I hail from Oita
Prefecture. Oita has many local specialties that are well known nationwide---Seki
saba (mackerel), Seki aji (horse mackerel), Shiroshita
karei (flounder), kabosu (citrus), and Oita shiitake,
to name but a few. My family was engaged in shiitake cultivation. Why
are Oita shiitake so delicious? The main reason is that only kunugi,
a kind of oak, is used. Farmers are requested by the shiitake cooperative
to abide by this rule, and it has been strictly obeyed.
The bark of the kunugi is thick, making it ideal for the shiitake
fungus. This has enhanced the quality of the fleshy and tasty mushroom,
increased the harvest volume, and created the distinct Oita brand.
These days talk about nature preservation is commonplace, but in Oita
shiitake cultivation the custom has been practiced for a long time. In
shiitake production areas kunugi forests are cultivated in cycles
of 13–15 years. The stumps of felled kunugi sprout, and
they are allowed to grow for 13–15 years before being felled again.
This cycle is continued, and nature is preserved.
After growing for around 13 years, kunugi trees are felled in
the mountain, inoculated with the shiitake fungus, and left there for
about a year. They are then just the right size and weight for removal
to cultivation farms, which face south so as to absorb the sunshine that
filters through the trees. These farms are somewhat more humid places
and perfect for growing shiitake. The 15-year wait after the kunugi
sprouts has played an integral part in the consummation of the Oita brand
Shiitake that are harvested around the time when the cherry trees blossom
are called spring shiitake. This is the biggest harvest of the year, and
the cultivation farms are busy from early morning every day. When the
spring harvest is over, the cultivation farms go into a kind of hibernation
until the autumn harvest. For organisms, the periods of spring rain and
autumn rain are a time of lush growth.
The most famous type of Oita shiitake, the donko, is harvested
at a slightly different time of the year, in the period from autumn to
early winter. Measuring 2–5 centimeters thick and with white slits
on its cap, the donko is a chunky, heavy, and very delicious
mushroom. It has established a reputation as the highest grade of Oita
shiitake. An essential ingredient in Chinese cuisine, the donko
is also exported overseas, where it has gained popularity too.
These days drying is by fossil fuel, but in the past charcoal was used.
I remember trails of smoke drifting through the mountains from the many
charcoal fires that were lit to ensure fuel. It was a very sublime atmosphere
indeed. Drying by charcoal took time, but I think the shiitake tasted
better that way.
Anyway, as someone who was engaged in shiitake cultivation from my childhood
days, I feel delighted and proud when I see the pure Oita brand of shiitake
being sold in Tokyo. And when by chance I saw an Oita farmer on television
saying that Oita shiitake are delicious because “we only use kunugi,”
I felt proud once again that, yes indeed, we only used kunugi,
rotation of the kunugi forests was taken for granted, and what
we were doing was wonderful from an environmental point of view as well.
A decade or so ago I was appointed as a “special kabosu
ambassador” for Oita Prefecture. My mission in this post is to promote
not only kabosu but also tourism and the specialties of the prefecture
under the slogan “I ♥ OITA.” So I must do my job here.
In Ginza there is a restaurant called Zarai that is directly run by Oita
Prefecture and uses ingredients from the prefecture as the basis for its
menu. Zarai is a sanctuary of which I am tremendously proud, and I highly
recommend readers to give it a try. The telephone number is 03-3563-0322.