Koshiro Sakakibara, a retainer in the feudal Owari Domain (today's western Aichi Prefecture) stationed in Edo (present-day Tokyo), is the protagonist of Makate Asai's period novel "Omattake Sodo" (Matsutake mushroom hoo-ha).

Koshiro is ordered to serve as a "doshin" (feudal policeman) in an Owari mountain village for three years with the task of boosting production of the domain's matsutake.

An ambitious 19-year-old, Koshiro is disheartened by the transfer, which is effectively a demotion, but he eventually comes to appreciate the value of his assignment.

Villagers teach him the basics and all he needs to know about matsutake. They tell him to focus on forests of "akamatsu" (Japanese red pine) to hunt for this much-prized delicacy, warn him strictly against using any fertilizer, and remind him that he is more likely to find the mushrooms in well-tended forests.

Are these tips just as legitimate in real life?

"We follow them all," said Yoshitaka Fujimori, 70, who heads the Kitamajino Production Forestry Cooperative in Nagano Prefecture. "But there are many unknowns about matsutake. There is no one definitive formula for successful hunting."

Nagano leads the nation in matsutake production. But this year, the prefecture suffered a devastating crop failure. Fujimori's haul came to a mere 10 percent of the average annual volume.

An unseasonably warm autumn is considered one of the reasons, but Fujimori suspects the mountains have become "dehydrated." There was very little snow last winter, followed by a virtually nonexistent "tsuyu" rainy season. And as the final blow, August and September registered unusually low rainfall.

Fujimori guided me through the mountains west of the city of Suwa. The elevation exceeds 1,000 meters, and the ground temperature was 9 degrees on the day.

"We spend 11 months a year clearing the undergrowth and removing fallen trees," he said. "Should the younger generation lose interest in forestry, we might as well forget about domestic matsutake. There will be nothing but imports from Bhutan, Canada and elsewhere."

After hunting for two hours, we left the mountains with empty baskets strapped to our hips.

Production forestry is not for operators who think of their bottom line in year-to-year terms. It takes roughly 60 to 70 years for matsutake to complete the three cycles of upward harvest, peak harvest and declining harvest.

The work requires the utmost patience. And in an age of no doshin tasked to boost matsutake production, someone with Koshiro's ardor is exactly what the industry needs.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 31

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.