An Aussie Amongst the Wasabi
1 – Hooked
I first noticed wasabi patches while hiking in the Okutama hills, years ago. They nestled beside crystal clear streams in deep gullies, some of them as much as an hour’s trek from the nearest road.
Questions flooded in. What kind of person carts equipment and materials up a rugged mountain trail so they can plant, care for and harvest wasabi? Who are they? Is this all they do? How do they do it? How crazy and how determined must they be? Is it worth the effort? How did someone smash masses of stone to build these amazing walls, terraces and water channels?
At that stage it did not occur to me that I, a Tokyo city apartment dweller, could be such a person.
2 – Telling the story
I have spent my life as a writer, reporter, journalist and editor. I decided to tell the wasabi story in the monthly Eurobiz Japan. The head of the Okutama wasabi farmers association, Mr. Takeuchi, proved exceptionally helpful, arranging a visit to a first-grade wasabi farm together with its three operators. A key element of the story was the monorail, a simple contrivance by which these elderly gentlemen could continue hauling materials and themselves up and down a typically precipitous and treacherous slope of these young, crumbly Okutama hills.
3 – A relationship starts to grow
The story meant nothing to readers of the magazine, but a translation got the wasabi farmers excited. They began inviting me and my partner to everything: their AGM and year-end party, a national conclave of wasabi farmers in Tokyo, and local volunteer activities. During one such volunteer exercise, planting out azalea trees, we met Ohno-san, a tirelessly buoyant imp whose generosity astonishes. He would become a priceless ally. During our visits, the conversation often turned to population decline. “We’re getting older, people are dying, young people are leaving,” the locals explained. A spark of an idea led to: “Well, does that mean there is cheap housing available?” We are forever in the debt of Takeuchi-san for taking up the challenge. “What? Do you want to live in Okutama?” Upon our affirmative, this gem of an individual launched a house-hunt on our behalf.
4 – Making a move
In February of 2014, freakish snows closed both the road and rail between Ome and Okutama for a full week. We moved as soon as the road opened, into a rented house with space for a sizeable vegetable patch in the back. Our local friends repeated: “What? You really want to live out here?”
Friends from the city were soon visiting for hikes and barbecues.
5 – Finding a wasabida
On one such occasion, we explored a nearby valley for the first time. There was a beautiful creek with many pretty waterfalls. After a leisurely hour or so the trail petered out and the valley walls closed steeply in. We turned back, paying more attention to the creek, and thus discovered a wasabi patch that seemed to have been neglected for some time.
6 – Staking a claim
We chatted to locals about our discovery, and after some months learned that our friend Ohno was the operator. Meanwhile, I occasionally helped Takeuchi with his wasabida, and at last he suggested that I might take over a neighboring patch. When that line of enquiry reached a dead-end, he said: “Why don’t you take over Ohno-san’s place? He rented it from Harashima-san.”
And so the pieces clicked into place. This Harashima runs a lumber company, has an impressive vegetable garden and grows kinoko fungi, and we knew him well. He agreed to visit the place with us just to make sure we were all talking about the same location. The confirmation came easily enough, but Harashima gazed about in wonder at the steep valley walls with their ranks of tall sugi and hinoko trees.
“I haven’t been here for 50 years,” he muttered. “The last time was when I was in school, and I had to come up here to collect firewood.”
7 – The work begins
We struck an agreement with Harashima, paying a very modest annual fee, and got to work. It was a year or so after the above photo was taken. Ohno visited and gave us plenty of advice. Takeuchi visited and gave us plenty of advice, plus some netting and a bag containing a mass of tangled wires.
At that point we were just beginning to discover the extent of the neglect. Surrounding nets had long since collapsed into tangled, mouldering masses. Shovels had been used, but the handles had rotted away completely, leaving only worn and rusting blades. Layers of weeds and moss covered the entire surface.
8 – Watch out for pigs
Too late! Wild boar, known as inoshishi in these parts, love to root around in such places, hunting for the abundant worms and crabs. Before we could get the surface cleaned or install a defensive net, one or more of the animals arrived with a ferocious appetite. They ripped up large areas (Hey, you’re welcome!) and smashed terrace walls (Hey! Not nice!).
It was fun, though, rebuilding the wall and restoring the water channel.
9 – Protecting the area
For a while our top priority was to get the surface cleaned up, to discourage inoshishi. We would also need to install a net around the growing area to keep out deer, which love to eat the leaves.
Wonderful friends did a great job getting rid of all the weeds and moss.
From the mountainside, felled sugi trees provided logs, which were cut into some 40 poles, each 2.5m in length.
Each pole would be set in a hole dug by hand about 50cm deep into the rocky rubble around the perimeter. Again, friends volunteered invaluable assistance.
Kevin, our French guest, made a major contribution. Thanks, Kevin!
10 – Up goes the net
The trickiest part of excluding animals is to make sure they cannot easily lift the bottom of the net and slip under.
Years ago, there was a lot of logging here, and we luckily discovered lengths of cable abandoned by loggers. Heavy cables anchored the nets perfectly.
11 – Break out the kazusa
Opinions vary on what constitutes an ideal wasabi bed. Here we had a surface that was rocky, gravelly and heavily silted. One advisor recommended getting rid of all silt so that nothing but clear flowing water touches the plant. Another said the roots must penetrate into nutritious mud. Either way, hour upon hour of backbreaking labor was in store. The tool for the job is called a kazusa. I went to borrow one from Mr. Takeuchi. He gave it to me.
You demand a great deal of your kazusa, so look after it.
Controlling water flow means building reliable horizontal water channels to feed the vertical ruts where wasabi will grow. The kazusa gets a constant workout.
The back gets a workout too, turning over every stone in the place at least twice, to the depth of the blade.
12 – Planting
A prominent figure in Okutama wasabi production, on Mr. Suzuki, visited the wasabida in March to advise us on the planting of our first crop. Of the five terraces, he said the middle three would be most useful because of the condition of the beds and because too many branches overhang the top and bottom beds. He provided useful hints on controlling water flow (e.g., lower the flow during planting and increase flow when plants are established), preparing water channels and getting rid of surrounding shrubs and weeds. He also undertook to order 1,000 wasabi seedlings for delivery the following month.
At the time, we pondered felling some nearby trees, some of which are huge sugi and hinoki over 60 years old. We consulted with the owner, a gentleman of advanced years who said, in sum: “I worked hard to plant those trees and nurse them through their first years of growth, so now I feel some nostalgia. You may trim them, but please do not cut any down”.
In practice, we could ignore this request. However, maintaining and building relationships is by far and away our first priority.
Waiting for seedlings to arrive, we had far more time than at first thought. They come from Shizuoka, where producers were having a bad year, so ours were not delivered until early July. This turned out to be a good thing because there was more time to prepare properly for our first crop.
What a young wasabi plant needs is a constant supply of running water and a bed of clean gravel. So, back to work with the kazusa, ploughing deeply enough to sluice out the fine silt that could limit oxygen supply and encourage unwanted bacteria. Ensuring water flow in all channels also means some engineering around water intakes, side channels and horizontal feeder canals.
Our wasabida has three intakes: one at the top, of course, one beneath the first terrace and another beneath the last of the five terraces. The topmost intake is craftily incorporated into the rock wall, so that a limited amount of water flows directly from the creek onto the upper terrace.
I gradually worked out how to adjust this intake, by shifting rocks and with the use of robust sheeting. To increase flow in dry weather, I also installed a 10-metre hose.
The second intake is only slightly less elegant, being aided by a pipe that goes straight through the bottom of the wall. The flow here is adjusted mainly by shifting rocks. The third intake is quite crude, and almost redundant anyway. I only opened it, by unclogging a mass of gravel and other rubbish, after being satisfied with the other two.
Our wasabi seedlings arrived at last, and so did friends willing to help with the planting.
At this stage water flow must be kept quite low, so that seedlings don’t get washed away. (PIC) As it happened, heavy rains arrived just after a major planting session, but the intakes behaved well and nearly all the seedlings remained happily in place.
13 – Insect attack
It did not take long for the little plants to start sprouting brilliantly green new leaves.
Just as quickly moths began laying eggs on the undersides of leaves.
Their grubs hatched and began to chew. As wasabi is in the brassica family, alongside cabbage and broccoli, it attracts the cabbage moth. Smaller moths also lay their eggs. One type of grub cuts a slit beneath the base of the leaf, cutting the flow of juices and causing a rapid wilt.
We have three methods of dealing with this. First, if the infestation is not too serious, the grubs can be located one-by-one and picked off by hand. The second is to exclude the insect with nets.
Third: organic weapons. Bacillus thuringiensis is sold as a powder, like yeast, and is commonly used in organic farming. At a Japan Agriculture store, we found the variety specific to our set of pests. Dissolved in water and sprayed on the leaves, it works well. Of course, the dose has to be repeated every few weeks in the warmer months, as the plants produce new leaves. There is also the task of going through to remove leaves that are damaged, rotting or infected.
Interestingly enough, there is a period in the summer when wasabi plants don’t bother much with new leaves. When the weather gets colder (and the insects die off) they really get cracking.
14 – Research assignment
Commissioned by our local government office, we undertook what was also a labor of love, searching out the more remote abandoned wasabida up four rugged gullies in our immediate neighborhood. There were indeed some astonishing discoveries.
First up, a day of pushing upward beyond our own patch. The trip seems to have confirmed that many of the now-abandoned wasabida were built, about eight decades ago, by people who spent a lot of time working in the mountains anyway. This was an era before the native forest was cleared to make way for vast plantations of sugi and hinoki lumber trees. In those days, Okutama was a diverse environment, rich in wildlife, edible fungi and other mountain vegetables. Bounteous native species included varieties of oak, cherry, maple, walnut, chestnut and fir, along with a wide range of medicinal plants. Hunters, food gatherers and charcoal burners were among those who discovered springs high in the hills and had the time to build the stony structures needed to protect terraces suitable for wasabi growing.
The greatest efforts were made for utilization of spring-water, which is much better than surface runoff for several reasons. One is flow. Creeks rise and fall, alternating trickle and flood, which complicates flow control. Two is nutrient content. Raindrops soak into porous mountain rocks to absorb mineral nutrients that are vital for wasabi flavor, and mountain springs are heavily laden with such nutrients. It is said that traditional wasabi growers were able to taste the water of a spring or creek to assess whether or not the water would produce highly tasteful wasabi. Three is temperature. Wasabi is very cold-resistant, but if creek-water freezes the plant will probably die. Spring-water is far less likely to freeze. All in all, mountain seepage is a far superior water source for wasabi growing.
The second gully we explored yielded more information on spring-water. We found a wasabida, apparently long-abandoned, just a couple of meters wide, meandering down the contours for a distance of almost 50 meters. Highly productive in its day, no doubt.
Our third creek gully, this one accessible by forest road, was surprising in a number of ways. In particular, we noted that water was much more abundant in the higher reaches. The reason is that locals have built a dam and piping system about halfway up the road.
This pipe takes water directly to their vegetable gardens and household supplies. At some point in time, this outtake put downstream wasabi growers out of business. Still, at the highest point, we found a spring-fed wasabida full of excellent plants and showing signs of recent (within a couple of years) attention.
The fourth gully seemed highly unlikely. The creek cut deeply into the cleft and was cluttered with fallen trees, rocks and rubble. Even so, far beyond where anyone normally ventures today, we found the remains of steep and narrow wasabi patches.
The wasabi growers of old were mountain dwellers, first of all. They knew the plant, the climate, the weather and the geography. They were engineers as well as farmers. It was no mean feat for a team to shift tons of shattered rock to create stable walls and barriers. And most important of all, they were probably needy. The little extra income they could derive from small patches of wasabi, in days near a century gone, may well have made a significant difference.
Next: Izu trip