It is believed that humankind and their ancestors have walked the earth for 6 million years. It feels like every inch of soil, resource and sea has now been conquered and controlled by our species. However, we’re still very far from truly understanding everything on Earth. That is why, every now and then, something will happen that blows our minds. Japanese illuminating mushrooms are the next phenomenon to grab people’s attention. These bioluminescent fungi, also known as mycena lux-coeli, are lighting up the Japanese forests with their strange yet magical abilities. But what are these mushrooms? How do they illuminate? And how do they differ from psychedelic, magic mushrooms? Let’s dig deeper into the soil and find out for ourselves.
What are Mushrooms?
Mushrooms are an umbrella term for a lot of varying things. There are mushrooms you eat, there are mushrooms you avoid at all costs, there are mushrooms that look quite disgusting and scary, there are mushrooms that look like something out of a fairy tale, there are mushrooms that cause you to hallucinate, and there are now – supposedly – mushrooms that glow in the dark. But what actually are they? What defines a mushroom as a mushroom?
Mushrooms have been eaten and used in the world of medicine for thousands of years. And yet many would say that these vegetables are one of the most underrated in history. With over 10,000 known types of mushroom, it can often be difficult to fully comprehend what identifies them. Generally speaking, mushrooms are identified as natural-growing fungi that have a stem, round cap, with grills underneath said cap. Harvard writes:
“Although considered a vegetable, mushrooms are neither a plant nor animal food. They are a type of fungus that contains a substance called ergosterol, similar in structure to cholesterol in animals. Ergosterol can be transformed into vitamin D with exposure to ultraviolet light.”
Mushrooms are part of the fungi family and technically are in their own separate world from plants and animals. Plants make their food using the sun during the process of photosynthesis. Animals eat, digest and gain nutrients that way. However, mushrooms do something different. Fungi has mycelium, which grows around or into a food source, and then attaches enzymes onto the food to digest it.
Of the over 10,000 mushrooms in the world, many of these are edible and many of these are poisonous. Common edible mushrooms include: white button mushroom, crimini mushrooms, portobello mushroom, shiitake mushroom and maitake mushroom. All of these are used in a variety of dishes, and very commonly in Japanese cuisine. The umami flavour given by mushrooms is one of the reasons why they’re so popular to cook with. Umami is considered to be one of the five flavours or basic tastes, others include: sour, salty, sweet and bitter.
Poisonous mushrooms exist for the same reason that poisonous plants exist, or for the same reason that hedgehogs have spikes. The reason is in order to protect themselves. Poison stops animals from eating them, and therefore allows them to reproduce. Common poisonous and deadly mushrooms include: death cap, conocybe filaris, webcaps, autumn skullcap and destroying angels. Of course there are well-educated professionals out there who can tell the difference between many of the variants of mushrooms, but for most of us, it’s very difficult to tell. Britannica writes:
“Although only a few of the 70-80 species of poisonous mushrooms are actually fatal when ingested, many of these deadly fungi bear an unfortunate resemblance to edible species and are thus especially dangerous:
Whilst there are edible mushrooms and poisonous mushrooms, there is also something rather extraordinary in the middle: magic mushrooms. These variants also contain a poison that most likely similaly aims to detract prey, but actually seems to have created something far more unorthodox. A chemical – such as psilocybin – instead has been used by human beings to create psychedelic and hallucinogenic effects. Psychedelic Invest writes:
“There are about 200 species of psychedelic mushrooms which are distributed around the world. These species have different names and are often classified according to their biological genera. Psilocybin, gymnopilus, panaeolus and copelandia are among the most common genera found throughout the world.”
Whilst there are many psychedelic mushrooms, all of them are quite similar in their recreational effects.
Japan has a large range of mushrooms – also known as kinoko – especially because the fungi is used often in Japanese cuisine. The umami flavour is highly popular in Japanese culture. The shiitake, maitake, bunashimeji and matsutake all originate from Japan. In fact, the country accommodates over 5000 varieties of mushrooms – with 100 of these being edible. A Mushroom explorer in Japan said in an interview with NHK World:
“Mushrooms fit in so well with Japanese cuisine. They’re low in calories but filled with vitamin D, fiber, and umami, and can also lower your blood sugar level. People use dried shiitake regularly because its umami can’t be replaced by anything else. But mainly, I think it’s because fresh mushrooms are widely available all year round”
As you can see, not only do mushrooms fit perfectly into Japanese culture, but they also are constantly available and in great numbers. There’s no surprise then that until 2002, magic mushrooms were actually legal in Japan. The wide range and the increased use of the fungi makes it very difficult to control. However, now, magic mushrooms and psilocybin are illegal. In fact, it was the misuse of shrooms by people in other nations that ended up being the main driving force for the ban of them in Japan.
With a wide range of mushroom variants in Japan, it’s not surprising that there are some real crazy ones out there. Introducing: The real Japanese Magic Mushrooms that actually illuminate in the dark.
Forest Fairy Mushrooms
In the western part of Japan, in the forests of Ugui in Nachikatsuura, Wakayama, are a very special type of mushroom. These are known by some as ‘forest fairies’ and others as mycena lux-coeli. In the daylight these mushrooms are pretty unextraordinary, but when the night comes, they illuminate the forest in a spectacular phenomenon. Bioluminescent mushrooms exist, but they are very rare, with only 80 species of them existing on the planet. To put this into perspective, there are around 100,000 species of fungi, and only 80 of these glow in the dark. Japan is home to one of these extremely rare species and it’s possible to see them if you search. But why do they glow in the dark? Well, the New York Times writes:
“In all bioluminescent organisms, a small molecule called luciferin interacts with oxygen and a bigger protein called luciferase, creating chemical energy that is eventually released in the form of cold light”
In other words, these mushrooms in Japan emit a green light that can be seen clearly in the dark. It’s a similar reaction that occurs when the belly of a firefly or the skin of a squid illuminates. The mushrooms are only 1-2cm in diameter, but when night time comes these insignificant fungi can create something like out of a Studio Ghibli film.These mushrooms were discovered in 1950 in a subtropical island called Hachijojima. This island is part of Tokyo. Nowadays, mushroom explorers travel far into the forest to feast their eyes on this amazing fungi. They truly are a wonder of the world. In fact, you can pay around $4.50 for a tour to see them if you’re in the area, so it isn’t expensive. The issue is, these mushrooms only sprout for a few days during the rainy season – so you have to be lucky to see them. However, if you are fortunate enough, they’ll truly take your breath away.
The world is still full of many things we don’t truly understand and phenomena we may never see. The Japanese luminescent mushrooms are definitely one of these spectacles. Whilst there are 100s of thousands of fungi out there, only few can glow in the dark. These specific mushrooms are doing exactly that in Japan right now. Sometimes fairy tales and mythical stories are real, not just fiction.