Ⅲ. Nature’s Abundance in Kyushu
By: Vicki L. Beyer
Ⅰ. Natural Scenery and Enjoying Kyushu’s Great Outdoors
Kyushu was formed by the subduction of the Philippine tectonic plate
under the Eurasian plate on which it sits. The volcanic and tectonic forces
that resulted from this subduction have blessed Kyushu with a beautiful and
dynamic landscape that is both diverse and bounteous. As the southernmost of
Japan’s four main islands, Kyushu is also blessed with a relatively mild
climate. For nature lovers, there is much here to love.
Let’s start with mountains. Kyushu is volcanic, so of course there
are lots of hills and mountains. Often when viewed from a distance, there are
gentle, rolling foothills and farther away, layers of mountains, getting
progressively higher, their flanks folding on each other and covered with lush
vegetation in various shades of green, thanks to evergreen, deciduous and
bamboo trees. Depending on the season, the greenery is tempered with other
colors: delicate white-pink of mountain cherry trees in spring and just a month
later, darker pink to orange azalea blossoms, often in riotous abundance.
During fall, the rich gold, brown and red of autumn leaves provide a new visual
Just as there are many types of volcanoes on Kyushu that have
erupted in different ways over the millennia, the shapes of the mountains are
also varied—some are rounded “sugarloafs” while others come to high, sharp
peaks. Mt. Kuju of the Kuju massif is the highest on the island of Kyushu,
standing at 1,791 meters (5,876 feet). In fact, there are seven peaks on Kyushu
that are over 1,700 meters (5,577 feet).
Of course, where there are mountains there are also valleys, and in
some cases deep narrow gorges. This contrast provides magnificent vistas when
viewed from a height. There are a few places in Kyushu’s mountains where
visitors can easily reach that height by taking a ropeway.
Mt. Tsurumi is a dormant volcanic peak (last known eruption was in
867 AD), standing guard over the city of Beppu in Oita Prefecture. The winding
mountain road between Beppu and Yufuin traverses the lower flanks of the
mountain, and this is where visitors will find the Beppu Ropeway. The
1.8-kilometer (1.1 miles) ropeway carries visitors from a 500-meter elevation
to a point of 1,300 meters (from 1,640 to 4,265 feet), where visitors can enjoy
expansive views over Beppu and Beppu Bay, or look inland across rolling hills
toward Yufuin, Mt. Yufu and even the Kuju massif in the distance. From the top
of the ropeway, it’s just a short climb on one of several trails to reach the
top of the mountain where signboards specify each distant peak. There are also
trails leading back down the mountain for those who might want to ride one way
and walk the other.
On the other side of Kyushu, on Nagasaki’s Shimabara Peninsula, the
Unzen Ropeway on the flanks of Mt. Myoken also provides mountain access and
mountain-to-ocean views. The ropeway commences from a higher elevation (easily
accessible by bus) and travels a shorter distance. But it provides views of
mountains, the ocean, specks of islands on the western horizon, and colors of
vegetation that are all completely different from what can be seen from Mt.
Tsurumi. Unzen is well known for its distinct seasons and seasonal colors. In
the winter months, this western flank of the mountains is especially known for
its scenic rime, which is a form of frost that clings to tree branches due to
mists being frozen by winter winds coming in from the sea to the west. It is a
winter wonderland without the harsh cold, so it can be enjoyed in a brief hike
from the top of the ropeway.
The Nagasaki Ropeway gives visitors a different scenery as it
carries visitors from the city of Nagasaki to Mt. Inasa, which thrusts upward
from the northern shore of Nagasaki Harbor. From the observatory at the top of
the ropeway, day-time visitors can enjoy the urban harbor panorama to the south
and east, the mountain views to the north, and views to the East China Sea in
the west. It is easy to understand the overall topography of the city of
Nagasaki, which circles the harbor and then runs up several small valleys. It
is also easy to see why Nagasaki is such a good harbor. Thanks to its proximity
to the city, the Nagasaki Ropeway also runs late into the night, enabling
visitors to experience nighttime harbor views that include city lights
glittering like jewels at one’s feet.
In northern Oita Prefecture, not far from the city of Nakatsu, the
mountains include steep, rocky cliffs where wind and water erosion have exposed
various layers of stone. At Mt. Rakan, visitors can take a chairlift to the top
for views of the mountains and valleys on either side. The panoramic vista
comprising a myriad of sharply pointed tree-covered peaks is breathtaking,
while views of rice paddies and farms on the flat valley floor are
Halfway up Mt. Rakan is a chairlift station providing access to
Rakanji, a Buddhist temple founded more than 13 centuries ago dedicated to
rakan (arhat), devout Buddhists who had achieved enlightenment. Like many of
Japan’s most ancient temples, Rakanji is built against the cliff face. The
temple was originally located on a nearby mountain with equally steep cliffs
and a very distinctive feature near its peak. Erosion of the cliff resulted in
a rockfall (possibly the reason for the temple’s relocation), opening a hole in
the mountain about two or three stories high that goes through to the other
side. It is simultaneously disconcerting and fascinating to see blue sky where
the surrounding landscape tells one’s eyes there should be brown rock.
Nearly all major mountain peaks in Kyushu are home to some religious
structures, whether it is shrines or temples. Shrines reflect Shinto’s
fundamental connections to and reverence for nature, while the earliest forms
of Buddhism practiced in Japan involved mountain asceticism. These are
discussed in more detail in “Spiritual Island.”
These religious spaces are often the reason for the existence of
easy access transport systems, like the Mt. Rakan chairlift. At Mt. Hiko in
Fukuoka Prefecture, an even more modern form of transport exists to help
travelers ascend at least as far as the shrine there, a contraption known as
the “slope car.” The Hikosan slope car is a kind of monorail on a gimbal to
keep passenger seating level as it travels 849 meters (2,785 feet) over varying
degrees of slope. The highest station is at Hiko Shrine, from which there are
various trails that allow visitors to explore both the mountainside (old cedar
forests) and its various geological features (amazing rock formations!) and
other subordinate shrine structures sprinkled throughout the area.
Many travelers also enjoy getting up close and personal with remote
mountains. Hiking is an extremely popular pastime in Kyushu, as well as the
rest of Japan, so well-groomed mountain trails are plentiful and well used.
Trails might be just short courses where a visitor can spend an hour
enjoying the distinctive flora and fauna of an area, or the inveterate trekker
might care to fully or partially take on the Kyushu Nature Trail, a
2,587-kilometer (1,607 miles) set of trails that traverses all seven
prefectures in Kyushu. The entire Kyushu Nature Trail can be hiked in 130 days
and each stage of the trail provides plenty of fresh air and greenery as well
as some of the best of Kyushu’s varied natural splendor. The tourist offices in
each prefecture can provide maps and information relating to their particular
section of the trail, which is, in most sections, also well sign-posted.
As an example of a very short hiking course, consider the Unzen
Jigoku course (see “Onsens in Kyushu”), which is effectively a scramble over
hillside trails to view various mudpots and fumarole steam vents. While
visitors to this course are attracted to it for a geological reason, the trail
developers have kindly signposted not only the geological features, but also
the flora and fauna. Well, the flora is signposted, noting not only the species
but also often what makes it capable of enduring the heat and extreme minerals
of the area. As to the fauna, there are signs everywhere, including drawings,
to alert hikers to the types of birds they can expect to see and hear as they
proceed. Avid birdwatchers are surely grateful for the hints, but neophytes
will also find this information a useful aid for their appreciation of the
Another short hiking course, but with an entirely different
atmosphere, can be found on the eastern flanks of Kurodake in Oita Prefecture. In
a couple of hours, hikers can walk up a deeply wooded river valley from Meisui
Falls, which tumbles over eroded boulders with brightly colored layers of
sandstone. The waters rush toward the spring-fed and crystal-clear Oike Pond,
and then continue through the primeval forest to another spring at Shiramizu
Kosen, where the water emerges from the ground clear and cold, and carbonated. A
true rarity! Bring your water bottle and fill up.
Once upon a time, hiking through the mountains was the only way to
travel from one place to another, so many hiking trails have long histories. On
the Kunisaki Peninsula in northeastern Oita Prefecture, there are ancient
trails used by Buddhist ascetics on meditative pilgrimages 13 centuries ago.
There are 10 different trails to different religious sites across the peninsula
known as Rokugo Manzan. Some of the trails are more obscure, and consequently
more exciting because they take hikers along narrow rock ridges and over
particularly steep inclines. But the beauty of the landscape and the remnants
of ancient religious structures or statues make the effort worthwhile.
Many people enjoy hiking to get deep into mountain woodland to enjoy
the energizing negative ions in the air along with the amazing scenery. Surrounded
by tall trees (particularly Japanese cedars, which grow amazingly straight and
tall) that admit only dappled sunlight also has a sublime relaxing effect.
In each region of Kyushu, mountain hiking trails offer different
landscapes to be experienced.
Some trails begin by crossing a meadow, then into brushland before
entering the forest and beginning to climb in earnest. Other trails include
switchbacks so that the climbs aren’t particularly steep, although even with
switchbacks some trails make a rapid ascent. Stairs have sometimes been carved
into the terrain to make the going easier. On really high trails, there may be
very steep sections to traverse, or even boulders or cliffs to surmount. Here,
too, the level of trail grooming means that chains have often been installed to
aid hikers through those areas.
During every part of each trail, hikers are rewarded with the sights
and sounds of the forests or high plains they traverse. Gaps in trees, or even
lookout points, afford expansive views across valleys to mountains beyond. In
these moments, it almost feels like you are the only person in the world. When
hiking in the mountains surrounding any of Kyushu’s active volcanoes, the way
in which the volcano itself changes when viewed from different perspectives of
different lookouts is often a surprise. Sometimes, the shape of the mountain’s
silhouette is so changed by a different angle that it is only recognizable
because steam or ash is rising from its top.
It would seem that all of Kyushu’s mountains can be climbed in all
seasons, but it is important to keep in mind that during the early summer rainy
season trails can be wet and slippery, not to mention the fact that hiking in
constant rain isn’t particularly pleasant. During winter, the higher peaks are
often snow-covered, so it is also important before attempting any winter climb
to be sure to have proper winter gear.
Guided hiking or group hiking tours are available in most national
parks and geoparks. This alleviates a lot of the difficulties of planning,
equipping and executing, making it a good option for both novices and
experienced hikers. Visitors can also learn more about the geology of the
mountains they are hiking, as well as details of the plants, animals and birds
of the area by traveling with an English-speaking guide who is knowledgeable
about the area.
Another way to gain an appreciation for Kyushu’s mountains and
valleys is by walking across one of the pedestrian suspension bridges erected
just for that purpose.
The Aya Teruha Suspension Bridge spans the Aya River in Miyazaki
Prefecture northwest of Miyazaki City. The bridge is 250 meters (820 feet)
long, and the deepest point of the valley is 142 meters (466 feet) below the
bridge. The bridge is built at a point where the river makes a 90-degree bend,
which allows for very dramatic views of the river and the valley from the
halfway point. The forests of these mountains are dominated by laurel trees, a
Japanese native tree with aromatic wood that remains green year-round. In 2012,
the area was designated as a UNESCO Eco Park principally because its
2,500-hectare (6,178 acre) laurel forest is the largest in Japan. After
crossing the bridge, visitors can backtrack, or they can continue on a nature
trail through the forest down to the valley floor and re-cross at another
bridge upriver. Of course, crossing the suspension bridge is a particular
thrill, but in this case, the setting and the chance to learn more about this
unique biosphere also hold a special attraction.
The Kokonoe Yume Grand Suspension Bridge, just north of the Kuju
mountains in central-west Oita Prefecture, sits above a deep gorge within sight
of a pair of tall, narrow waterfalls at the top of the gorge. The steepness of
the gorge walls are an especially interesting geological phenomenon. At 390
meters (1,280 feet) long, the Kokonoe Yume bridge is the longest pedestrian
suspension bridge in Kyushu. It is also the highest, hanging 173 meters above
the river below. The two waterfalls are collectively known as Shindo Falls.
Separately, they are Odaki (93 meters/305 feet) and Medaki (83 meters/272
feet). These falls are regarded as the headwaters of Kyushu’s longest Chikugo
Many amazing rivers tumble out of Kyushu’s mountains, fed by rain
and snowmelt, often forming cascades and even precipitous waterfalls like the
Shindo Falls as they rush toward the sea. These rivers and their falls can be
enjoyed on any number of mountain treks. Or the adventurer may want to try
canyoning or rafting.
The Kumagawa river rises on the Kumamoto-Miyazaki river and flows
115 kilometers (71.5 miles) to the Yatsushiro Sea. It is one of the fastest
flowing rivers in Kyushu with excellent whitewater, particularly in the narrow
valley below the town of Hitoyoshi, making it a popular destination for
rafting. The river has a couple of different stages open for rafting with
plenty of action for thrill-seekers.
The Kumagawa river has long been a transportation link, so there is
also a long tradition of using narrow, flat-bottomed wooden boats to carry rice
and other products from the mountains to the sea. These boats now carry
tourists on “kawa kudari” trips down the river. Visitors who are interested in
relaxing while enjoying being on the water and bird watching or taking in the
scenery of the valley may prefer this option.
The deep Fujikawachi Gorge in Oita Prefecture near the border with
Miyazaki seems almost tailor-made for canyoning, which is basically whitewater
rafting without the raft. Participants don life vests, helmets and special
rubber pants before getting into a river to let the water carry them over
various rock formations. Essentially, the rock shapes carved by centuries of
water erosion have made natural water slides that canyoneers can enjoy. The
adventure usually includes making a drop of several meters down a nearly sheer
rock face into a deep pool, with expert direction from an experienced guide. The
experience is most definitely thrilling, and is a particularly refreshing
activity in the hottest summer months, which is also when the water is at its
Some of Kyushu’s gorges are best appreciated on foot. Takkiri Gorge
in northern Oita is a great example. This gorge, which gets narrower as one
proceeds downriver, has a well-established trail alongside the creek, making it
an easy and picturesque stroll. The gorge itself is dominated by layers of
volcanic tufa stone with vines and plants growing out of the crevices. Farther
up, the tree canopy creates shade. Water slides in sheets across the solid
stone creek-bottom, with a depth that’s less than a hand’s width in most
places. Occasionally a more sudden drop creates a bit of gurgling whitewater,
but for the most part the only real sound to be heard are birds’ chirping. There
is a campsite with cabins in the gorge for summer visitors wanting to enjoy
this quiet respite a bit longer.
Kyushu also has a number of limestone caves, believed to have been
formed by the upthrust of limestone from the seabed that was subsequently
subject to erosion, opening up the caves themselves as water moved through the
rock. In most caves, stalactites and stalagmites have also formed. The largest
such cave is Kyusendo in Kumamoto Prefecture, not far from the Kumagawa where
whitewater rafting is available.
Kyusendo was formed over 300 million years ago, giving those
stalactites and stalagmites lots of time to grow. The entire cave system is
about five kilometers (3 miles) long and only a portion of the cave is open to
visitors, who must don a helmet with a headlamp, even though most of the
standard tour route is a concrete path, including steps in places. A standard
visit takes about 30 minutes and an add-on “adventure” course is available to
allow slightly longer viewing of the cave. The cave is home to about 20,000
bats, so expect to enjoy the fragrant aroma of guano while inspecting the rock
formations of the cave.
Another limestone cave that arose from the sea millions of years ago
is Nanatsugama Limestone Cave in Nagasaki Prefecture. Similar to Kyusendo, the
cave is much larger than what is open to the public. There is both a
self-guided tour taking about half an hour and a “behind the scenes” tour that
requires a helmet with a headlamp. One highlight of the self-guided tour is the
waterfall, water cascading down one rock wall of the cave. The erosion that
created Nanatsugama also gave rise to pockmarks and other rock formations that
are quite different from those at Kyusendo.
Another good cave for stalactites--perhaps the best in Kyushu--is
Furen Cave in Oita Prefecture. This cave, which the locals call the Dragon
Palace, is regarded by many as one of the most beautiful caves in Japan, with
hundreds of stalactites that have grown together to look like organ pipes and
as many other shapes as one’s imagination might conjure. The formations in the
largest chamber of the cave were so phantasmagorical that one might feel that
one was “in the belly of the beast.” The staff at the entrance were friendly
and helpful, wanting to provide as much information as they could in spite of
not speaking any English.
For a more unique cave experience, try Inazumi Underwater Cave, also
in Oita. There is an underground river running through much of this cave, and
the walkway through the cave is a catwalk over the top of it. Where the cave
widens, visitors can see ponds of clear water with small fish swimming in them.
One odd feature of this cave is the use of colored lights to illuminate it. At
Inazumi, with advance reservations visitors can snorkel in one of the deeper
cave ponds or even have a brief scuba diving experience. Licensed divers who
have their own gear can arrange to go for an actual cave dive… if they dare!
Serious spelunkers may prefer the Hiraodai area in Fukuoka
Prefecture. Hiraodai is Kyushu’s major karst plateau and one of the three
largest in Japan. On the surface it is a bizarre landscape of eroded limestone
boulders surrounded by tall grass gently wafting in the breeze. This landscape
alone makes it a worthwhile visit. Beneath the surface are as many as 200
limestone caves, many of which can be explored by spelunkers in guided tours. For
those not wishing to crawl through mud in narrow spaces lit only by a headlamp
on their helmet, Senbutsu Limestone Cave might be a good alternative, although
one’s feet could still get wet! About 900 meters of Senbutsu cave is
artificially lit and easily accessed, but in places it is necessary to wade
through the river that runs through the cave.
On the coastal plains, Kyushu’s calm rivers broaden to form
waterways that have historically been used for transportation as well as to
irrigate crops. Here, too, visitors can enjoy abundant birdlife, especially in
winter when migratory water birds call Kyushu’s rivers home. A particular treat
is found at Izumo, in northwestern Kagoshima near its border with Kumamoto,
which is renowned as the winter home to 10,000 to 12,000 Japanese cranes of
Kyushu’s coastlines are often particularly picturesque. In some
areas, there are pale, sandy beaches, while in other places, rocky crags seem
to tumble straight into the sea, a scenic riot of colors as the green of native
trees gives way to black jagged rocks, which in turn, plunges straight into the
blue of the ocean or the white of the breaking waves (for more, see “Ocean and
Indeed, water is another element that helps define Kyushu. As an
island, the ocean separates it from the rest of Japan, as well as from the rest
of the world. Yet its proximity to the Asian mainland has enabled it to act as
a gateway between the rest of the world and the rest of Japan since before time
(for more, see “Gateway”). At the same time, it is the abundance of freshwater
tumbling out of the mountains that contributes to Kyushu’s agricultural
Ⅱ. Kyushu's agriculture
enhances nature's abundance...with loving care
In addition to the natural scenery described above that makes Kyushu
so treasured by nature lovers, its fertile soil, abundant water and mild
climate make it an agricultural paradise. The farmers of Kyushu may be a
different kind of nature lover, but their love for the land, their farming
lifestyle and their crops is heartwarming.
Rice has been cultivated in Kyushu for perhaps 5,000 years and is
regarded as the cornerstone of Japanese meals. Wet rice cultivation may have
been introduced from the Asian mainland around 3,000 years ago and has played a
substantial role in shaping the landscape of Kyushu. At the village of Tashibu
no Sho on Oita’s Kunisaki Peninsula, visitors can climb a hill to a viewing
platform for a panoramic view of the valley floor, with rice paddies largely
unchanged for 1,000 years. In Saga Prefecture, terraced rice paddies run down
hillsides like stairsteps at Teraura, Hamanoura and Oura. The Tanimizu terraces
near the bottom of the Shimabara Peninsula similarly sculpt a hillside
overlooking the Ariake Sea. These human-engineered landscapes are known in
Japan as “tanada.” With machine-based agricultural practices these days, the
number of tanada in active cultivation is dwindling because their paddies tend
to be too small for tractors. Nonetheless, they are exceptional feats of
engineering that deserve to be treasured.
There is much that can be said about the beauty of rice paddies,
whether in hillside terraces or stretched across the plain. One rewarding
feature is the way in which paddies change across the seasons, shimmering like
mirrors when flooded in early summer, waving with tall plants later in the
season, shining golden just before the harvest. In most parts of Kyushu, the
paddies can yield two harvests a year, one of rice and one of barley.
Similarly, when properly cultivated, many vegetables can be grown
year-round in Kyushu, so even in winter, vegetables can be seen in
Root vegetables grow particularly well in Kyushu’s ash-rich,
volcanic soil. On the flanks of Sakurajima in Kagoshima Prefecture, they grow a
distinctive daikon (radish) that is round instead of elongated as is more
common. The vegetable more resembles a turnip than a radish, and often grows
very large, as big as a soccer ball.
Satsuma imo (sweet potato), native to Mexico, was introduced to
Japan by Western traders in the early 17th century and quickly took
root (pun intended). Nationwide, it is included in many dishes that use roasted
vegetables. In winter, whole roasted sweet potatoes are popular as a snack. In
Kagoshima (once known as Satsuma), where they thrive, satsuma imo are the most
popular starch used in the production of shochu, a distilled white liquor
particularly popular in Kyushu.
Kyushu is also known for its fruit production. Kumamoto Prefecture
is regarded as the watermelon capital of Japan. There are so many different
types of fruits grown in Fukuoka Prefecture that as many as 16 different
farms/orchards offer fruit-picking experiences for tourists in different
seasons: strawberries through the winter months; blueberries, grapes and pears
in the summer; and persimmons in autumn.
Various types of citrus seem also to always be available somewhere
in Kyushu. Mikan (mandarin oranges) are well-known to Westerners and are often
grown on fairly steep mountainsides on terraces retained by tall stone walls,
some of which are centuries old. Mikan seem especially prolific in Kumamoto,
although they can be found in cultivation across Kyushu.
One citrus specialty of Kagoshima Prefecture is komikan, a very
small mikan that is firm but sweet. While they are a tasty little treat, a more
interesting use for them is in a locally-produced komikan-infused gin known as
Miyazaki is particularly known for Hyuganatsu, a lemon-colored round
fruit slightly tangier than a mikan. Its peel also has a distinctive aroma that
is a blend of lemon and grapefruit. Perhaps, that is why at least one local craft
brewery has begun to produce a beer flavored with Hyuganatsu. Miyazaki is also
known for its kumquats, although these prolific bite-size citrus fruits are
also grown in other areas of Kyushu.
Oita’s best-known contribution to the citrus parade is kabosu, a
small round fruit that is often confused with sudachi, but is in fact tangier. Kabosu
juice is high in polyphenols and is often substituted for vinegar in dressings,
although it finds its way into many other foods as well.
Marine Lemon is a distinctive citrus that is being cultivated in Saiki in southeastern Oita Prefecture.. Often picked while still green, it is slightly sweeter than most lemons and has a pleasantly aromatic peel that is also edible.
Orchardist Munesaburo Hirotsuru has been cultivating Marine Lemons for nearly four decades. He is passionate about the fruit, which he says is the perfect variety of lemon because the trees are hardy and easy to care for and they produce delicious fruit for up 30 to 50 years. He grows his trees organically and without any hothouse or other seasonal covering. Hirotsuru picks up a handful of friable dirt from the orchard floor and crumbles it in his hand, explaining that it's exactly the right texture and composition for growing Marine Lemons. He then mutters to himself that it's almost time to get in a load of manure for fertilizer. He's clearly a man of the land who loves his trees.
At 84, Hirotsuru is slowing down a bit and has reduced his orchard. He now maintains about 150 trees; he once had 600. He still harvests around two to three tons of fruit a year in the September-November harvest season and takes orders from as far away as Tokyo and Hokkaido. Locals like to use Marine Lemon in local sweets and a Fukuoka company uses it to make a lemonade drink.
Hirotsuru wonders whether he can find someone to take over the orchard so that he can retire. Both of his sons have other careers and are not interested. At the same time, as he frets about succession, he arranges for local school children to come in on class trips to help with various tasks in the orchard throughout the year, a win-win situation in which he gets some assistance and the kids learn about agriculture. Pictures drawn by the children by way of thanking him for the experience adorn the orchard's fence.
Cultivating shitake mushrooms is an industry that has even turned
Kyushu's natural woodland to agricultural production. At elevations between 500
and 1,000 meters (1,640 to 3,280 feet), and in the right temperature and
humidity conditions, shitake grow naturally on the bark of certain trees. Some
people harvest these wild shitake, but more commonly these days, shitake are
cultivated. Parts of Oita and Kumamoto have good moist conditions perfect for
shitake. Consequently, they are two of the largest producers of shitake in
Japan. The rich, meaty flavor of shitake have long made it popular in various
Japanese dishes. These days, it is also becoming popular in the West both as a
gourmet food item and as a health food.
Ryosuke Shimojo's grandfather was looking for a more viable crop than tobacco when he decided on shitake. His grandfather had concluded that the deep narrow valleys of northern Kumamoto Prefecture, north of the Aso caldera, with their moss-covered trees and burbling streams, had perfect shitake growing conditions and set about establishing Shimojo Kinoko-en. Twenty-six year-old Shimojo is now a third-generation shitake farmer.
The best-flavored shitake are grown on logs known as hotaki. And the best hotaki come from sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima). Thus, Shimojo's grandfather's first task was to plant sawtooth oak trees and wait 15 to 20 years (it is also possible to purchase pre-seeded hotaki). He could then harvest the trees--best done between October and March--and let them cure for one to three months before cutting them into lengths of 120cm (47 inches).
Shimojo Kinoko-en not only harvests the trees they've planted, but also find other naturally growing trees to cull from the forest, an important step in caring for the forest, which can become overgrown if not tended. The abundance of available trees to become hotaki is especially fortunate at this time, as shitake growers in the Tohoku region had lost their hotaki in the 2011 disaster and the farmers of Kyushu were able to provide them with trees to replace what they lost.
Once the hotaki have been prepared, the fungus seeds are implanted into the barks. This is an interesting process, as the prefabbed seeds are small, thick buttons that have to be pounded into small holes drilled into the barks. With the seeds in place, the hotaki are lined up against a frame that holds them in an upright, angled position that allows both ventilation and moisture to permeate. The position needs to be just right, or unwanted fungus grows along with the shitake.
About 50,000 hotaki can be kept in a single plastic-sheeted hothouse. Shimojo Kinoko-en has 12 such hothouses, which they try to keep at around 25C to 30C (77F to 86F). "Shitake really won't grow in temperatures over 35C (95F),” says Shimojo. It's difficult to imagine that this deep, dark valley could ever get that hot, but he adds that in summer it's warm enough to make him replace the hothouses' plastic sheeting with black netting. In winter, he keeps a small brazier burning in each hothouse to release a small amount of carbon dioxide into the air, another element that helps the shitake grow.
Shimojo Kinoko-en grows four different varieties of shitake. Generally, it takes about 18 months for the shitake to be ready for harvest. But properly handled, the shitake that grow from the original seed will produce spores that embed into the hotaki bark so that the hotaki will continue to produce for three to five years.
"Go ahead." says Shimojo. "Pick one." He drops the freshly picked shitake onto the brazier and soon it begins to release its delicious aroma. Mouths water. There's nothing like biting into the fresh grilled flesh of a shitake that has been cultivated with so much love and attention.
The land of Kyushu is blessed with amazing natural abundance. Even where humans are exploiting that abundance through agricultural endeavors, they do so with love and care bordering on reverence. Perhaps it is a function of Kyushu's millenial-long history, or of the nature-driven philosophy of Shinto, but this love of the land is inspiring. Might it also be contagious?