ASUKA, Nara Pref. — The mid-June drizzle had just let up when taiko drum beats marked the opening of the taue (rice-planting) festival.
The festival kicks off a series of events scheduled to take place throughout the latter half of the year in an effort to draw visitors to the village of Asuka. Organized by a cooperative set up to promote local tourism, the rice-planting festival will be followed by akamai hana matsuri, a rice-flower festival in September, and in October, akamai shukaku matsuri, a rice-harvesting festival.
“We hope these events will draw more tourists to Asuka and revitalize the area,” said Masanori Ishida, director of the 15-member cooperative union, formed in December 2001 by the members of the Asuka Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “People say that Asuka has an atmosphere of ancient romance, so we thought that planting akamai [an ancient strain of reddish-brown rice] would suit the area,” he added.
This tiny picturesque village in Nara Prefecture was the site of the Emperor’s palace for 100 years, from the late sixth century. During the Asuka Period (A.D. 593-710), various cultural and artistic influences, not to mention Buddhism, were imported from other countries, principally Korea. Fresh evidence of Asuka’s rich heritage is constantly coming to light with the discovery of archaeological finds in the area. Excavation work is still ongoing here. It has yielded, among other things, evidence that the foundations of the system of centralized administration — ritsuryo (a system derived from a Chinese model which flourished between the seventh and 10th centuries) — were also established during this period.
In spite of the village’s historical significance, today its economy is stagnating. The rice-planting event plans to change that. After ritual Shinto prayers had been offered for a good harvest, 10 girls clad in the traditional attire of saotome (women who transplanted seedlings into paddies), planted rice seedlings. Most of the girls had never experienced rice planting.
Some, like 23-year-old Mihoka Tanahashi, came from as far away as Gifu Prefecture. “I enjoyed it very much,” Tanahashi said.
Tanahashi, who started out visiting Asuka regularly to learn the technique of making kodai (ancient) glass, is now an instructor in kodai glass-making and learned about the festival on a teaching trip.
Asuka enjoys the distinction of being the birthplace of Japan’s glass production. A few times each year, classes are held so that people can experience how ancient glass beads were traditionally made.
“I am always fascinated by old things, and I like this area,” said Tanahashi.
Mari Furukawa, 28, a native of Asuka, also took part in the rice planting. It was the first time that she has planted rice, although her family has a rice field for purpose of personal consumption.
“I enjoyed the rice planting, but I couldn’t carry on doing it right now,” she said. “My thighs are really sore!”
At the festival, shops and food stalls offered local produce — crackers made from akamai rice, hand-dyed T-shirts and flutes made of clay. In the afternoon, participants tried their hand at pottery and other local crafts.
While Ishida was happy to see such a good turnout for the event, he emphasized that the process of organizing the festival was important in itself.
“Each member has his or her own expertise and experience. When those people get together, new and interesting ideas and projects are born,” union director Ishida said. “Organizing the festival has enabled me to recognize such rich local resources. Working together enables us to do things that cannot be done alone. We would like to generate new ideas that will revitalize the area.”
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