As you can tell from our route today, we're not going to attempt any more mountain passes in the Nagano Prefecture in April. We've learnt our lesson.
Before we said good-bye to Ross, he left us with a final parting gift: Cherry Blossoms! We thought we'd never see them again! :)
Less than half an hour's ride south from Hakuba is the Daio Wasabi Farm. When we read about this place, we knew we had to drop in and see it. As you know, we are huge sushi fans. Now we're going to learn everything there is to know about its spicy condiment!
More two-wheeled wasabi fans in the Daio Farm parking lot
Okay, so here's a shocking fact: Most people have never eaten real wasabi before.
The paste that is served in most restaurants and sold in stores is really a combination of horseradish, mustard and green food colouring! When I heard that, I felt totally ripped off. We've been eating wasabi for so long and have never tasted the real thing, ever. We'll have to rectify that.
But first, a tour of the farm to ready our palates.
Wasabi plants growing in a constant stream of cold water mountain runoff
Wasabi plants are finicky. They don't thrive unless they're constantly bathed in cold running water. There's such a specific microclimate needed to cultivate wasabi, involving shade, temperature, etc. We're very familiar with this climate: We've been shivering through the cold mountain air, passing by all the rivers and streams through Nagano Prefecture. There are few other places in the world that are able to offer such perfect conditions to grow the green rhizome. Just don't call it a root!
The part that we eat are not made from the top leaves, nor the root, but the two inches of stem (rhizome) between the two
That's the primary difference between the green-coloured horseradish we've been tricked into eating and real wasabi. Horseradish uses the long root, wasabi, the short stem.
Workers shave the leaves and roots from the wasabi rhizome. 800¥ is $7 USD for a single rhizome
On the open market, it sells for $160 USD per kilogram. That makes it one of the most expensive crops on the planet (outside of the ones that produce controlled substances). Wonder if you can smoke it...?
They do make it look very pretty growing in the river like this
So here's another interesting factoid about the wasabi paste used in sushi restaurants: they only grate the fresh rhizome *after* you order your sushi. The natural chemical compounds that make wasabi spicy start to dissipate after only 15 minutes exposed to air. That's the real reason why most people have never tasted real wasabi - it just doesn't store well in green paste form.
And because the Japanese have such particular customs, if you go to a place that's fancy enough to serve real wasabi, the rhizome *has* to be freshly grated on a special surface made of rough sharkskin. OMG, too much!
Here's a statue of the wasabi rhizome. If it was a real rhizome, it would probably fetch a few hundred thousand dollars
Here's a funny story about wasabi. When Neda first moved to Canada, she was taken out to a Japanese restaurant. She had never eaten sushi before, so when the wasabi came out, she thought it was mint and she slathered it all over her sushi. Everyone around her stared wide-eyed in shock, but nobody said anything. They were probably not thinking: "I guess that girl really likes spicy food" but more: "Get your cell-phone cameras out people, the show's about to start!"
She snorted green fire out of her nose like an angry dragon. Except it wasn't fire. Not really...
Daio Farm is a huge property. Some people come here just to walk around the gardens. Lots of wildflowers growing all over the place
At 15 hectares (37 acres), Daio is the largest wasabi farm in Japan. If I had known that before, I wouldn't have volunteered to go on a "little walk"... Argh. Hiking again.
*sigh* The main reason we are in Japan
Our little walk around the farm worked up a bit of an appetite, so we're finally ready to try real wasabi for the first time in our lives! We didn't want to order the sushi here (the restaurant looked really expensive), but they had a snack shop that sold so many other wasabi-based products, which really piqued our interest!
"We'll take one of everything! To go!"
First we tried the wasabi croquettes, they were so delicious! Well then! We'll just *have* to order more items off the menu. Next up, wasabi corn dogs, with a generous dollop of wasabi mayonnaise on top. Heaven! At this point, we got a bit adventurous and tried the ice cream. How would wasabi taste with sugary snacks? Answer: yummilicious! I couldn't believe it.
At this point, we were convinced that wasabi goes good with everything! So we headed into the souvenir shop and bought just about every wasabi-infused delicacy they offered! There was also wasabi beer. But we are still suffering from the aftermath from when Ross took us out drinking in Omachi the night before, so we skipped on that...
Okay, after our little wasabi sojourn, we go back to the twisty mountain roads!
The mountain air is crisp and cool, but it's sunny and the roads are amazing. We make our way further south, around the tallest mountain ranges.
At Okaya, we stop for a late lunch with a proper ramen meal. No sharkskin graters here...
We've cleared the mountain range, so we turn back north up through incredibly fun, twisty roads.
Along the way, we passed a forest of birch trees
They're just starting to sprout leaves again, but the effect of the buds against the blue of the late afternoon sky, makes it look almost pinkish!
We have to get off the bikes to explore and take lots of pictures!
It's been a pretty action-packed day, we rode with Ross in the morning, visited the Wasabi Farm, rode the mountains, stopped to take lots of pictures, rode the forests, stop to take more pictures, had a nice ramen meal and now we find ourselves racing against the setting sun. Again.
Wait... Just one last picture.
The sun disappears before 6:30PM this time of year, which doesn't really give us a lot of daylight - especially when we dawdle like today. In other countries, we'd be a bit more vigilant about trying not to get caught riding after dark, but we've felt super-safe in Japan. We've ended up checking into our hostels/guest houses well after dark so often lately.
Everything just seems to work out okay.
Neda: "Is this even a road?" Me: "Um, the GPS seems to think so..."
The nice thing about GPSes is that they give you an estimated time of arrival so you can roughly gauge if you have time to poke around along the way or if you need to hurry the pace.
I don't know if the maps were wrong, or if it was just poor route-planning on my part (probably this), but the road we're on disintegrates into a gravel path through an unlit, barely cleared thicket in the dense forest. There were no warnings or signs that the road ends. We were only half-an-hour away from Yamanouchi by the GPS' estimate. Not at the speed we were going, though.
We made our way slowly through the trees, gravel loudly crunching under our tires, shivering now that the sun has disappeared. My headlamp seems so puny, only illuminating a few meters ahead of us before the light was swallowed up by the tight twists and turns through the hungry forest.
The whole time, I was thinking, "Will this even lead us to town? The brush seems to be getting thicker... Should we turn around and try another route?" The deeper we go, the more time it'll take to turn around... Decisions, decisions...
And then just like that, the trees parted in front of our slow-moving bikes and we saw the lights of Yamanouchi ahead of us.
Safe and sound at our hostel, we decide to reward ourselves with some wasabi white chocolate that we bought at the farm.
OMG! So Gross!!! I was mistaken. There *are* some things wasabi shouldn't be mixed with!