Experiential Tourism – Working on a Shiitake Farm
Japan’s tourism is booming with rapidly growing numbers of overseas visitors. Part of the new wave is Experiential Tourism. This means rolling up one’s sleeves and working in some traditional area to really get to grips with grass roots Japan.
I decided to get my experience working on Tokuda Shiitake farm in Atami, just 45 minutes from Tokyo on the bullet train. Shiitake are delicious Japanese mushrooms which grow well on rotting oak logs. So Shiitake ‘forest’ might be a more accurate description than ‘farm’.
Tokuda are pros and they have the whole Shiitake rearing process down to a fine art. They follow the traditional organic method of growing Shiitake called Genboku, meaning using natural wood as the host material. This involves collecting one metre long oak branches from their abundant forest. The branches quickly grow back, removing a little of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere emitted by Japan’s abundant heavy industry elsewhere. The oak branches range in thickness from your wrist to your thigh. Into these branches they inject Shiitake spore, let the branches ‘cook’ in appropriate conditions for two and a half years, and presto, you have nice Shiitake to harvest.
Sounds easy enough doesn’t it? But here’s the rub. Tokuda has 100,000 of these injected oak branches cooking at any one time. In the summer they are best spread out to collect heat and moisture in Atami’s sub-tropical conditions. But come winter, the poor little Shiitake will get too cold if left lying around like this. So in autumn, all the oak branches need to gathered up and stacked tightly together to keep warm during winter. It takes a bit of labour to gather and stack 100,000 branches. That’s where the visitors come in.
Atami is primarily a visitor resort and Tokuda offers the opportunity to work on the farm for a morning. It costs 300 yen per family to cover the bar-b-que lunch. About 20 or so people normally participate and form a bucket-line to pass the oak branches along by hand to stack nicely in a pile. The branches are stacked vertically, thin end to the ground so I learned.
I have to say that with sweat pouring down my face, I had a ball. After stressful city life and brain strain, spending a few hours mindlessly using ones hands and body in a simple repetitive task is a release. I lucked out by getting a stunningly beautiful autumn day with the sun angling gently through the golden-leaved trees where we worked. It was great fun joking with my fellow working companions as we tossed logs at each other. I tried to answer all their curious questions about my country, thus giving my Japanese a good work out as well as my body.
I also realized why Japan had recently done so well in the Rugby World Cup. Standing in a human line tossing logs along it from one person to the next for hours is perfect rugby training. I imagined I was flicking that inside pass to Goromaru to cross the South African line. Roll on 2019.
Then someone shouted “oocha” and that was the best sound of all. Weary smiling workers gathered around for some refreshingly hot green tea. Someone plucked a few of the numerous juicy golden organic persimmon from the trees and we devoured them on the spot. When it was time to go home, everyone was given a box of shiitake and persimmon full of freshness and sunshine.
So, Big City getting you down? Get out to the countryside one weekend and remind yourself how we used to live.