The Empowering Mushroom

Since 2011, artist Eirik Johnson has been photographing the complex world of matsutake mushrooms, from the forests of Oregon to the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. Discover the incredible story of this revered fungi.

Intro—Catherine Métayer
Photos & Captions—Eirik Johnson

Chanterelles, morels, truffles, lion’s mane, reishi, psilocybes: our obsession with the fungal universe has exploded in recent years. The more we study them, the more mushrooms reveal their superpowers—culinary, therapeutic, and environmental. What if they could also become a powerful social force? Here is the remarkable story of matsutake.

Matsutake, also known as pine mushrooms, are found in large quantities at the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. In the fall they are displayed in small individual boxes, on beds of branches, alongside red tuna and baskets of chestnuts. With a going rate of close to US $1,000 a pound, matsutake is the second most expensive mushroom in the world, after truffles. Many compare its scent to a combination of cinnamon candy and old cheese, and everyone agrees that it is delicious when infused in rice or in sukiyaki broth.

Revered by foodies and gourmet restaurants, matsutake is also a prized wedding present in Japan, as it symbolizes fertility and prosperity.

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Every morning, over 3,600 tons of produce pass through the massive complex of warehouses and loading docks to be traded and auctioned off.
Produce importer Shigeru Shikama sits in his company’s office within Ota Ichiba, Japan’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market, on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Buyers raise their hands to bid during an early morning auction for matsutake at Ota Ichiba.

In his book Entangled Life (2021), biologist Merlin Sheldrake writes that matsutake was the first form of life to sprout after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Indeed, a characteristic of this mushroom is that it grows in forests that have been devastated by human beings—mainly in pine forests that have been clear-cut. The matsu (pine tree) is fed by the take (mushroom) and encouraged to grow again. The mushroom participates in the mycoremediation and regeneration of the soil, earning it the nickname “deforestation first responder.”

It was also in the wake of destruction that matsutake spread throughout Japan in the 8th century, particularly in forests around Kyoto, which had been razed to build and heat temples. For more than a thousand years, it was a prized ingredient among the monarchy and the country’s elite. Then, in the 1950s, the government introduced reforestation measures to increase the density of pine forests, which led to a shortage of matsutake.

The outline of an abandoned camp shack stands among the pine trees of Oregon’s Central Cascade Mountains.

Japanese matsutake enthusiasts turned to the national forests of Oregon, under threat from the logging industry, to establish a first matsutake business in 1989. At the same time, waves of refugees from Southeast Asia were arriving in the United States, fleeing persecution and war. When it proved difficult to find jobs in the new country, many recognized a good business opportunity and became mushroom pickers.

During lean years, novice foragers are drawn to the mushroom camps hoping to make fast money. But foraging matsutake commercially takes skill, patience, and, most of all, experience.
Bam Bam spends his first season camping at Crescent Lake, following his aunt Kathy, a nail salon owner from Stockton, California, who has come to pick matsutake here every year since she was a little girl.

Thirty years later, the matsutake camps in Oregon are an important gathering place for Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong families. The camps once had a Wild West feel, but permits are now given to pickers, allowing them to operate legally. Over the years, Mexican migrant workers and hippies from Portland have joined the ranks. The season begins in early summer and continues until the first snows. Mushrooms are delivered to Japan within 72 hours.

Foragers string up tree branches to build the frames for their shelters, then wrap the structure with plastic tarps.
A makeshift kitchen slapped together with pine tree branches, tarps, and old shipping pallets stands in a mushroom camp near Sisters, Oregon. Coconut milk, fish sauce, propane, and pans sit on the plywood counter waiting for the pickers to return from the day’s hunt.

Renowned artist and photographer Eirik Johnson grew up picking mushrooms on the American West Coast. When he heard of the matsutake camps, he knew he’d stumbled across a great story, touching on contemporary social, environmental, and economic issues. Since 2011 he has been photographing the complex world surrounding the precious mushroom, from the United States to Japan.

Johnson was invited to spend time in three of the camps. There, he witnessed families supporting their needs independently, far from the exploitative drudgery of many American businesses.

What’s more, the photographer was captivated by the rich cultural life he found there: “After the daily harvests, families gather to cook large noodle dishes and sing karaoke in the forest.”

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Joy shows his daughter Belinda a freshly picked matsutake mushroom in the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon. Joy had been living at the foragers’ camp alone for most of the fall season, but this weekend his wife and daughter drove up from town to spend time with him. Joy has picked matsutake commercially since he was a teenager and has transitioned into a new role as a buyer.
Every evening during the foraging season, Leo turns on the neon “open” sign to let pickers know he’s buying. Shortly before twilight, pickers start to trickle in.
Leo, a matsutake buyer, stands in his office inside a derelict gas station on the outskirts of Chemult, Oregon. A pile of grade #1 matsutake sits next to his scale and calculator.

Anthropologist and author Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, who published The Mushroom at the End of the World in 2015, notes that matsutake has an extraordinary ability to cause communities—both natural and human—to flourish, even during the toughest times. This is the powerful story that Johnson captures in the images of his project, The Mushroom Camps.

Seattle-based photographer Eirik Johnson has exhibited his work at institutions including the Aperture Foundation, New York; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; and the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle. His monographs include Road to Nowhere (self-published), Barrow Cabins (Ice Fog Press), PINE (Minor Matters Books), Sawdust Mountain (Aperture Books), and BORDERLANDS (Twin Palms Publishers).

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