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Foraging in Japan: Where to Look and How to Get Started

Foraging can be a new and rewarding way to experience (and taste) Japan’s wilderness. Here are some of the best places to try it. 

By 5 min read 1

The great outdoors of Japan are undoubtedly beautiful, vibrant and refreshing, but did you know you can pick a meal too? From lush forests and tall mountains to coastlines and rice paddies, Japan is a great place to look for edible plants, like tasty bamboo shoots, ferns, wild mushrooms and seaweed. If you know where to look, fresh (and likely free) natural foods are waiting to be foraged.

Foraging has deep roots in Japanese culture. Traditionally, there were strict laws about consuming meat (for example, Nara’s sacred deer), so people turned to forage, especially for sansei (mountain vegetables).

However, remember that while foraging is fun, it is important to prioritize safety over-snacking. Beware of the local wildlife and always correctly identify plants before consumption. If you’re unsure, consult an expert or leave it alone. Always harvest responsibly for the local ecosystem, and confirm whether you’re allowed to forage in the area.

Hokkaido

Photo:
Wild matsutake mushrooms.

While there are countless foraging locations in Japan, a few are rightly renowned in Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. There are excellent foraging spots thanks to its cool weather and expansive forests. A great place to start is Shiretoko, where tasty fuki (butterbur stem), the leaves of yamabudo (mountain grapes) and warabi (bracken fern) can be found.

The highlight of any trip to Hokkaido is foraging for fungi, like popular shimeji, and even the holy grail of foraging, matsutake (edible mycorrhizal mushroom), prized for flavor and rarity. Especially popular options are in the Biei and Furano regions. Keep an eye open for mushrooms in damp and shaded areas, especially near trees where they grow on decaying logs and leaf litter.

The Ainu, Hokkaido’s indigenous people, would traditionally make stews and meat dishes using edible plants they harvested. Particularly, ryukinka (marsh marigolds), which are made into cakes and cooked with fish, and the starchy kouhone (yellow water lily), which is used in rice. An Ainu guide can offer a unique way to learn about foraging spots and cooking techniques.

Nagano

Photo:
Keep your eye out for takenoko.

Another good location for mushrooms is Nagano. Kiso Valley in the southwest of Nagano is a popular retreat for backpackers who spend hours trekking through its ancient cedar forests enjoying the scenery and picking up mushrooms for a hot pot. However, if you do go out looking for mushrooms, it can be valuable to go out on a mushroom gathering tour, such as those organized by the LAMP organization, especially if you’re new to foraging.

Nagano’s forests are particularly good for popular rice toppings like butterbur and takenoko (bamboo shoots). Most bamboo sprouts in early spring, so every year, foragers gather at the foothills of Nagano’s Alps for sprouts to emerge from the soil, which is the perfect time to eat them.

Another highlight is wild fruit, with wild raspberries and blueberries available in the region. The best place to look for fruits is in the lower areas of mountainous regions, such as Karuizawa, especially during the early summer months. Another popular place for wild berries is the stunning Kamikouchi area, which has fruits and cooler temperatures in the summer months.

  • Recommended Forest: Joshin’etsukogen National Park
  • Forageable Foods: Bamboo shoots, butterbur and wild berries
  • Guides: LAMP and Otari Nature School

Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Shizuoka

Photo:
Stop hogging all the mitsuba, Grandma!

Even people living downtown can get involved with foraging. Despite its image of being Japan’s metropolis, Tokyo also boasts the lush forests of Okutama, and the coastal Boso Peninsula is just next door in Chiba—spots just waiting to be explored by foragers.

In Shizuoka, the Izu Peninsula is highly recommended. Besides offering some of Kanto’s best scenery, the diverse nature, including everything from pristine forests to clear water and hot springs, make the area particularly enticing for sightseers and foragers alike. Coastline sea vegetables, like nori and hijiki (edible seaweeds), and mountainous munchies, like enokitake (a popular mushroom in Asian cuisine), can all be found in the area.

Although sea vegetables are a particularly delicious treat, beware about going sea foraging at the red tide, where harmful algae release contaminants into the water that may accumulate in shellfish.

  • Recommended Region: Okutama, The Izu Peninsula
  • Forageable Foods: Edible seaweed, seri (water celery) and mitsuba (wild parsley)
  • GuidesYamayoshi (Yokosuka), Horisan (Chiba)

Wakayama

Photo:
Fresh, wild warabi.

Wakayama is one of Japan’s most spiritual prefectures with areas like the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route offering chances to refresh your spirit while filling your belly. The verdant mountains along the trail offer an array of wild foods like warabi, koshiabura (saxifrage), and kuwazuimo (arrowhead tubers).

Maidzurusou (snakeberries) can be found in the mountainous regions of the pilgrimage route and can be added to fruit salads and drinks. Of course, be especially careful when picking berries, as the fruits of masaki (Japanese spindle) in Wakayama look similar to edible berries, but cause nausea and vomiting.

  • Recommended Regions: Forests of Kumano Nachi and Kumano Hayatama
  • Forageable Foods: Bracken, bamboo shoots, saxifrage, arrowhead tubers
  • Guides: Kumano Travel lists guides for specific routes

Okinawa

Photo:
Sea grapes are an Okinawan delicacy.

The subtropical weather and coastlines in Japan’s southern island of Okinawa and its surrounding islands are fantastic for foraging. The bitter tang of its indigenous goya (bitter melon) and the unique texture of sea vegetables, like umibudo (sea grapes), are distinctive tastes of the islands and go well with most meats. Look for goya in areas with a lot of sunshine. Yanbaru is a particularly good area to search. Also, keep an eye out for yomogi (Japanese mugwort), which even grows in urban areas.

More adventurous travelers should consider traveling a little further to the island of Iriomote—a paradise covered with jungle and vegetation. Here, flavorful himekan-aoi (wild ginger) and even papayas can be found by the dedicated forager.

  • Recommended Regions: Iriomote and Ishigakai Islands
  • Forageable Foods: Wild ginger, bitter melon and sea grapes:

While these are our favorite spots for foraging in Japan, almost any part of Japan with forest and mountainous regions will have something to forage—just confirm it is safe and legal to do so!  How about you? Have you ever foraged in Japan? Let us know your experience or good spots in the comments.

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  • John Eric Lancaster says:

    I used to collect mushrooms beyond Okutama. I learnt to recognise some, but I always had them checked by an expert who had a stall by the side of the road. Most of the ones I found he told me to throw away, He told me I could eat some that looked really dangerous, yellow underneath which turned blue if you scratched it.

    I remember him telling me to throw one because just one was enough to kill a man. After I had thrown it away, he told me to wash my hands.

    When I found one he did not recognise, he called some of his mates over. No one knew that one. He said it looked good and smelt good, but I should throw it away because it was not worth the risk.

    Don’t mess with mushrooms. They are hard to identify, and a mistake could be fatal.

    Ask the locals. They are the ones most likely to know.

    I believe in France you can take mushrooms to the local pharmacy for identification.

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