Funagata, Yamagata Pref. – Cooler temperatures and changing leaves signal the arrival of autumn, perhaps the best season for eating in Japan. Tables are laden with kabocha pumpkins, glistening chestnuts, new rice, fat-laden fish and, of course, mushrooms of every shape and size.
When seeking out the delightfully earthy ingredient, it pays to head up to Yamagata Prefecture, one of Japan’s top three mushroom-consuming areas. The prefecture’s climate and topography make it an ideal place for mushrooms to flourish, with dramatic differences in temperature between day and night, the right degree of humidity and shelter from strong winds. As such, many of the local specialties feature the beloved mushroom, such as kinoko jiru soup, kinoko gohan (mushroom rice) and warming mushroom imoni (outdoor party) hot pots.
In Japan, fungi are broadly split into two groups: wild, local kinoko (usually more closely associated with Japanese cuisine) and farm-grown masshurūmu, which were originally imported, and are more commonly used in Western-style dishes.
In response to global worries about food supply chains due to COVID-19, there has been an uptick in interest in foraging around the world, including Japan. Ikuko Sato is one of founding members of the Yamagata Kinoko no Kai and a recognized mushroom master (kinoko meijin). Although she is usually busy running her mushroom cuisine restaurant and hosting sessions about mushroom safety — an important topic, as every year overconfident foragers die from eating poisonous mushrooms — her main passion is getting into the mountains herself to search for delicious wild fungi.
Sato says that she has seen an increase in young prospective mushroom hunters joining her events. She believes that taking them into the woods and cooking up their bounty on the spot makes it easier for new people to learn about the kinoko and sansai (mountain vegetables) that form such an important part of Yamagata’s regional cuisine. “Every kinoko is different, and the textures and earthiness make it a very flexible ingredient,” she says.
“There is lots of competition, I have to keep ahead of all the ‘rivals’ who are also out here looking for mushrooms,” she says with a laugh as she stops her car in a hidden clearing just off the road. As if proving her point, an elderly couple sporting bamboo baskets pops out of the forest to show off their harvest.
“It has been a short season this year, as it didn’t cool down as early as usual,” Sato continues. “Kinoko are delicate, they require a particular balance of cool and warm temperatures and humidity to grow. This year the season started almost three weeks late, and will end as soon as the first snowfall hits, so we are all on the hunt.”
But finding good-quality mushrooms needn’t involve a trek through the forests. At Funagata Mushroom, the third-largest masshurūmu farm in Japan, you can purchase the reliable Agaricus bisporus, commonly known as either button or cremini mushrooms when immature, and portobello once mature. Originally native to Europe and North America, President Mitsuyoshi Nagasawa now grows these popular imports in massive quantities.
“We harvest around 4 tons of white and brown mushrooms every day, which are grown on rigorously organic peat mixed with plant-only compost,” says Nagasawa, as he shows off the long-domed growing houses. Nothing goes to waste, as the spent growing soil, after being sterilized, is in high demand as compost for orchards and farms.
Besides the farm’s organic certification, Nagasawa is also fervent about steering away from the use of plastic wrapping. “Supermarket mushrooms, which have been wrapped in plastic and allowed to sit in their own condensation, lose their flavor completely within 24 hours. All our mushrooms are packed in cardboard and newspaper, so they stay dry and cool when refrigerated,” he explains as he hands over a small brown mushroom to sample. The tiny fungus packs a punch of umami with a hint of chestnut, surprisingly reminiscent of the wild varieties foragers seek in Yamagata’s mountains.
However, unlike the secretive nature of Yamagata’s kinoko hunting grounds, the farm’s restaurant, Mushroom Stand, has a steady line of customers stopping by to purchase unpackaged mushrooms from a cooler near the entrance. For lucky diners who can grab one of the tables, every order comes with an unlimited side of fresh sliced mushrooms, all harvested just a short walk away.
Curious foodies can experience this tale of two mushrooms themselves, as this autumn may be the best time to head to less-crowded areas on one of the limited-edition JR East passes and sample all the flavors of the season.
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