Visit Japan’s ancient past in urban Kyushu

by Winifred Bird

Special To The Japan Times

Back in the late 1970s, the city planners of Karatsu, a fishing community on the northern coast of Kyushu, decided to build a new road. This provided a rare opportunity for local archaeologists. Seizing the chance to burrow with abandon in the densely developed region, they established a dig and began to search for pollen and seeds from ancient plants (among other buried treasures).

One day, they mixed a scoop of soil with water to separate out the pollen, and something unexpected floated to the top: a handful of tiny black discs. It turned out to be carbonized millennia-old rice that would soon lead them to the oldest paddy fields ever discovered in Japan.

“Reporters were calling around the clock,” recalls Ryuuta Tajima, who was a young researcher at what came to be known as the Nabatake Ruins, and who today directs the Matsurokan Museum built on the site in Saga Prefecture.

Rice — though it came from abroad and was never the staple food for all parts of the country — has long been a symbol of “authentic” Japanese culture and identity. Its origins are entwined with those of religion, government, war and many other facets of contemporary society; the public was captivated by the Nabatake dig not so much because it revealed interesting things about agriculture, but because it revealed their own roots back at the tail end of the Jomon Era, around 2,500 years ago.

It’s difficult to imagine that brief frenzy of celebrity on a visit to the Nabatake Ruins today. The modest museum and gardens sit off a busy byway just outside the center of Karatsu, but aside from school trips and the occasional archaeology buff, they hardly draw a crowd.

The same is true for the nearly abandoned Itazuke remains and museum in the neaby city of Fukuoka, which date to approximately the same period as the Nabatake remains.

These are not tourist-friendly historic hotspots like Kyoto’s Kiyomizudera Temple or Hyogo Prefecture’s Himeji Castle. Nevertheless, for those with a genuine interest in history, an active imagination and a willingness to venture where amenities are rather scarce, Kyushu’s ancient rice paddies — touted as the first in Japan — make for an interesting day or two of travel.

The truly rice-obsessed may even want to head down to Tanegashima, an island in Kagoshima Prefecture off Kyushu’s southern tip, where a new museum dedicated to traditional red rice and the folk culture surrounding it has just been built.

Of the three, however, the Itazuke ruins in Fukuoka are the most accessible, and can be reached by taking a city bus from Hakata Station downtown to the Itazuke Danchi 2 bus stop, then following a narrow pathway through an aging apartment complex, and finally emerging at what appears to be a neighborhood recreation center set in a grassy park.

This was the site, more than 2,500 years ago, of another village also inhabited by some of Japan’s first rice farmers.

Wild rice does not grow in Japan; the tall wetland plant that eventually became the squatter Japonica variety farmers grow today was first domesticated in China 8,000 or more years ago. Over the course of several millennia, the techniques evolved and spread — eventually to the Japanese islands, although the route and timing of their arrival remains controversial.

Kazuo Miyamoto, a professor of archaeology who studies that complex question at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, says immigrant farmers from the Korean Peninsula most likely arrived by boat around the eighth century B.C., making landfall somewhere around present-day Karatsu, and then on the broad plain where Fukuoka is now. They established rice paddies and probably shared their techniques with local hunter-gatherer communities, who already grew some vegetables, grains and beans in dry fields. Population grew, leaders emerged, conflict arose — and Japan was on its way toward “modernity.”

Ancient bones tell the story, Miyamoto says: Around the time rice cultivation began, the people of northern Kyushu grew taller, and their facial structure became flatter, indicating intermarriage with immigrants from the Korean Peninsula. Another hint that rice farming developed elsewhere is the fact that even the earliest sites like Itazuke and Nabatake show signs of advanced techniques, such as highly diversified tools and complex irrigation systems.

At the simple Yayoi-Kan museum at the Itazuke Ruins, visitors can hold wooden replicas of the digging forks, kuwa (rectangular hoes) and shovels discovered at the site — all remarkably similar to today’s versions. And, although there’s unfortunately almost no explanatory material in English, they can also try out copies of the semicircular stone knives farmers used to harvest clusters of grain until around the 710-784 Nara Period. (The actual relics are stored not far away at the Fukuoka City Archeology Center, whose enormous collection may be viewed by request.)

Outside, there’s a large park with reconstructions of the ancient rice fields and village. (It’s a nice place for a picnic — which might be a wise idea, since there are no good restaurants nearby.) The actual paddies, measuring a surprisingly large 500 sq. meters, have been filled in because they would be flooded with groundwater if left exposed, and during the dig, pumps ran around the clock to keep things dry. Interestingly, a museum staffer explained that a layer of sand deposited by floods preserved the form of the paddies, banks and irrigation networks, and allowed archaeologists to distinguish them easily.

Karatsu is just over an hour from Fukuoka by train, and the Matsurokan Museum is a 15-minute walk from the station, where there are plenty of restaurants and shops. Like the Yayoi-Kan, this is a modest museum with very little information in English (Tajima says English displays are in the works). Here, however, the relics on display are originals. There is something extraordinary about looking at the oldest kuwa ever discovered in Japan — a roughly-hewn, tapered wooden rectangle — and reflecting on the changes that this simple tool wrought throughout the archipelago.

Japan’s oldest harvesting knife is also on display here, as well as the oldest example of finely-woven cloth.

In the museum garden, a small cascade of terraced rice paddies has been recreated. In contrast to those at Itazuke, the landscape here is hilly, and for that reason each field is tiny, about the size of a parking space.

Yet even this feature may be a sign of the advanced techniques those early farmers possessed: Tajima says the arrangement allows cold water from the hills to warm as it moves from one paddy to the next. Small fields were also easier to level.

The pleasant garden is planted with trees that folk back then would have known and used: chestnuts, peaches from China, camellia and Japanese snowbell, whose poisonous berries were pounded to a paste and mixed into streams to stun fish. In those days, Tajima says, cultivated crops made up only a portion of people’s diets; hunting and gathering were still very important.

“The early farmers ate well. But as more immigrants arrived (and population grew), more agriculture became necessary,” he speculates. Hunting and gathering faded away, and Japan became a nation of farmers. Whether that was a change for the best is a question visitors to Kyushu’s ancient rice paddies will likely be pondering long after they return home.