Lessons in the field yield unexpected harvests


Call me a coward, but I get nervous when surrounded by rowdy youths carrying sharp blades.

It happened again just recently. I was in the middle of a field in Chiba Prefecture when I found myself encircled by unruly boys brandishing kama, the short-bladed sickles traditionally used to harvest rice. Perhaps I should explain that the presence of sharp implements was not completely unexpected. I was, after all, on an inekari taiken, or “try your hand at rice harvesting” trip, sponsored by the Japanese elementary school my son attends. It’s fairly common for schools to organize such trips. Rice is so important in Japan, both in traditional culture and the modern diet, that the national curriculum stipulates that students should learn about rice cultivation.

Regular readers may remember a column I wrote in July about planting the rice with other families from school. It was a wonderful experience to step barefoot into spring mud and plant an entire paddy of seedlings. We had to return to Tokyo, leaving the farmer to handle everything until harvest, but our hearts remained in that paddy we had planted with our own hands. My sons and I talked about the rice, wondering if it was growing well. When the summer turned cold, we worried along with all the other rice growing families in Japan.

But at last the farmer called to say the ears were nearly ripe so we could come in late September for the harvest.

It’s a good thing I was along. As you probably know, there are two types of women in Japan. No, no! I don’t mean those types; I’m talking weather. Here, you’re either an ame onna, always getting rained on, or you’re like me, a hare onna who brings good weather when it’s really needed. It had rained for a solid week, but I used my powers to ensure a glorious fall day for our outing.

It was a thrill to step off the bus and see how our field had been transformed since we last saw it in May. Then, it was an expanse of muddy water dotted with slender green rice seedlings. Now, it was dry and packed solid with golden grass, each stalk bending under the weight of ripened heads of grain.

I tried to follow the farmer’s explanation of what we’d be doing, but it was difficult because of all the different words in Japanese for “rice.” When it’s a plant, it’s ine. The grains themselves are called momi, but only until they are hulled, when they become kome. Once you cook the rice, it’s gohan. Unless, of course, you’re serving it with Western food, in which case it’s raisu.

Despite the linguistic challenges, I got the basic idea. We would harvest by hand, the way it was done throughout Japan until about the 1960s. The farmer showed us how to grasp the plants in one hand and use the other to pull the sickle diagonally through the stalks. After about 10 cuts, we were to lay everything in the same direction on the ground. Traditionally, the stalks were bundled together and hung on racks in the field to dry for a few days before threshing.

Cutting proved more difficult than it looked. We did our best but weren’t making much progress, and the kids were armed and dangerous. So everyone was relieved when the farmer roared up in his Kubota Aerostar and made short work of the rest of the field. It would have taken our busload all day to harvest that field by hand. With the combine, the farmer finished in about 30 minutes.

The children turned their attention to catching the critters scared out by the harvesting. This was the highlight of the day for my 9-year-old, who had brought a net and as many bug boxes as he could carry. He and his schoolmates caught 24 frogs, a kamakiri (praying mantis) and more crickets and grasshoppers than I cared to count.

One of the farmers came to watch. “This reminds me of the inago-tori my elementary school did as a fundraising project,” she said. A locust hunt? I asked her to explain.

“It must have been 35 years ago. We sewed cloth bags and went out after the rice harvest to catch locusts. Then we sold what we caught and used the money to buy jump ropes.” I was confused. Who would buy sacks full of locusts?

“Companies that make tsukudani,” she replied.

“You mean the preserved food made by boiling something down with soy sauce, sugar and sake?”

The farmer nodded. “It’s not a very common food anymore, but insects used to be an important source of protein, particularly in mountainous areas. Kids were expected to hunt locusts after the rice harvest and their mothers would cook their catch into inago tsukudani.”

I looked at the cage at my feet, and the insects hopping frantically inside it. I had a brief vision of bugs leaping in all directions in my kitchen as I tried to stuff them into a pot. I decided we’d pass on cooking up this part of the day’s harvest.

On the bus ride home, the fifth graders were in charge of entertainment. I don’t know whose idea it was to give the kids microphones, but only a fool would think 10-year-olds need amplification. I was sitting next to the emcee for the day, and I can personally vouch that his voice would have carried all the way back to Tokyo. Without the damn microphone.

But even a noisy bus ride can be educational. We played shiritori, a simple word game I can manage. We did riddles, which are way beyond my Japanese ability. We played math games, at ever increasing decibel levels. By the time the karaoke started, I had a splitting headache.

Still, I had to smile when I realized the boys in the back of the bus were substituting slightly naughty lyrics for the correct words to the songs. I suddenly remembered something from my own childhood back in the United States, a Thanksgiving concert when I was in fourth grade. We were supposed to sing a harvest song that opened with the words: “Swing the shining sickle!” But I had incited the kids to sing, “Swing the shining pickle!”

I guess you really do reap what you sow.