When you least expect it, some stories become some of the most memorable ones of the year. In this case was the time I was assigned to photograph wasabi from farm to table in Shizuoka, two hours outside of Tokyo.
What makes wasabi such a unique produce is that it requires exacting conditions in order to thrive. For one, it requires constant flowing fresh water. On top of that the water has to be just the right temperature – not too hot, not too cold. Even in the many mountainous ranges of Japan there are few areas suited to the large scale cultivation of wasabi. Utogi, in Shizuoka prefecture is one such place.
The fresh water requirements of wasabi require farming villages to be nestled in the midst of remote mountains. Although only an hour away from Shizuoka city central, the town of Utogi is located after enduring some dizzying mountain switchback roads. Upon arriving at the town you will see a plinth inscribed with the words: ‘Utogi – The Birthplace of Wasabi’. Utogi was certainly the first place where wasabi became cultivated en masse for culinary purposes. The Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu is said to have loved its taste so much that he established Utogi as a place to grow it.
The next day we went to a different farm with a much larger scale, and once more a long and winding car ride up a steep mountain rewarded us with yet more amazing Tolkien-esque scenery that you never see in the travel books. Sawa-wasabi (ravine-grown) is planted in terraces all the way up between mountains in order to facilitate the constant fresh flowing water. This is the finest and most expensive kind with one hundred grams of the stuff fetching up to 1000yen (USD$10). The stuff you see in tubes at the supermarket barely contain any wasabi at all and are packed with food coloring and other filler ingredients – to get the best wasabi experience you need to buy a fresh wasabi and grate it and eat it within 10 days.
Later on in our trip we visited various restaurants to see how wasabi is being used in culinary and gourmet foods. The first place was an izakaya called Kakure no Bessho in Shizuoka city, where we were treated to some delicious tuna with freshly grated wasabi. This is a very standard use of wasabi – simple yet devastatingly effective. One can never go wrong with this combination. Another very interesting thing you can get there is a wasabi shochu, which is a very popular brewed liquor often made from wheat or potatoes – you can add a bit of a kick to your drink by ordering it with fresh grated wasabi!
Another place we visited was a simple lunch house in Utogi, where sweet old ladies prepared a very traditional but delicious soba lunch for us – all with a generous dollop of fresh wasabi and side dishes of various roots pickled in wasabi.
The last place we went was perhaps the most memorable, and it was called Wasabi no Heso, which literally means Wasabi’s Bellybutton. This restaurant specializes in new and gourmet uses of wasabi in cooking, and the dishes we were able to sample definitely reflected that. The first dish we had was a tempura batter lotus root sandwich with a wasabi and shiso filling, which was absolutely amazing. Then we were treated to ochazuke which is rice served in a wasabi and seafood broth. Lastly was perhaps one of the most beautiful sashimi platters I had ever seen, which is something saying that I have seen a lot of them for work.
Being a photographer in Japan and occasionally getting to shoot some food and beverage stories in this country is one of the greatest perks of living here!