‘A Sense of Crisis’ for Wasabi, a Pungent Staple of Japanese Cuisine

IZU, Japan – For three decades, Mitsuyasu Asada proudly tended the same lush mountainside terraces where his father and grandfather grew wasabi, the horseradish-like plant with a fluorescent green hue and pungency that unmistakably evokes doubt Japanese cuisine.

However, at only 56 years old, Mr. Asada is already thinking of retiring, worn out by the many threats hanging over this essential condiment that adorns plates of sushi and bowls of soba.

Rising temperatures have made his crops more susceptible to mold and rot. He worries about unpredictable rainfall, deluge floods and more intense typhoons. The thick cedar forest that covers the mountain overlooking its rice fields – a result of the post-war timber policy – has degraded the quality of the spring water the wasabi needs to grow. Wild boar and deer increasingly attack his fields, driven from the mountains for lack of nutrition at higher altitudes.

And his two adult daughters got married and showed no interest in succeeding him on his hectare and a half in Izu, a town in Shizuoka prefecture, about 90 miles southwest of Tokyo.

“If no one takes over,” Mr Asada said, “it will end.”

Mr. Asada is just one of many growers in Shizuoka, one of Japan’s largest wasabi-growing regions, which faces increasing challenges from global warming, the legacy of untended forests and the demographic decline.

Already, these dangers have eroded the centuries-old culture of wasabi in the region and jeopardized the future of one of the prefecture’s most important agricultural products and a mainstay of its tourist activity.

Over the past decade, the volume of wasabi produced in Shizuoka has declined by nearly 55 percent, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

“I have a sense of crisis,” said Hiroyuki Mochizuki, president of Tamaruya, a 147-year-old company in Shizuoka that processes wasabi to sell it in tubes, as well as in salad dressings, flavored salts, pickles and even nostril tickling. Chocolate.

“In order to protect Japanese food culture,” he added, “it is important to protect wasabi.”

The wasabi that comes in tubes and packets and is familiar to many diners is actually a mixture of wasabi and dyed green horseradish – or contains no wasabi at all. In Japan, chefs at high-end sushi, soba or grilled beef restaurants grate fresh wasabi at the counter, so customers can feel the sharp assault on their nostrils and the unique flavor that lingers for a moment on the tongue. .

For hundreds of years, wasabi grew wild in the mountains of Japan, blooming near forests and huddling along streams. About four centuries ago, growers in Shizuoka began to cultivate wasabi as a crop.

Wasabi plants grow in spring water that comes down from the mountains, helping to promote tangy undertones and sweet notes. Shizuoka’s best-known variety, called mazuma, tends to sell for 50% more than wasabi from other parts of Japan.

Over time, local producers say, the quality of the spring water has deteriorated, compromised by an abundance of cedars and cypresses.

In an effort to provide Japan with a fast-growing source of timber to rebuild after World War II, government planners seeded mountain tracts exclusively with cedar or Japanese cypress.

But as cheap wood imports supplanted Japanese wood in the 1960s, cedar and cypress were left to grow, crowding out other types of plants that would better contain and nourish the mountain springs that wasabi needs. to thrive.

“People are talking about climate change and the fact that there is less water,” said David Hulme, a retired Australian journalist who now grows wasabi in Okutama, about 80 km from central Tokyo. “But the real problem is that the hills don’t hold water long enough.”

Global warming has upset the balance even more. The delicate wasabi plants, which take more than a year to mature, do best in conditions no higher than about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In recent years, heat waves in Japan have regularly pushed temperatures into the 90s and even above 100 degrees, causing more stems to rot.

On a recent afternoon, Masahide Watanabe, 66, a fourth-generation farmer, walked into one of his rice fields in blue waders. With a small hoe, he dug a wasabi plant in the mud, unearthing a pockmarked green rhizome whose leaves grow like water lilies.

He rinsed the plant in running spring water and cut off the leaves and a tangle of roots, inspecting the remaining body for imperfections.

“Sometimes the plant is missing the stems sticking out from the top,” he said. “We call it ‘headless syndrome.'” Other times, he says, he finds what looks like tumors on the roots. These illnesses, he said, have become more common as temperatures have warmed.

Government researchers and local growers have begun experimenting with crossbreeding in an effort to develop hearty wasabi varieties that will thrive even in the rising heat.

The challenge is that, unlike other crops such as cucumbers or tomatoes, extracting seeds and growing wasabi plants requires sophisticated technology. Most growers rely on specialist companies to clone seedlings in labs and greenhouses. Crossing new varieties involves complicated pollination efforts and, above all, time.

“It may take five or six or up to 10 years for the whole process to determine which is better or stronger,” said Susumu Hisamatsu, director of the wasabi production technology division at the Shizuoka Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute.

Even if the hundreds of experiments conducted by government researchers yield a variety that can withstand heat better, there is no guarantee that it will taste good or sell well.

Kichie Shioya, 65, whose family farm dates back to the 19th century and who heads the Federation of Wasabi Cooperatives in Shizuoka Prefecture, said that when he tried one of the new crosses developed by the prefectural research center , the plants “did not grow”. well, or caught diseases.

Some experts who study wasabi say that modern growers may have already narrowed the possibility of developing environmentally resistant plants because they have focused for so long on a small group of races.

“Now one type of wasabi dominates the market,” said Kyoko Yamane, an expert in wasabi cultivation at Gifu University. This makes it difficult to produce healthy hybrids.

Growers may not stay with the business long enough to try new crosses. As farmers approach retirement age, some find themselves without successors to carry on the tradition of wasabi cultivation.

Mr. Watanabe, the fourth-generation cultivator, reluctantly returned to Izu from Tokyo 40 years ago after earning a degree in chemistry. He said his son, who is currently enrolled at a university in Tokyo, was likely to seek employment in the city.

“There is a risk that the wasabi will disappear,” Mr Watanabe said.

Hope can still come from people like Haruhiko Sugiyama, 44, who recently started her own wasabi farm in Izu. He rents half an acre of rice paddies to a retired farmer whose own son does not want to join the family business.

A dozen years ago, Mr. Sugiyama, the son of grocers, decided he wanted to work outside. A college friend who came from a long line of wasabi growers put him in touch with another farmer who needed help.

Yet to get to the point where he could start his own farm, Mr. Sugiyama had to prove his worth to the local growers association, which controls access to wasabi fields. In 12 years working for another grower, Mr. Sugiyama said, he never took a day off while learning every step of local wasabi cultivation techniques.

“In a way, it’s a closed society, made up of people who have been growing wasabi for generations,” said Sugiyama, who eventually got permission to take over the abandoned rice paddies. “If I was not recognized by the association, they would not help me and let me grow on favorable land.”

In a sign of the bond he has forged with other growers, on a recent morning his college friend and another farmer helped cut down a 30-foot cypress tree that had blocked sunlight from reaching some of M’s rice paddies. .Sugiyama.

As cultivators winched the felled tree to the bank of a stream that fed Mr. Sugiyama’s rice paddies, he stared at two empty terraces, the clear water now reflecting the blue sky above. “Next month, he said, I will plant them.