Mushroom species containing psilocybin are also found in Japan. Tales about the infamous "Laughing Mushroom" date as far back as the Middle Ages. An account from the 11th century became famous:
Several lumberjacks from Kyoto got lost in the woods for reasons that remain unknown. Suddenly they encountered four or five Buddhist nuns, whose behavior did not at all conform to expectations: instead of immersing themselves into their inner selves in a quiet quest for Nirvana, the search for Absolute Nothingness, these daughters of Buddha were found dancing and laughing. It turned out that the nuns had also gotten lost in the woods and dealt with their hunger by eating some delicious mushrooms. The faithful nuns soon discovered, however, that they could not stop dancing and laughing. The lumberjacks's stomachs, in the meantime, had also begun to growl and, thinking that what was good for the nuns was good enough for them, the lumberjacks ate some of the mushrooms as well. Soon after, they also succumbed to overwhelming fits of laughter and the urge to dance The linguistic moral of the story: since that time, the mushrooms in question have been referred to in Japanese as
- "maitake" (Dancing Mushrooms) and later on - "waraitake" (Laughing Mushrooms).
For a long time, the species thought to be responsible for these symptoms were identified in the mycological literature as Panaeolus papilionaceus and as Gymnopilus spectabilis ("giant laughing mushroom"). However, today we know that the former is a species from Europe and North America which does not contain any psychoactive substances, while even Japanese authors have been unable, since 1980, to confirm the existence of psilocybin and its derivatives in the latter Gymnopilus species. Only inactive substances have been found in Gymnopilus spectabilis.
In Japan, the investigation of these mushrooms has a long tradition: There is evidence that mushrooms have been cultivated in Japan for no less than 2,000 years, by collecting naturally grown mycelia of Lentinus edodes (Berk.) Singer and transferring onto pieces of wood selected to serve as new substrates.
Incidentally, literary sources from China also attest to knowledge about mushrooms from that country, where such mushrooms were said to be the cause of a (temporary) "disease of dry laughter".
Still, the reports about an irresistible urge to dance constitutes a rather unusual effect of psilocybin, from our current point of view. While psilocybin is initially known to cause fits of laughter, this phase is generally followed by a state of relaxation and a drop in levels of physical activity. It is likely that, in this case, medieval Japanese mentality was a cultural factor that modified the specific expression of an altered state of consciousness.
Aside from the two disputed mushroom species mentioned above, several psychoactive Psilocybe species can be found in Japan. There are several known cases of accidental ingestion that occurred during the 20th century, resulting in psilocybin syndromes without inducing fits of dancing.
For example, in 1932, S. Imai described cases of intoxications from 1929 and 1931 which involved his newly classified species Stropharia caerulescens. Later on, the species was named Stropharia venenata Imai, which grows on top of wood and dung. Today, it is being classified within the genus Psilocybe as a close relative of Psilocybe cubensis.
Imai mentions an event that occurred on June 21, 1929: A 43-year-old woman collected about 13 oz. of a type of mushroom that she erroneously thought to be honey mushrooms
(Armillaria mellea)._The following day, she prepared a tasty mushroom meal and served it to her family. As family members began to notice the effects, they immediately went to see a doctor, who determined that the woman was experiencing the most potent effects: Her stomach was pumped without delay and laxatives were administered, but she still had muscle twitches, followed by hallucinations and a comatose (?) state. The son, who had eaten the soup only, experienced hallucinations as well, because the cooking process had served to extract the water-soluble compounds from the mushrooms.
Unfortunately, Singer and Smith mistakenly cited these incidents in their (1958) monograph about the Psilocybe genus as examples of the mushrooms species' fatal effects. For that reason, this species was unjustly branded for decades in the literature as a highly dangerous poisonous mushroom.
There are other psychoactive mushroom species that grow in Japan, such as the bluing species Psilocybe subcaerulipes Hongo and Psilocybe argentipes Yokoyama. These species also caused intoxications in three people, who mistook the mushrooms for the honey mushroom. These cases brought about the isolation of psilocybin in crystalline form from dried fruiting bodies of the species, as well as recognition of the species' wide area of distribution. In 1973, Yokoyama published the results from systematic experimentation with Psilocybe argentipes. No "urge to dance" was noted in these investigations as well. Below are some excerpts from his research protocols:
J.H. (a 24-year-old male) ingested four cooked mushrooms at night, after a meal (!), and then ate another three fresh mushrooms 30 minutes later. This was followed by regurgitation, and 45 minutes later, he started to sweat profusely all over his head and body. His pulse rate and breathing were accelerated, but slowed down later on. He laid down and experienced visual hallucinations, which caused him to panic and to run a distance of about 1,200 ft. to consult the nearest doctor. The physician noted widely dilated pupils, and proceeded to have the patient's stomach pumped and then prescribed laxatives. Three hours later, the abnormal state had largely subsided; by the next morning, there was no evidence of any other side effects.
M.K. (a 22-year-old male) ate just one fresh mushroom, which had no effects at all.
K .Y. (a 31-year-old male) ate five mushrooms. Regurgitation occurred 30 minutes after ingestion, followed by sweating around the head and body; his extremities appeared to be slightly paralyzed. This paralysis persisted for another three hours. During this time, the subject had great difficulties handling a pen for writing, his mood was depressed and he experienced hallucinations, such as colorful lights flooding down from the sky. By the following morning, all of these effects had dissipated. The fresh fruiting bodies were bitter, a taste that disappeared after the mushrooms had been cooked in water.
The above experiments are rather amateurish, and the descriptions of results are heavily influenced by a simplistic perspective which assumes that the mushrooms's pharmacological effects proceed along a single, narrow track. Still, these accounts demonstrate that comparable dosages of Japanese mushroom species have psychotropic effects similar to those caused by Psilocybe species found on other continents.
Much work still remains to be done in the areas of phytochemistry and taxonomy before the body of knowledge about psychotropic mushroom species in Japan can grow to become adequate. The geographic distribution and ingredients of the Japanese Panaeolus species must also be studied further. For instance, Panaeolus subbalteatus is one of the species that are growing on several Japanese islands today.
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