Satisfactorily content and with my body temperature back to normal, I braced the cold in search for another Nagano signature that can only be tasted in Nagano Prefecture itself (no exports at all!). Daio Wasabi Farm (大王わさび農場, Daiō Wasabi Nōjō) as the name suggests is a 100 year old wasabi farm, and an immense one at that. Not only is the farm the largest in Japan, it is also the largest wasabi farm in the world.
Located near the foothills in rural Azumino City, the 15ha grounds are separated by networks of freshwater streams, featuring over 20,000 beds of wasabi plants is completely and utterly picture perfect. Occassionally wasabi will be present in a few dishes I order in Japan, and though not an absolute enthusiast I was keen to taste and learn more about this much-loved vegetable that can be found accompanying sushi across Japan. Nationally Japan produces 1,300 tonnes of wasabi, with Daio Wasabi farm contributing ten percent of that total. With a whopping 1.2 million visitors coming to the farm every year, as well as Nagano being a large prefecture, it was no surprise that none of the wasabi grown here is exported (not even to Tokyo os Tsukiji market) – 100% both grown and consumed in Nagano Prefecture.
Whilst not the most attractive or multipurpose vegetable, there are over 60,000 strains and 100 varieties of wasabi; yet only 4 varieties are grown at Daio. Both wine and wasabi cultivation require the same conditions for optimal growth hence why most winery regions in Japan also produce this spicy green vegetable. Wasabi plants require constant water between 10°C and 15°C, with Daio Wasabi Farm using more than 120,000 tonnes of spring water per day. No matter the season, the fresh water that streams through the farm is maintained at 13°C due to the natural flowing spring water from the close-by Northern Alps. Wasabi plants at Daio grow from planted seeds that sprout after 6 months. It is then the fresh seedlings are transplated and mature for a further 15 months, allowing them to grow to their full size. To assist this growth, the leaves are peeled off to stimulate the root of the plant to grow more. It is important to remember that true wasabi (and not the kind from squeeze tubes) is completely different to horseradish as it is commonly called by mistake by foreigners. When making wasabi paste from true wasabi, approximately twenty percent of the stems and leaves are also used. So what makes the perfect wasabi? According to the wasabi master, true wasabi should be spicy, a little sweet and really fresh on the palate. The colour should be light green; never pale or a deep green colour. It should also be spicy enough, so that even if a wasabi master tastes a little too much, the power is overwhelming (as witnessed!).
Wasabi master did you say? Hama-san, the incredibly cool 72 year old spice lover who has visited every wasabi farm in Japan, is the resident wasabi master at Daio Wasabi Farm. Coining himself the “Wasabi Ninja” he advises not to ask him about wine, only his one love which is wasabi (regardless of him being a member of the Japan Sommelier Society). Despite only being the master at the farm for the last four years, his career in his younger days involved being a wasabi writer for decades but had always possessed a lifelong dream to work at the farm. Daio also happened to be the place where he met his first love; a love he is still searching for since he was 15. As a junior high school student, Hama-san visited the farm and on that day met a special girl by the name of Yoshiko who he fell in love with instantly but failed to stay in touch with. For the last 55 years he has been searching for her, and carries a photograph of his one true love with him, in the hope that a visitor may help him connect with her.
Daio Wasabi Farm has been developed not only for purpose but also for aesthetics and the enjoyment by tourists. The farm possesses several walking trails, a cave of good fortune, a bridge of happiness, wooden water wheels along the river (which can be enjoyed by inflatable boats from April to October) as well as the Daio Shrine. The farm is named after Hachimen Daio, an ancient local hero whose spirit in enshrined here, who acts as the farms protector. It is so picturesque, it is even a popular photo spot for Japanese high school students!
One cannot simply leave an incredible farming-feat slash tourist attraction without visiting the gift shop that sells, you guessed it, everything wasabi you could ever want. From fresh wasabi plants to souvenir goods, salad dressings, pickles, crackers, chocolate, beer, juice and wasabi chocolate. Needless to say, my bags were a little heavier on my departure.
With my mouth significantly warm and a few spice-induced tears in my eyes, I was ready for another drink and returned to the bus to visit a new winery (in contrast to the long history of wine in Japan) in the region, Azumino Winery. Founded in 2008, Azumino is located at the foot of the Northern Alps in a valley of majestic fields. Although only having 1.9ha of vineyards, the small winery attracts over 700 bus loads of tourists every year, and produces approximately 10 tonnes of wine a year. It is not just chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, concord and Niagara that the winery produces but also fresh yoghurt that seemed quite popular and enjoyable with visitors. I cannot confirm the high quality of the yoghurt, as being lactose intolerant I was self-disqualified from enjoying the local dairy delicacy.
A question that had been gnawing at me was finally answered by the wine makers at Azumino, and that questions was ‘why are the oak barrels always discared after they are used 5 times each (over a period of ten years)?”. The unfortunate answer to this came down to cost – with the process of burning and cleaning out the barrels more expensive than the ability to purchase new oak barrels from France. I guess ‘mottainai’ (not to waste anything) did not apply to oak barrels. With one last walk through the sparkling vineyards of Azumino, for the snow literally sparkles under the sun radiating in the brilliant blue sky, I bid my farewell and prepared for the one and a half hour journey to my accommodation for the night staying only a short walk from Nagano station.
After a delicious time it was time for a stroll amongst the city at night before taking the opportunity to catch 7 hours of sleep in preparation for the following day. Nagano, I will be seeing you again on the morrow.
For more information on any of the places mentioned in this article please view the below links.
Sinano Wine – http://www.sinanowine.co.jp/
Soba-shou – http://www.sobasho.co.jp
Daio Wasabi Farm – https://www.daiowasabi.co.jp
Azumino Winery – http://www.ch-azumino.com
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