Sashimi is almost invariably paired with a dab of wasabi, derived from a cabbage type plant with a thick green root that, when rendered to a paste, tastes like horseradish. Adding the right amount of wasabi can lift the delicate flavour of the sashimi to heady heights without overpowering it. Too much and the net result is a fireball in one’s mouth.
Our Sydney travel agent had suggested that, while in Japan, we should look out for wasabi ice cream. He was unspecific about where to get it and we assumed that it would be widely available throughout the country. It isn’t.
In our multi-stop visit to Japan, there was only one place where we would encounter wasabi ice cream, the Daiō Wasabi Farm at Azumino, a short train ride from Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture.
To set the tone for our trip to Daiō, we start with some wasabi flavoured soba noodles at a tiny joint near Matsumoto station, where the proprietor is chef, waiter and dish pig all rolled into one. At A$5 per head, this turns out to be one of the best food buys of our entire trip.
Duly fortified, we board the local train for Hotaka, the closest point to Azumino. About half an hour later, we’re at Hotaka station where the “rent a bicycle” touts are waiting. What? In Japan? These gentlemen, however, are unlike the touts we’ve previously encountered in places like Bali, where the pressure to buy can be so intense that you give in out of sheer exhaustion. Unlike their Balinese counterparts, our Japanese rental bike operators are here merely to make us aware of one of the nicest – not to mention cost-effective – ways to get from the station to the wasabi farm. We agree and after a few quick instructions in the “rules of the road” which, in this case, include the footpath, we are off and pedalling.
It’s all slightly downhill to Daiō. What goes down must, at some stage come up, but I try not to think of that right now.
Inside the farm there are wasabi plants at various stages of growth as far as the eye can see.
More mature plants…
As we’ve come to expect in Japan, the blend of produce, ornamental decoration and garden planting combine to provide a picture of exquisite beauty. There is even the odd remnant spray of cherry blossom.
But we haven’t come here only for the visual experience. We want to taste the product.
There is a hint of the sub-zero temperatures that will hit with a vengeance the following day, bringing snowfalls to the region. We can feel the cold working its way up from the soles of our feet and, never mind that we’ve had lunch, we need something hot to put in our bellies.
The deep-fried wasabi croquettes land on a stomach still trying to digest lunch. The promise of thermal heat delivers, but the taste of wasabi is barely perceptible. And one would really have been enough between us.
As we wipe our sticky fingers clean of wasabi fry, we catch sight of the ice cream shop. Time for an ice cream chaser.
The taste is delicate with just a hint of wasabi. Rather mild, if anything, somewhat bland.
As our two-hour limit on the bike rental approaches, it’s time to say goodbye to Daiō. M has chosen the “scenic” route back to the station which follows meandering streams through landscaped farmlands. It also has two hills, neither of which I can surmount, even in low gear. Pedal power gives way to foot power until we return to level ground. The upside of all this exercise is that by the time we reach the station, the croquette induced indigestion seems to have disappeared.
On reflection, Daiō is one of those places where arriving with modest expectations may have served us better. It is undeniably a tourist destination and I suspect that the food offer is deliberately pitched to less adventurous taste buds.
Those for whom wasabi unleashed may be just a bit too hot to handle.
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