country, he came to a eureka moment, and then he spent the next two years convincing 217 of the region’s 300 farmers to sell him their land and help him realize his vision: They would dig deeper than six feet into the earth, excavating dirt, rocks and boulders, until they uncovered clear, running springs. Then they would angle those fields at a steady five degrees to ensure the water always flowed. What about the other eighty-three farmers? I ask. The ones who wouldn’t sell? Fields were dug around their plots, Hama-san says. That’s why the fields curve.

At one edge of the farm, where a spring-fed stream runs parallel to a river, director Akira Kurosawa built waterwheels and thatched-roof huts for his 1990 film Dreams.

Eventually those farmers sold, because Daio outlasted them all. Fukazawa started excavating the first field in 1917. Forty-four years later his son would finish the fourth. Still later his grandson would hit upon a formula for preserving wasabi that, sealed in cans, would last as long as a year. Daio’s eighteen-liter cans hit the market around the same time sushi was entering the fast-food realm. As affordable chains popped up in neighborhoods and conveyor-belt sushi drew salarymen and teenagers, Daio’s sales took off. In 1975 a hit television drama focused national attention on Hotaka, the tiny district of Azumino surrounding the farm, and Daio started selling fresh wasabi to tourists who wandered by. In 1981 it opened a wasabi-themed restaurant. In 1984 it started selling soft-serve. In 1989 Akira Kurosawa chose the farm as a setting for his film Dreams and built thatched-roof huts and waterwheels along a spring-fed stream. Marketers splashed the scene across Azumino tourism brochures. Luck was finally on Fukazawa’s side.

In the early morning, workers wade through the streams and coax mature plants from their gravelly beds. Some burgeoning leaf heads yield foot-long stalks, knotty and matted with hairlike roots; trimmed and cleaned, these will be sold in the gift shop. Others yield shorter lengths with clusters of baby rootstalk, much the way taro plants in Hawai‘i are surrounded by keiki. These are destined for Daio’s restaurants, where they’ll be served with graters on lunch sets of fresh wasabi soba noodles or wasabi rice bowls flecked with nori, bonito shavings and sesame seeds. The workers harvest the plants the same way they harvest the seeds, germinate them and plant them back in the fields: entirely by hand. Wasabi plants abhor steel and grease, Hama-san says, which bars machinery and relegates the work to ancient ways.

Fruity, pungent and nuanced, a dab of the real thing sits atop tempura soba, a traditional pairing with fresh wasabi at one of Daio’s wasabi-themed restaurants.

Hama-san rinses a brown-green stalk in the flowing water and slices off a sliver. The color inside is pale to white. “Try it,” he says. Chewing, I’m surprised by its bland starchiness. And then it erupts. This hidden aspect is why the flavors of wasabi are so ephemeral: The sweet-tempered sting blooms only when the cell walls are broken, and it lasts only moments before fading away. Inside the restaurant I smear spring-green dabs of my freshly grated wasabi across hot rice and chase the bites with salted wasabi-leaf pickles. The secret inside wasabi, I’m realizing, mirrors the hidden layers of the farm. Both have their surprises and rewards. Theme park or not, going back to a post-Daio life of the fake stuff won’t be easy. The thought reminds me that my own time here is as fleeting as the sensations playing across my palate. I check my phone. I still have time to get some soft-serve. HH