Wasabi-da Restoration

Posted By on Mar 21, 2017 in Columns |

Never before have I felt so at home as in this Japanese village environment of Okutama. I have lived in cities and small country towns in Australia, as well as London, New York and Hong Kong, not to mention many years in the 23 wards of Tokyo. For now, with my Japanese wife, I am home.

Our friends and neighbours have been welcoming, accommodating, kind and generous.
They like the mere fact that we are here. An 88-year-old nearby neighbour said: “It’s so nice to have young people moving in!” I can tell you I didn’t mind hearing that in my late sixties.
They appreciate my persistence with their language. Conversations flare and die, blossom and shrivel, but they flare and blossom anew.

They absolutely love it that we are wasabi growers. Wasabi is dear to the heart of the Okutama native. Long ago, perhaps eight decades back, when forestry was the main industry here, there would have been permanent and semi-permanent work camps in the mountains. Groups of workers got together in their spare time to build a wasabi patch. They would select an area where terraces could be built beside a mountain stream. They spent endless hours at the backbreaking labour of smashing rocks, building water diversions, erecting walls, constructing stony terraces and fashioning water channels, so that wasabi seedlings could be planted in nutritiously mineralized flows of cool mountain seepage. The projects were small in scale, some containing only a few hundred plants. However, in the hardscrabble times of Taisho and early Showa, a few extra coins meant a great deal to those in the lower layers of society.

There is a history, a provenance and a tradition to wasabi that natives sense keenly, but most cannot touch. Area under cultivation is in decline, yet wasabi remains a primary symbol of Okutama. The town office is keen to reverse the decline. The fact that newcomers have taken up the wasabi challenge seems to resonate powerfully with locals, whether or not they are currently involved.

It was mere chance that, on an exploratory trek, we recognized overgrown terraces as an abandoned wasabida (wasabi patch). The four, or maybe five, levels were smothered in lichen, moss, weeds, fallen trees and other forest detritus. There were no surrounding nets, nor any poles upon which to hang such barriers. It was a mess.

Our close friend Takeuchi-san, at the time head of the regional wasabi growers association, took the 20-minute trek with us to inspect and advise. His first words were about invaders – the deer, wild boar and monkeys.

“Deer love to eat the leaves,” he said. “Wild boar get in and destroy everything just to get at worms and crabs. Monkeys! Well, monkeys pull out the plant, pick off the little freshwater crustaceans to eat, then throw the plant away.”

Before we could do anything, the wild boar came in looking for snacks. They ripped up surfaces and smashed a couple of terrace walls. Cleaning the area to discourage them became priority one. A couple of working bees and many hours of solo effort took care of that.

Priority two was to keep out deer. Takeuchi-san gazed around the adjacent steep slopes, where sugi trees had been culled and trimmed, with the trunks left in horizontal formations as erosion control, and declared that we could retrieve from there the needed 40 or 50 necessary poles. Upon these we could hang nets that would also discourage wild boar.

We bought a chainsaw and carried it to the worksite, cut poles into 2.5-meter lengths and dug holes around the perimeter. These holes, each gouged and scoured by hand, had to be some 50-cm deep. We worked quietly, with the gurgle of the stream as a companion, content to blend our effort with the flow of the seasons and years, confident that the infrastructure would stand all tests.

We also knew that monkeys, assertive and even aggressive in their own territory, could not be kept at bay. They will simply be an ever-present risk, as unpredictable and uncontrollable as the weather.
Takeuchi-san said we would also have to plough the whole area by hand, to a depth of 15cm or so, to get rid of accumulated silt. He gifted us a dedicated tool, called a kazusa, which is somewhat like a short-handled, one-sided pickaxe. This task, sluicing out black mud to let in water-borne nutrients and oxygen, was completed through the winter of 2015-16. On colder days, of which there were many, periodic retreats to a lifesaving fire were needed.

At last, early last summer, some 1,100 seedlings were planted out. They have taken root, survived the winter and are thriving as the new spring progresses. Local friends enquire after the health and vigour of the plants. They want to know whether we are interested in a second wasabida. When we harvest our first crop this autumn, we will celebrate with our village.