Learning firsthand about rice cultivation


I have new respect for the rainy season. I used to hate tsuyu, these dreary weeks of drizzle. But now that I’m a farmer, I see the value of so much rain. I’m farming a bucket of rice on my balcony and can’t keep up with the watering.

My new career in agriculture began when I signed up for an excursion with my son’s Japanese elementary school. It was a taue taiken — a “try your hand at rice planting” trip. Since everyone else on the outing would be Japanese, I assumed I’d be the only adult who didn’t know how rice is grown. As it turned out, not one of the 60 people in the group had ever set foot in a rice paddy before.

There’s strong demand in Japan for opportunities to try your hand at just about anything. There are “make your own tofu” classes, “blow your own glass” workshops and many other kinds of taiken. Rice-planting trips are a popular way to help Japanese get in touch with their rice-growing roots.

Rice has had a huge influence on Japanese culture and history. It’s been planted here for 2,500 years and is still the nation’s most important crop. The national curriculum requires that every fifth-grader learn how rice is cultivated. But most Japanese children live in cities and have no understanding of agriculture. So more schools are trying to give students hands-on experience by taking them out to a rice field and letting them plant.

Easier said than done. Schools in agricultural areas may find a farmer nearby willing to lend a field, but it’s hard for urban schools. Some, like Shimonagaya Elementary School in Yokohama, actually build a small rice paddy in the schoolyard. Our school doesn’t have the space for that so we pulled strings. One of our families runs a supermarket and asked their rice supplier to let us visit.

The trip was organized, and I do mean organized, by the PTA. After three years in Japan, I’ve come to expect well-planned events, but this one was executed with military precision. A squadron of PTA officers went on an advance recon mission. Parents had to report for a setsumeikai (explanatory meeting). Handouts provided every possible detail, including seating arrangements on the bus and the driver’s cell-phone number. We would all wear orange bandannas to identify ourselves as part of the group.

On the big day, a Saturday in May, we gathered early. It would take 1 1/2 hours to reach the farm in Chiba Prefecture. About halfway, we pulled into a highway rest stop for a scheduled toilet break. I was skeptical that the 10 minutes allotted would be enough. Children aren’t always speedy in the bathroom. And it’s no simple matter to get that many people on and off a bus, especially when all the fold-down seats in the aisle are in use. But we pulled out exactly on schedule. The mother next to me noticed me check my watch, and laughed: “Sasuga Nihonjin (We sure are Japanese, aren’t we?)”

When we arrived at our destination, I looked around in happy amazement. In every direction were vast watery fields planted with slender green seedlings. Our host greeted us and led the way to the paddy he’d saved for us. It was the size of an Olympic swimming pool, covered with murky water and ready for planting.

Since we’d be planting the old-fashioned way, by hand, and barefoot, we lined up along one edge and took off our socks and shoes. We each picked up a clump of nae, seedlings that are grown in a greenhouse until they are 15 cm tall. Then we stepped off the edge into the muck. The noise level soared with a chorus of “Ya-daa! (Gross!)” Soft, warm mud closed around our ankles and insinuated itself between our toes. It was surprisingly deep and hard to walk in, but it felt great once you got used to it.

We weren’t the only critters in that paddy. Several kids caught frogs. There were little fish, too. I spotted something squirmy that looked like an insect larva. My son, however, insisted it was a bloodsucking hiru (leech). A first-grader put more faith in my son’s identification and ran off screaming. It was a slow-motion escape through the muck.

Rice planting isn’t difficult. You pull a few seedlings from the clump and set them into the mud. What’s hard is the position. You have to stand bent at the waist, waddling forward little by little, plopping down seedlings, until you get to the other side of the field. I had expected a backache, but it’s the muscles at the back of the thighs that get worked. For days afterward, I could barely climb stairs.

I was enjoying myself and was one of the last ones out. As I balanced on one foot by a water spigot, trying to get the mud out from between my toes, I chatted with the farmer’s elderly mother. “Gee, I’m aching after only 30 minutes, ” I observed. “Life must have been hard in the olden days.”

“The ‘olden days’ weren’t so long ago,” the farmer’s mother laughed, explaining that mechanized planters weren’t available until around 1970. “By hand, it used to take one person 10-12 hours to plant a field this size,” she told me.

“How long does it take on one of those?” I asked, pointing to the ride-on planter her son was using a few fields over. “Just 30 minutes,” she said. “Think how that changed farm life!”

Of course, planting is just the beginning. We’ll go back in September to harvest the rice, but the farmer will do all the work in between, including weeding, fertilization and constant regulation of the water level. Since we couldn’t stay to witness the entire process, the farmer gave us seedlings to plant in a bucket at home.

So now I’m a farmer. Our mini paddy is on the balcony, unfortunately out of the reach of all that rain falling outside. So we water by hand. Our rice plants have doubled in size and are unbelievably thirsty. My son waters them three times a day, but I take over when he’s at school. Every hour or so, I get up from my computer and give them more water. I haven’t left the apartment for weeks.

Then again, who wants to go out? It’s the rainy season.