Do you know what the king of mushrooms is in Japan? It’s definitely a pine mushroom, called “Matsutake” in Japanese. Matsutake can’t be cultivated, and so, it’s very expensive. Last year (2022) was very bad for Matsutake, and it was featured in the news that the retail price of one piece of Matsutake exceeded 300 USD! Funnily enough, Matsutake is popular only in Japan. On the other hand, in European countries, it is said to smell like dirty socks, but this may be a matter of getting used to it or not. For example, truffles are called jewels of the forest and highly prized in Europe, but I can only think of the smell of truffles as gasoline.
Japan is the second biggest consumer country of mushrooms, just behind China. We, Japanese people seem to eat a lot of mushrooms, relatively more than people in other countries. Even so, we don’t know much about mushrooms. For example, many Japanese people believe mushrooms are the seasonal food of autumn, which is the reason why I’m writing this now in October. Of course, I believed so before getting interested in mushroom picking, but most of the mushrooms can grow in any season if the temperature and moisture are just right. Today, let me write a little about mushroom-related situations in Japan.
The long history of eating Mushrooms in Japan
In this area, mushroom-shaped earth ware was found and appraised to have been made about 4000 years ago, long before Japan was established. The oldest record about mushrooms in Japan is probably the Japanese oldest anthology compiled in the first half of the 7th century. There is a poem including another word of Matsutake to express the joy of the arrival of autumn. In Japan, people would have picked and eaten mushrooms at least from 1300 years ago, probably at the cost of a great many lives, because of poisonous mushrooms.
The secret of poisonous mushrooms
As I’ve learned it recently, it has not yet been clarified why some mushrooms have poison. Generally, plants and animals have poison to defend against predators, and so, poisonous plants and animals have warning colors in most cases. In addition, it’s important for poison to be fast-acting. If not, predators would end up with dying in vain without noticing what killed them. Strangely enough, there are many poisonous mushrooms without warning colors and with slow-acting poison. Some researchers say poisonous mushrooms look to aggressively kill predators, rather than just defending themselves, in order to supply nourishment to the soil.
Due to the feature of poisonous mushrooms, many Japanese people are frightened and hesitate to pick not-well-known mushrooms or even do mushroom picking, except for people with an inquiring mind and risk appetite like me. Here in Hokkaido (the northernmost part of Japan), I think it’s almost only “Larch Boletes” people pick, and so, there are so many edible mushrooms left untouched. In Japan, only Hokkaido has the colony of white birch trees. We can find many “Birch Boletes” everywhere, but no one picks them. When I pick birch boletes in my nearby park, people sometimes give me a look saying like “Are you serious to eat them?”
Mushrooms and trees live together in a symbiotic relationship. Mushrooms are evidence to show that the forests are flourishing and healthy. In addition, most of the forests in the main land of Japan consist mainly of soft-wood trees, while Hokkaido forests are made up of the mixture of soft- and hard-wood trees. You can find a wider variety of mushrooms, and also, this is the reason why Hokkaido is a good production area of wooden furniture.
Photo credit: https://guide.michelin.com/en/article/features/mushrooms-morel-truffle-matsutake-why-expensive
He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.