Honda Logicom / Japan Firm with Toyota Ties Grows Kikurage Wood Ear Mushrooms to Fulfill Various Goals

Courtesy of Honda Logicom Co.
Fresh kikurage produced at Kasugai Farm.

A logistics company that mainly handles automobile parts for Toyota Motor Corp. is cultivating a new line of business.

In a greenhouse in Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture, wood ear mushrooms, known as kikurage in Japan, are waiting to be harvested. The facility is dubbed Kasugai Farm and operated by Honda Logicom Co., which is based in the city.

The company is serious about cultivating Japanese kikurage, developing sales channels for fresh and dried kikurage and a variety of related products. The 60-year-old company is also posting on Instagram recipes using its mushrooms.

But why is a logistics company involved in kikurage? I visited Kasugai Farm and Honda Logicom to interview company President Atsushi Honda and others about the background and prospects of the project.

“We have about 5,500 beds of fungi, growing them without using any pesticides,” Shohei Kawakami, 31, who is in charge of cultivation, explained at the entrance of a white greenhouse in a residential area.

White box-shaped beds were packed with sawdust from crushed Japanese hardwoods, nutrients mainly from grains, water and the kikurage fungus. They were arranged in six shelves that stretched several dozen meters to the back of the greenhouse.

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Exterior view of Kasugai Farm

The temperature in this air-conditioned greenhouse was kept at around 26 C and the humidity was kept as high as 70-90%. In the narrow aisles between the shelves, a staff member carefully picked the glossy, dark-colored kikurage one by one when they are ready to be harvested. The mushrooms are harvested throughout the year, with an average monthly yield of about 1.5 tons.

“The bedding arrives from Shizuoka, and we make some cuts with a utility knife for the fungus to grow,” Kawakami said. “From there, they grow in about a month at this time of year.”

After that, they grow quickly and can be harvested in a week or at the latest two weeks. The size of kikurage mushrooms varies depending on when the beds were placed on the shelves. The key is to harvest the plants every day at the right size before they get too big, Kawakami said.

After harvesting the mushrooms, the sawdust and hard tips were removed, and the kikurage were washed in a special machine. Fresh kikurage mushrooms are shipped after being dehydrated and checked for quality. Dried kikurage mushrooms are dried in the sun for two days and then placed in a dryer. The sun-drying process increases the vitamin D in the kikurage.

Image-changing surprise

Kikurage, known as the king of herbal medicinal ingredients, is not only rich in vitamin D, but also calcium and dietary fiber. The mushroom is used in a variety of dishes in Japanese, Chinese and Western cuisines.

However, more than 90% of these mushrooms distributed in Japan are said to be produced in China. The kikurage produced by Kasugai Farm are characterized by their thickness and more glutinous texture compared to those from China.

Near Kasugai Farm is its direct sales store Moog Marche, where products such as fresh kikurage, dried kikurage, konnyaku with kikurage, and freeze-dried miso soup with kikurage are on sale. These products have been certified as specialty products of the city.

After I returned to Tokyo, a Honda Logicom sales staff member in the capital cooked dishes using the company’s kikurage for me to try. Fresh kikurage, which had been boiled for 30 seconds, had no odor at all. It was served with wasabi soy sauce with sashimi, allowing me to enjoy its glutinous texture. I also tasted a hamburger steak with kikurage mushrooms, stir-fried kikurage with eggs and tomatoes, and peperoncino pasta with kikurage and Japanese okra.

Although kikurage mushrooms were not the stars of the show, they should not be underestimated. All of them had a texture and presence that was completely different from the kikurage I had eaten before. To put it bluntly, tasting them made for a fresh surprise that changed my idea of kikurage.

Using the Toyota Method

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Honda Logicom President Atsushi Honda talks about the charms of Japanese kikurage mushrooms in front of related products in the president’s office of his company.

“We started cultivating kikurage mushrooms in 2017 as a way to create a safe and secure workplace for people with disabilities,” said 52-year-old Honda in the president’s office of Honda Logicom Co.’s Kasugai Satellite Office, located about 15 minutes by car from Kasugai Farm. “The disabled employees had originally been doing light labor at our logistics sites, but as the company grew in size and the number of people we employed increased, there became a limit to our ability to have them work while ensuring their safety.”

Honda Logicom has approximately 1,760 employees and employs a certain number of people with disabilities complying with the legally mandated employment rate for people with disabilities. At Kasugai Farm, three people with intellectual disabilities work alongside a full-time employee and female part-timers. Unlike in the logistics field, growing kikurage offers the joy of cultivation.

“All of them find their work rewarding as they watch the kikurage grow day by day,” Honda said with a smile, expressing confidence in the project.

This president’s office was filled with kikurage-related items, including a kikurage mascot doll that Honda made himself, products and posters with catchphrases. His passion for kikurage could be clearly felt.

“If you eat it, you can tell the difference,” Honda said.

What is interesting is that Kasugai Farm has also introduced the Toyota Way by using the “Just-in-Time” method.

“Based on the amount of work to be done for the day, the required manpower and target time are indicated on the production control board,” Honda said. “Everyone, including the people with disabilities, can view it and understand what needs to be done.”

Work efficiency has improved, and production has tripled since the early days.

Another initiative that only a logistics professional could make was with the mail-order system. Producing kikurage that are too large will incur higher shipping costs, making them harder to sell, so the company adjusts the size of kikurage so that they fit into boxes of a size that does not increase shipping costs.

A challenge was to raise awareness of the kikurage mushrooms. Having no experience in selling products as a company, kikurage mushroom sales began with mail order and participation in food events. Since then, they have also developed various related products, held cooking classes, and disseminated kikurage meal ideas on Instagram (@kasugai_farm ).

As a result, freeze-dried miso soup with kikurage is now sold in vending machines in Tokyo and the products can be found in local supermarkets.

Aiming for SDGs future

Honda’s grandfather was a coach for the boxing club at Toyota. Honda Logicom Co., which was founded by this grandfather, has grown together with Toyota and this year celebrates its 60th year in business. Half of the company’s ¥9.17 billion in sales (fiscal 2021) came from Toyota-related work. The remainder was from its logistics business, which utilizes the Toyota Way and handles everything from design to operation of distribution centers for major companies and has bases overseas including in Vietnam.

“In the logistics industry, innovation happens every 10 years,” Honda said, adding that now was the time of “the fusion of humans, robots and AI.”

They must handle this challenge with their core business.

The company is also focusing on the promotion of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of the 17 goals set forth by the United Nations, the cultivation of kikurage mushrooms falls into two categories: Decent Work and Economic Growth, and Responsible Consumption and Production. Its SDG activities are not limited to this, however. Honda Logicom aims to increase its corporate value in 13 areas, including through a shared office and childcare facility exclusively for women, regional development projects, and the admission of athletes into the company.

Where will this kikurage business go next? The goals are to export the products overseas and to create farms like Kasugai Farm throughout Japan. This should lead to more places where people with disabilities can work with peace of mind in various regions.

The goals do not end there. On the company’s premises at the Kasugai Satellite Office, there was a reefer container. Such refrigerated shipping containers are equipped with air-conditioning and have good insulation. Here, Honda Logicom is working with a startup to experiment with weather-independent agriculture in a closed space. They are also growing kikurage mushrooms here.

Honda continues to look at the world and the universe from the perspective of a fungus.

“Ultimately, if we can use well water and solar power for electricity, and if we can grow potatoes and other staple foods, we will be able to have sustainable farms anywhere in the world,” Honda said. “It might even be possible in space.”

■Kasugai Farm’s Instagram, which offers events and recipes related to kikurage mushrooms: 

■ Honda LogiCom’s Kasugai Farm initiative is found here: 

Japanese version