Wednesday morning started out with breakfast at the hotel, which was in some ways our most “Japanese” breakfast so far: mostly in Tokyo we’d been grabbing european-style baked goods from various breakfast counters, and the lodge in Nikko had made us french toast, but this was seasoned rice balls, miso soup, and… a pickle bar! Six different kinds of pickles for breakfast! Why don’t I live here again?
Our plan for the day was a side-trip to nearby Hotaka, site of Japan’s largest wasabi farm. We left our bags at the hotel and took a tiny little 2-car JR train 30 minutes to Hotaka station.
Hotaka is a tiny little semi-rural hamlet, and it’s really just stupidly charming. Its primary function appears to be wasabi and rice farming, and its secondary function is internal tourism, with gaggles of Japanese tour groups coming to see the wasabi farms. At the station, an effusive man at the tourist information office gave us a map and highlighted a path that would, on bicycle, show us most of Hotaka’s major attractions in about an hour’s riding. Bike rental was ¥200 an hour, and there were three rental places within a block of the train station. Picking up bikes was dead simple (they didn’t even ask for a deposit: this really is a foreign country), and after waiting a moment for the bike shop proprietor to adjust my seat height, we were off. Hotaka is on a plateau at the foot of the Japanese alps, so the riding was completely flat, and there was really no traffic to contend with. Within a few minutes, what little of Hotaka was built-up dropped away, and we were riding leisurely down a nearly empty road in the sunny Japanese countryside, past rice paddies and… a blueberry field? With a roadside sales stand? Oh hell yes.
Fortified with half a kilo of fresh blueberries, we rode the remaining five minutes over to the wasabi farm. Dai-oh wasabi farm is the largest wasabi farm in the area, and I suspect probably in the world. In addition to being very much a working farming concern, it also seems to function as a major tourist draw: the (nearly empty this day) parking lot looked like it could accommodate several dozen tour busses at least, plus a small fleet of cars and bicycles. But much like a pick-your-own orchard in New England, the touristy nature of it doesn’t really distract from the charm, and charm it had in abundance. Wooden bridges and gravel paths led you through vast covered fields of wasabi, which grows in neat gravel paths that are semi-submerged in clear, cold running water that is glacial run-off from the nearby mountains. The river had a few sets of rafters going down it, and the farm’s old water wheels still fronted it. The farm appears to be family-operated, and there are several small shrines dotted across it (including a pair of cave shrines), plus a monument to the family patriarch and matriarch.
With the exception of a few marked-off areas, visitors pretty much have the run of the place for as long and as far as they like, and after a while we found ourselves in a wooded area behind the farm, following a dirt road. We could hear in the distance something that sounded like rapids or a waterfall, and were hoping that the road would lead us there. It never did, but instead it led us to the biggest damn eagle I’ve ever seen outside a zoo: as we were crunching our way down the road, we apparently startled it, and a few dozen yards ahead of us an enormous raptor that had apparently been sitting on the ground took off quickly, its wings audibly cutting through the air. It was easily 5 feet wide, and sadly I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to get a shot of it while it was still close and at eye level. It came to rest only a bit further down the road from where it had been originally, and we crept forward a bit more slowly in hope of getting a better shot, but this is about all I managed:
Chasing the eagle (or whatever it was) further seemed likely to just annoy the bird and muddy our shoes, and the road was curving away from whatever was making the waterfall-like sound, so we turned around and headed back to the main part of the farm, where the multiple gift shops were. It’s worth noting at this point that admission to the farm was free: the only catch was that in order to get from the parking lot into the pretty hiking area, you had to pass a phalanx of stands, in front of each of which was a woman who would run up to you and offer a free sample of whatever wasabi-based concoction her stand was selling, ranging from freshly picked and scrubbed wasabi roots (rhizomes actually, but who’s counting?) to wasabi-infused pickles, to wasabi peas, wasabi crackers, wasabi sweet chewy things: a whole gamut of wasabi products, and they were apparently gambling quite successfully that if you liked wasabi enough to come visit a wasabi farm in the first place, the odds of you leaving without purchasing something wasabi-flavored were near zero. For my own part, they had me at wasabi ice cream:
How could I resist? My only complaint with it: not enough wasabi. The first few licks really only tasted of vanilla, and it wasn’t until I’d gotten through a bit more of it that a subtle wasabi flavor began to build up.
Polishing off my ice cream, I wandered into the gift store proper, and walked out about fifteen minutes later with a very large bag full of wasabi-themed stuff, some edible and some not. I managed to avoid buying the scrubby towels emblazoned with Hello Kitty wearing a wasabi root costume, but only just. Sadly, what I could not buy at the wasabi farm was any actual wasabi, which was heartbreaking since they had piles of the fresh roots for ¥500 each. But we had no way of preserving them for the next week, and would have had to smuggle them back into the US in any case.
Wasabi-ed out for the time being, we took a leisurely bicycle ride back into the town, during the course of which we found out that both the English and the Japanese maps we had to work with had only a passing resemblance to the actual roads of Hotaka. This wasn’t much of a surprise in the case of the English map (which was pretty obviously not to any scale nor even attempting to be accurate), but a little moreso in the case of the Japanese one: the best I could describe it would be cubist: roads that in reality were meandering and many-forked were displayed on the map as neat straight lines with few or no intersections. We got predictably pretty far off course, which was aggravating but not panicking: we were still primarily in flat rice fields, and getting back to town would have been do-able by dead reckoning alone if need be, but we eventually ran into of all things a little regional art museum, and the woman behind the counter was able to point out our rough location on the Japanese map and give us rough directions back into town.
Hotaka’s other main draw is the Rokuzan art museum: a tiny little museum comprised of several small gallery buildings spread around a cute little park. The museum is primarily dedicated to the works of Rokuzan Ogiwara, “the Japanese Rodin”, a Meiji-era sculptor who travelled through Europe and the middle east, studied briefly with Rodin and left a very small but impressive body of work behind before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 31. Unknown in the west, and probably not very well-known in Japan either, but the museum made a very good case for him as a potentially major artist, sadly lost far too early.
Seeing the entire museum only took about 45 minutes, and since we were facing a multi-step train and bus ride to our next destination, we decided to head back to Matsumoto. We returned our bikes and found that we had about 40 minutes until the next train, and were getting hungry again. It was at this point that I realized that we’d been in Japan for over a week and had still had no ramen. This was clearly not acceptable, so we went off in search of a ramen stop, figuring that there was bound to be one near the train station. We figured correctly: it was about a block and a half away. The lunch rush (if there is such a thing as a rush in Hotaka) was long over: the place was inhabited only by its owners, a pair of middle-aged Japanese women watching a television. They sat us at one of the kneeling tables, made a small fuss over my hair, and brought us our ramen.
God it was good.
Ramen is fast food in Japan, and so we’d picked the perfect thing for a quick lunch ahead of an impending train departure: we finished our soup with just enough time to settle the bill, say our goodbyes, walk to the station and step onto the train that came onto the platform three minutes later. Next stop: Kamikochi.