While Takehiro was driving us south from Hyogo to Wakayama, we passed through valleys and into tunnels on a brilliantly sunny day. Once we pulled into Kainan City, Wakayama, we arrived at Yamamoto Katsunosuke, a small sansho factory that is over 100 years old and located next to small stream flanked by groves of bamboo. If we had forgotten that we were going to visit a sansho producer, we would have been immediately reminded as soon as we stepped out of the car as we were overwhelmed by it's heavy aroma.
Sansho, also known as Japanese pepper, has been used as a cuisine-spice as well as traditional medicine since ancient times. The berry is harvested and is very fragrant, like kaffir lime, but a little more bright and lemony. The flavor is very unique and it has a distinctive numbing sensation when it hits your tongue. You will often find sansho in yakitori and bbq eel shops, but it has many more applications.
When Takehiro, Chris and I walked into the sansho factory we were met by both Mr. Tsutida, the company president, and the omnipresent scent of sansho. Tsutida-san then took us into the room where the sansho was processed - it was a sansho lovers dream. The room was filled with a wonderfully fragile perfume - there really is no way I can explain it in words. Tsutida-san showed us how the whole berries are ground between 3 ancient stone mills, reminiscent of how olive oil is extracted.
Afterwards, we all piled into his minivan (which was also sansho-scented) and drove up the windy, narrow mountain road to a farm where sansho grows, absorbing the breath taking views of Wakayama from high above. Nestled on the mountain side was the farmer’s house. He just happened to be pulling into his driveway with 4 giant, freshly dug bamboo shoots. The birds chirping and mountain streams gurgling was our background music, the smell of fresh flowers and mountain air was intoxicating. The old farmer and his wife showed us how they dried the sansho and removed the steams & seeds in 2 separate contraptions they built themselves.
We then all took a walk through their gorgeous persimmon orchard and into their sansho orchard. Tsutida-san explained that they grew the Budo sansho, which were a fuller variety that he liked best for its flavor and size. The buds of the sansho were just forming and this was the time of the year for kinome, the tiny first leaves - when you clap them between your hands, they give off a wonderful, delicate smell.
This was yet another of those truly magical days that happen only in Japan. After the tour of the orchard, we just walked around, harvesting wild shiitakes, eating wild mitsuba, picking up the mountain crabs and enjoying the wonders of the Japanese mountain spring time - one that came after a particularly long winter. Me, I took a little break next to stream and just listened for a while.