Many many years ago, while taking a break from slaughtering and pillaging some evil village, some soldiers were boiling up some soybeans for their horses. While they were thus indisposed, another group of guys snuck up and attacked them in force. Instead of beating a hasty retreat, they paused long enough to dump out the boiling water and carefully wrapped those beans in straw. The attackers, sensing something grand was about to be invented, gave them a few extra minutes to pack up. In the midst of all the excitement though, the bags of beans were somehow forgotten. A few days past before the men started complaining of some foul smell that seemed to be following them. Some guy, suddenly remembering the bags of boiled beans, smacked himself on the head and ran to open those straw bags whereupon he found the beans to have *doh* gone rotten. Without further ado the men ate this smelly, rotten horse food (wouldn't you?) and found it to be pretty tasty. They then gave some to their commander who also proclaimed it to be yummy, and natto was born.
Or so they say.
If you ever wonder why people decided to eat rotten food, the explanation is simple. Way back before fridges, all food rotted, and people still ate it because they were hungry. Usually it tasted like you'd expect mold to taste, but every so often we got lucky and some strange delicacy was born, hence natto, blue cheese, vegemite, lutefisk, etc.
Besides having Kairakuen, the city of Mito in Ibaraki is THE place to go if you're a natto lover. I'm one of those rare gaijin that fits into that category.
Near Mito station you can find the Tengu natto factory. Walking in the door, you're greeted enthusiastically by the gift shop lady and the stink of natto. There is no tour here, which was a nice change of pace. Just head on back to the factory yourself and look around.
Just another day for the crew at the Tengu natto factory...
The factory is only one small room, so once you've had enough of watching people in white coats wrap up natto in straw (approximately 3 minutes) head upstairs to the natto museum.
Straw waits patiently for it's turn to help rot some soybeans.
The museum, being only one small room, shouldn't take too long either. 5 minutes?
I know what you're thinking. 'Wow, the inventor of natto!!'
No..., but he was the first guy to build a natto factory. Sorry, can't remember his name...
After that head downstairs and buy some natto to take home!
It's not a new kind of corn, it's natto in straw! Yummy....
Of course if you can't wait to get home, the best thing to do is head to a natto restaurant, of which there are many. Checking a natto guide, we selected a restaurant near the station where I ordered the natto course. Clockwise from the top right: natto omelet (pretty good), natto with raw squid and tuna (not bad but a bit bland), natto tempura (amazing!!), natto miso soup (ok, but in the end soup is only soup), natto with... some red things... ginger? (um, good I think), pickled radish (didn't eat), and rice (I've had better). We also ordered beer (obviously) and liver pate of angler fish (known as ankimo) which was excellent.
Natto isn't natto unless it's 'neba neba', which is a Japanese word to describe something that's a cross between gooey, sticky and slimy. When you grab some natto with your chopsticks, it should leave behind a trail of gooey filaments, like spiderwebs, that float around and get on your hands and clothes. All part of the experience!
Well Mito may have natto and Kairakuen, but would I live there? Actually the city itself was very quiet and peaceful, almost too quiet I thought, a bit like a ghost town... Perhaps Mito will be a future haikyo site like Detroit? In the end though I realized that natto and parks aren't everything in life, and I decided to stay in Tokyo, at least for the time being....