Life in a Village
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
See below for Japanese translation
The wise man loves karaoke. He shows off the sets installed in the makeshift karaoke annex that he built next to his home. The history of karaoke is all there, with cassette tapes, 12” laser disks and a range of players. It’s a love, and his neighborhood friends join him regularly for evenings of singing, jollity, drinking and gossip.
He’s in his heaven. Today, however, the conversation turns to the history of our part of Okutama. We have noticed, in the Japanese cedar forests that blanket the slopes above our home, ancient wires hanging from trees 20m in height. These are single wires, rusted and brittle, that seem to descend from the crowns of these trees?
The wise man, who spent his early years as a timber-getter, explains that in the old days, when this timber had value, the owners attached such wires so that they could pull the young trees straight after heavy snows. Bent trees have no value. Every spring, workers would trudge through the snow levering those wires, which were bound at the lower end to adjacent trees, in order to shake off burdensome snow and allow the trees to straighten.
Timber was big business before WWII, but then cheaper imports dominated the market and in the early 1960s the man had to leave in search of other employment.
With the market for sugi and hinoki timber went the market for the bark of these straight and true trees, which was a fine roofing material with a life of 15 years or so.
He says he prefers the wood-fired bath to the gas-fired contraption in the main building. He likes to make soba noodles from dough that he prepares himself.
Near the karaoke den is an open storage shed for various gardening tools and materials, with an open faucet overflowing a sink with clear water. Is that not a waste? Yes, it is not. The homeowner explains that he maintains a spring some 300m up the mountain, linked by pipelineto a tank near the house that supplies all household water with plenty to spare. Such arrangements are increasingly scarce, but not unknown in our extended village.
Our next question regards abandoned antennae found here and there on the slopes. I found one recently on a ridge a couple of hundred meters above Ome-kaido. Our friend explains that in the early days of TV (after 1953) the reception in this area was somewhat fickle. Some people went to great trouble and expense to elevate the receivers.
The wise man has family roots going back several centuries in this area, and he provides a keen insight into why so many people in the Okutama area share surnames. There are so many Harashimas, Hamanos and Shimizus that it seems everyone in the district must be related, and is especially odd in a nation of over 100,000 surnames. The elegant explanation here (I have no historical verification as yet) is that when the Meiji government decreed in 1875 that even commoners must register a surname, many people simply imitated their neighbors. Later, some adopted trade names to avoid confusion. Today, then, many locals who share the same family name have no traceable family links at all.
In the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa areas the local economy was robust, with timber, agriculture and limestone quarrying. The postwar period, however, was particularly harsh on the lumber industry. Overwhelmed by imports, the value of a 30-year-old sugi tree now is less than 500 yen, nowhere near commercial viability.
This becomes a serious problem, the wise one explains, not only here but nationwide, as sugi trees begin flowering around 30 years of age. The pollen they produce causes debilitating hay fever for weeks at a time every spring. In the old days, harvesting kept up with a 30-year cycle, and hay fever was almost unknown. It began increasing sharply in the mid-1960s. These days about 90% of the trees are mature. Pollen from sugi and hinoki affects about 20% of the population of Japan.
The wise man did not offer a solution.
And here is the expert translation
Updating the Inoshishi situation.
Several friends have told us not to plant sweet potatoes, as they attract inoshishi, or wild boar, which roam the Okutama hills and are never far away. A neighbour’s crop was totally wiped out, the story goes, by inoshishi that descended on it just the night before a planned harvest.
We planted a few satsumaimo anyway, just out of optimism. We also discovered that nagaimo, the tubers you can eat fresh, have been established in our garden area, a legacy of previous tenants. So it was of concern in late August when a neighbour right on the edge of the forest, about 100 metres distant, reported that inoshishi had been rooting around under the big chestnut tree. They had also left a surprisingly large amount of faeces along the quiet bit of roadway there. Worried on several accounts, not least the safety of very elderly residents, she then asked the local government to do something about the problem. In a few days a team arrived with a trap. By this time I had personally observed a large sow and three or four strapping youngsters getting very near our patch.
The trap appears to be a veteran of many campaigns, and the men who installed it are obviously very experienced. They lowered the trap into place under the chestnut tree and then baited it using a maize fodder normally fed to cattle. It was my job to replenish the bait daily.
Data from a night camera attached to a nearby tree confirmed visits by a sow and five piglets. Almost two weeks later, with the youngsters routinely entering the cage, it was decided to spring the trap.
What followed was not pretty, but later that day we picked up a small share of the meat from the city office in Okutama. Inoshishi nabe that night. Very delicious!
Despite all this, just a couple of weeks later a wild pig (or two) came right into our garden and dug up a couple of nagaimo yams.
I have a new appreciation of animal intelligence. As long as we watched, this raccoon gave every impression of being quite at home and relaxed within the cage. As soon as we were out of sight it got to work trying to dig its way out or squeeze through one of the square holes. When I returned and caught it halfway out, it withdrew calmly and resumed an air of nonchalance within. Eventually it did crawl out and disappear. I wish the little animal well, but now it is chewing holes in my inoshishi net.
Here is our (rough) translation of the article that appeared in the May 16, 2014 issue of the weekly Nishi no Kaze. Since then, to my great joy, we married.
Okutama Wasabi to the World
David Hulme (66), really fascinated by Okutama wasabi, moved to the hills of Kawai this February with Satoko Kudo, his partner. Hulme discovered the Okutama area during hikes, and could not forget the sight of wasabi terraces, with their precise rows of beautiful green and pure running water, deep in the mountain gullies. He wondered about what kind of person maintains such remote plots in the rugged hills. At the time, he was editor-in-chief of Eurobiz Japan, the monthly publication of the European Business Council in Japan. He contacted Kasuo Takeuchi, head of the Okutama Wasabi Farmers Association, with a view to writing about wasabi in the magazine. Takeuchi arranged interviews with wasabi farmers, and during interviews Hulme learned more about how wonderful genuine Okutama wasabi really is, and that the best wasabi requires a constant flow of water at a temperature around 12 degrees Centigrade. And that is why it is grown high in the mountain gullies. After the story was published, the wasabi farmers began inviting Hulme and his partner to various events.
“Takeuchi-san and all the others were so kind, generous and willing to help,” Hulme says. “Eventually, we decided to move in here.”
Hulme was born in 1948 in Melbourne, and first visited Japan from Hong Kong, where he worked as a freelance writer, in 1980.
“I like the flavor of wasabi,” he says. “Of course, I have known about wasabi from a tube for a long time, through eating sashimi.”
Asked for one word to describe freshly ground Okutama wasabi, he says: “Subarashi!”
Attending Okutama wasabi farmer meetings, he has accepted the role of promoting Okutama wasabi, and Okutama, internationally.
“Compared to Nikko or Karuizawa, this area is not as well known as it should be. Now we are working to promote Okutama wasabi, and I hope what we are doing will influence many people,” Hulme says.
Having spotted a Japanese serow, a kamoshika, on Mt. Asama, we were keen to confirm that these animals inhabit the Okutama hills.
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Huge snowfalls in late February closed the road and rail just as we were about to move in, but we made it at last and are very happily settling in. The welcome from friends and neighbors has been extremely heartwarming. Our landlord has been very generous with various repairs and replacements, even installing a whole new kitchen sink cabinet. We have sowed the first seeds in our future vegetable patch and discovered that we have almost exclusive access to nearby Tama River, on a great spot for fishing and BBQs.