The instrument I was given to harvest sake rice was a small sickle, about 20 cm in length, with a thin, curved blade and a serrated edge. It was, essentially, the agricultural equivalent of a pair of children’s scissors: If used improperly, you could nick yourself badly but were unlikely to do great harm. However, it was a lightweight and startlingly efficient tool, able to slash through a cluster of sticky, green rice stalks in seconds.
It was my second visit to the rice fields, and the change in the landscape was surprising. I’d made the trek out to Tochigi Prefecture in May to participate in the first installment of the Karasuyama Taiken program (www.karasuyama-taiken.jp), a three-part series of events that begins with rice planting and ends with sake making at Shimazaki Shuzo. At that time, the paddies had been flooded flat, and we’d left them dotted with slender blades of grass. The fields had since turned a golden green, and the stalks grazed our knees. The tadpoles that had populated the muddy water had grown into fat frogs (much to the delight of the children, who made sport of capturing them).
“We’re lucky with the weather today. We thought the typhoon might hit,” said brewery president Kenichi Shimazaki, shielding his eyes from the sun.
Since ancient times, sake rice farmers have lived in fear of typhoons. Sake rice is more expensive and, due to the higher starch content, heavier than table rice. As a result, it’s particularly susceptible to strong winds. Thanks to the exceptionally hot summer this year, our crop of gohyakumangoku rice had grown hearty and plentiful; it would have been a shame to lose any of it.
Treading carefully, I made my way down to one of the rice fields. The area had been pelted with rain a few days before, and the ground was treacherously soft and slippery. The thick, black mud made sucking sounds as we worked our way toward the center of the field. Boots were pulled off feet, and a few people were thrown off balance.
We were instructed to cut the stems a few centimeters above the ground and then stack the rice stalks in piles. Because there were so many of us — more than 120 participants in total — the actual work of harvesting took only 45 minutes, but it felt longer. The temperature hovered around 30 degrees all morning. Sweat stung my eyes and soaked my clothes, and my thigh muscles began to anticipate the soreness that would hobble me the next day.
The reward for our hard work was an ample buffet of mochi rice balls, fried chicken cutlets, homemade pickles and stewed vegetables made with produce grown by the curators of Okitei Minka, the quaint, rural inn that serves as the base for the Karasuyama Taiken events.
Naturally, all of the food was washed down with several varieties of Shimazaki Shuzo’s excellent Azuma Rikishi sake. My two favorites were the bracingly tart yuzushu infused sake, and the Aki-uma Jun-gin Hiyaoroshi, a crisp, clean seasonal brew that had been pasteurized only once. The sake was lively and fresh, but had a distinctly ricey character.
When I awoke from my afternoon nap by the irori (fireplace) inside the building, a tiny face was staring at me. The little boy was about 5 years old and we called him Morioka-kun. He didn’t seem to mind my bad Japanese.
“You did the rice planting, too, didn’t you, onēsan? Are you going to come back next time?” he asked me.
“Of course,” I replied. For the first time since I came to this country, I felt that I had become part of a community.
Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.