Planting rice is no easy task. It requires patience, sturdy legs and, preferably, a change of clothes. I had, however, neglected to make note of this final detail before embarking on the Karasuyama Taiken (www.karasuyama-taiken.jp) rice-planting excursion, organized by Shimazaki Shuzo sake brewery, in Tochigi Prefecture. Soon, I found myself knee-deep in mud, praying that I wouldn’t soil my only pair of jeans or tumble into the murky water.
Although I’d visited rice fields before, I’d only witnessed planting from a distance. These perfunctory observations hadn’t prepared me for the heat, already intense in mid-May, or the ticklish feeling of tadpoles and beetles swimming around my toes. But the chance to experience sake-rice production from quite literally the ground up was precisely why I’d joined the event.
Brewery executive director Kenichi Shimazaki started the Karasuyama Taiken program last year. The owners of a Japanese-style inn nearby called Okitei Minka also manage rice fields and had approached him with an idea to collaborate on a sake-and-rice-making event. Shimazaki saw it as an opportunity to showcase traditional crafts and local culture after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
“Here in Karasuyama, we’re able to make rice, sake and also washi (Japanese paper), so we wanted to work with businesses in the community to revitalize the area,” he explained.
The three-part series of events, which runs from May to November, begins with taue (rice planting) and continues with inukari (harvesting) in September. In the final session, the group brews its own sake, and each member receives two bottles at the end of December. A local paper artisan also teaches the participants how to make traditional washi paper for the sake labels. The ¥12,000 cost of joining all three events includes transport from Utsunomiya Station to the location (and back), lunch each day and plenty of sake tasting.
Upon arriving at Utsunomiya, I was amazed at the turnout. The number of participants at the rice-planting event had swelled from around eight people last year to more than 120, and four shuttle buses had been hired to accommodate us. Among the group were people of all ages, including several families with small children. Although most were from the surrounding area, a handful had made the two-hour trip from the capital.
“I joined because I’m very interested in making things myself. Many breweries show us how to make sake, but few allow us to join in,” remarked Tokyo resident Masami Nomura. She had participated in the entire cycle previously and so was back for her second time.
The four rice paddies we’d be working were nestled in the midst of a lush, green valley. After a brief orientation, we slipped off our shoes and waded into the muddy water, which rose above our calves and felt pleasantly cool. Each of us held a square clump of grass with roots tangled in a knot of pebbly sod. A blue cord marked with yellow dots at regular intervals had been stretched taut across the rice field so that we’d know where to plant the seedlings.
A rice farmer, whose wizened face was shaded by a straw hat, stood at the front of the field to direct us. “Take about three or four shoots and stick them in the ground up to your second knuckle,” he said.
Planting them deeper than that, the farmer warned, would risk drowning the slender shoots. Similarly, planting too many seedlings too close together might cause them to suffocate: Sake rice, which grows taller than table rice, tends to be top-heavy and requires more space between plants. This year’s crop was gohyakumangoku, a strain of sake rice prized for the clean flavor profile it can yield in brewing.
Once a row had been completed, two people would move the cord back a few centimeters, and the steps would be repeated until the entire field was covered with green sprouts. Because there was so many of us, the whole process took less than an hour, but the feeling of accomplishment was unmistakable.
After washing our hands and feet in a small stream, everyone reconvened at Okitei Minka, a stately thatch-roofed building dating back to the early 20th century, for a picnic lunch. We finished the day with a trip to Shimazaki Shuzo’s impressive cave cellar, a sake storage facility housed in a warren of tunnels dug into the side of a mountain.
I’m already looking forward to returning for the harvest this autumn.
A handful of breweries, such as organic-sake producer Niida Honke (www.kinpou.co.jp/english.html) in Fukushima Prefecture and Hachinohe Shuzo (www.mutsu8000.com) in Aomori Prefecture offer similar programs, but with limited spaces. Although Japanese-language proficiency isn’t required, it is strongly recommended. 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.