TOKYO -- Enthusiasts admit it's not the taste that keeps them gobbling the shriveled, brown mushrooms. They're so bitter, many can only choke them down with orange juice or yogurt.
The allure is the hallucinogen within, so potent that the fungi are outlawed in most countries with the likes of cocaine and heroin.
"It doesn't taste good, but I like to get high," 19-year-old student Wataru Kanbe said after eating a handful of "magic mushrooms" at a recent open-air concert. Best of all, he added with a glassy-eyed stare, doing so is completely legal.
Not much longer.
Alarmed by the soaring popularity of hallucinogenic mushrooms and their sometimes toxic side effects, Japan's Health Ministry is finally plugging the legal loophole that has allowed them to be sold openly and lawfully by trendy shops, street vendors and mail-order companies advertising in magazines.
The crackdown -- which takes effect June 6 -- will slap a maximum seven-year prison term on mushroom possession, putting it on par with the penalty for cocaine possession.
While the appeal of the mushrooms reflects changing Japanese attitudes toward drugs, it also highlights the government's increasingly desperate battle against them.
Japan has carefully nurtured its hard-line reputation, from leveling life sentences on heroin traffickers to arresting former Beatle Paul McCartney in 1980 when he stepped off the plane in Tokyo with a bag of marijuana.
But a 1990 overhaul of the drug law overlooked one point. It banned the psychoactive drugs psilocybin and psilocin, but not the mushrooms that naturally produce them.
It didn't take long for entrepreneurs to start hawking the psychedelic fungi to curious teens and rebellious hipsters in search of a "legal high."
So-called headshops mushroomed overnight in trendy Tokyo entertainment districts, selling packs for 1,800-3,000 yen ($13 to $23) a pop. They're all laid out in fancy glass display cases. Most are imported from the Netherlands, where they are grown on farms. But even hand-picked, wild "liberty cap" toadstools from Scotland turn up for $20 a gram.
"You can find them anywhere," said Hideo Eno at the Health Ministry's narcotics division.
'Good luck charms'
The ministry said there were at least 11 species of magic mushrooms -- technically classified as poisonous plants and not drugs -- being sold in Japan. As long as they were not labeled as food, that was permitted.
Takahito Watanabe, manager of PsychoPompos, a closet-sized headshop brazenly advertising itself with a marijuana-leaf signboard, said his desiccated mushrooms were for display purposes only.
"Or use as good luck charms," he said.
The Health Ministry has no statistics on the size of the magic mushroom market or how many Japanese use them. But their popularity is hinted at by sales at a chain of three stores owned by mushroom magnate Muneo Ogishi. He claims more than 3,000 people stock up every month, mostly people in their 20s.
The increase in use is also underlined by the increase in the number of people hospitalized for overdosing from one person in 1997 to 38 in 2000 -- not huge numbers but enough to demand action, Eno said.
"Young people are curious. They say it's fun and safe. But really it contains a dangerous narcotic," he said.