Monday, June 25, 2018

A Visit to Wasabi Chaen, a Local Tea and Wasabi Farm

Wasabiya Chaen's sign at the end of the driveway.
The rain was just starting to come down as our group set out for a little wasabi and tea farm in the mountains near Hadano. After living in Japan for a little more than nine years and as someone who writes about food and farming, I've been to more than a few farms. I'd harvested tea in Saitama and Nara, but I'd never yet laid eyes on a patch of wasabi. Rain or no rain, I wasn't going to miss this chance.

"We're going to be in the clouds today," one member of the group commented as we drove. Ahead of us, our side of the Tanzawa range sat blue-green and heavy with clouds. Rain drops scoured the windshield as we wound our way slowly out of the city for the farm.

Started by the Yamaguchi family roughly 100 years earlier, the farm is only 20 minutes away from Hadano, but as the road narrows to follow a tumbling mountain river lined with ancient cherry trees, every vestige of the city is soon left behind. Terraced rice and tea fields soon appeared with farmhouses dotted in between. Forest filled the steeper slopes behind them, and as the rain increased in intensity, we pulled into the driveway of Wasabi-Chaen.

Takako Yamaguchi
Set 300 meters above sea-level, the farmhouse and fields hug the slope. From the driveway, we could make out the dim outline of Hakone in the distance. Takako Yamaguchi, the grandmother of the family, told us as we toured the fields that when the weather is clear, Mount Fuji is visible, too.

Five generations of the family have worked these fields, and soon a sixth will take the reins, Takako tells me. "I'm very happy," she simply said, her tanned face breaking into another smile.

River level look at the wasabi growing space.
Near the farmhouse in a shaded spot along a small river is the wasabi field. Planted directly in the river bed in March just after the harvest, the plants grow in the flowing water. Clean water is integral to their growth, Takako's son told us, also letting us know that wasabi requires about a year and a half to grow. "The fireflies," he added, "also enjoy the wasabi."

Wasabi enjoying the rain.
Firefly larvae find the tender outer layer of the wasabi root particularly delectable, and so they nibble away. The solution the Yamaguchi's found is to toss some watermelon rind in with the plants. "The fireflies like it even more than the wasabi," he said, and I imagined it must not be such a tough task to eat enough watermelon to produce the rind.

Our treats at the end: homemade yokan, Kiridakari tea, and chiffon cake.
Our visit ended with a walk-through of their processing facility, where we witnessed freshly harvested leaves making the transition to tea by steaming, pressing, and drying. Finally, we ended in a little front room of the house where we were served steaming cups of green tea and Takako's homemade yokan and her daughter-in-law's sponge cake. As we sipped and enjoyed our treats, the rain let up and the gray sky seemed to lighten just a bit. A good day, I must say.

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