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Matsutake Fever!

Gary with son Nathan at an undisclosed location “in the mountains.”

By Gary Yamaguchi For The North American Post


My Auntie Vi’s words were harsh and insistent – and accompanied by her yanking the pile of maps out of my little hands. It was as if a demon had suddenly possessed her. What happened to the sweet and vibrant personality that drew everyone to her?

What I now know is that she had been temporarily possessed, not by a demon but by matsutake fever! Matsutake are pine mushrooms that grow in forested regions of Asia, western North America, and northern Europe, and are prized for their delicate flavor and aroma. 

In the Pacific Northwest, matsutake fever starts among the afflicted after Labor Day. The symptoms are subtle and often appear as if illegal activity is underfoot. Whispers in dark corners initiate, rumors of sightings and of so-and-so getting some begin circulating. Weekly trips to Uwajimaya and Maruta are made to see if matsutake are on shelves and at what prices. Lengths of stems and color could indicate where they are sprouting. Even among immediate family members, secret alliances surface and shroud family gatherings like a black cloud until snow covers the mountains and the madness ceases.

Nate hits the jackpot<br >Photos David Yamaguchi

How bad can matsutake fever get? My Auntie Betty’s earliest memory is of her father looking at her, then at two full rice-sacks of mushrooms, then looking at her, then the mushrooms… The Model-T was already full with five older kids and his wife; he had to leave something or someone behind. Betty was so scared she was going to be left there at Mount Rainier! That the thought had even crossed my grandfather’s mind is evidence of what the afflicted might be capable of. 

The maps I had found at my grandmother’s house were her top secret matsutake-tori (matsutake-hunting) maps, complete with little circles and arrows drawn on them. Having been born in Hawaii, she was quite independent compared to the Issei women of the day. She had her own car, a white Pontiac I think, and was in the habit of driving herself to the woods and mountains to pick matsutake. She had her own secret places that even members of her own immediate family did not know about! While helping to clean up her house after she passed away, I had stumbled upon her records of them. After Auntie Vi grabbed them from me, I never saw them again.

Now my auntie is gone, too, and it’s that magical time of the fall when the matsutake bloom. I have so many memories about going picking. These were indeed the best of family times. 

We only went with family to the best areas because each family carefully maintained its own secret spots. I remember tromping all over the woods to find a few large matsutake and coming back to the car to find my dad’s father with a bagful of tsubomi (top grade little buds) found within steps of the car. He said he liked the edge of the forest because there he could follow the sunbeams down to the forest floor and there they would be. Grandpa even told me that when he and the other community leaders were taken on Pearl Harbor Day by the FBI, the enemy alien #1s forced the bus driver to stop as they were coming over Snoqualmie Pass after four long years away from their families; he said they wanted to look for matsutake! I now know through my brother David’s painstaking research that this was a fib. But I don’t doubt for a second that if they had come over the pass and if it had been matsutake season, they would have forced a stop!

My dad would always, always find the first one. He’d stop the car, get out “just to take a look,” and emerge with matsutake before we’d even untangled ourselves from the pile of clothes, boxes, sticks, and pesky siblings within the car. One day, I became terribly lost all afternoon. The sight of Dad waving his stick from far away at sunset was one of relief! And a sight I’ll never forget.

After four decades living away from the Northwest, I returned two years ago and found all of our family spots had been cut down by logging companies. But, after a year of painstaking – some would say obsessive – work, my wife and I now have our own secret spot. It’s as good as any I’ve ever been to during my entire life! We’ve been able to introduce one son and daughter to the thrill of hunting and finding matsutake there. They’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated in the importance of keeping it very, very secret. We don’t want anyone going there who will be exploiting the resource for monetary gain. It’s for enjoyment, for careful preservation, for generating precious family experiences, and for escaping the cell phone and the worldwide web. It’s a magical place combining all the elements that make for amazing matsutake hunting — tall Douglas fir trees, a thick carpet of wet green moss, dead timber, and decaying brown conifer needles littering the forest floor. The air is so cool and pure that when you’re near a matsutake, you’d swear you could smell it! We come back tired but refreshed, ready to face the new work week once again.

So I have my own map collection now. Maps of historical matsutake areas as well as of old-growth forests, terrain, trails, vegetation, rainfall, and temperature. In addition to maps, I have also read scientific papers outlining how matsutake mycelia (fungal colony threads), soil bacteria, and tree roots interact and the effects of rainfall and temperature. I combined these with my experiential knowledge of the behavior and habits of matsutake pickers. It helps to have had training as a scientist! 

The intersection of all this knowledge combined to yield a few promising spots to check, and at least one that has proven to be golden. You’ll not find paper maps with circles and arrows over my dead body… Everything is digital, safely stored away on an encrypted disk drive. No matsutake-crazed person is going to get the secret out of me!

Gary Yamaguchi grew up going matsutake hunting, hiking, mountaineering, and fishing in the mountains surrounding Seattle. He went away for college and graduate school, and became a professor of engineering at Arizona State University. He now works as a biomechanical consultant in Woodinville.

Editor’s notes. Watching Gary and Nate in the forest impressed on this observer the inexorable passage of time. While Gary and I don’t yet feel “old,” his explanation to his son on how to find mushrooms hidden under the moss was the same one that Dad taught us in the 1960s and 1970s. Further, watching Nate, a distance hiker, glide between the trees emphasized how we Sansei no longer move so effortlessly. Like Boomers everywhere, away from level surfaces, we depend on walking poles, especially on steep slopes. Moreover, when hiking out of the forest, in the late afternoon on two trips, I saw that Gary was limping. Nonetheless, like our grandpa, we hope to still have two decades of mushrooming in us. 

More broadly, Gary’s essay reminds all of us how stories linger in families. Please join us in sharing those told in your family in this space so that Yonsei may better know their mycelia.