Rice. A bland, white carbohydrate only useful as the substrate for sushi or for mopping up the juices of curry? Staple food that forms the nourishing core of every meal? A crop that has molded culture and society? Or primal sustenance imbued with mystic life force of the gods?

In Japan, at least, rice is much more than just a makeweight on the plate. The word for cooked rice, “gohan” — always used with its honorific prefix attached — is the same word used for “meal.” Whether formal kaiseki banquet, casual home cooking or bento lunch box, no Japanese meal is complete without a generous serving of the staple grain (noodles being the notable exception that proves that rule).

For such a tiny grain, the humble Oryza sativa var. japonica plant also carries a heavy freight of social and religious significance. Most traditional Japanese confections are made of rice flour or pounded sticky rice. At New Year, round, mirror-shaped kagami mochi dumplings are everywhere. Even the Japanese flag is often said to represent a rectangular box of white rice with a red umeboshi (plum) pickle in the center.

‘Kome Mandara’: Photography of the cultivation of rice offer unusual perspectives | 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT

And yet, as Japan inexorably adopts the Western worldview and lifestyle, the way it eats is changing radically. The successful campaign to have UNESCO recognize washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) as an intangible world heritage reflects the concern that it is at risk of being overwhelmed by outside influences.

The same concern lies at the heart of “Kome: The Art of Rice,” an exhibition that recently opened at 21_21 Design Sight gallery in Tokyo Midtown, Roppongi. The aim, in the organizers’ words, is “to take a fresh look at rice as the foundation of Japanese culture… to think about the future of rice.”

Notwithstanding the title, there is not much fine art on display, apart from a reproduction of a wonderful ukiyo-e wood-block print triptych drawn in the 1840s by Utagawa Hiroshige. Titled “The Battle of Confectionery and Sake,” it depicts the forces of mochi (sticky rice cake) and rice-based confectionery taking on an army of sake and related rice brewing, in the style of the Genji-Heike samurai wars.

Rice straw has multiple uses, such as a carrying case for a sake bottle.
Rice straw has multiple uses, such as a carrying case for a sake bottle. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

There is some beautiful photography, too, depicting a romantic rural culture with images of smiling farmers, traditional timber houses with hearths ablaze and waving fields of jade-green rice plants. But the rest of the exhibition dwells more on rice-related crafts, and on the natural history of rice.

We see how the grain developed over the millennia. We learn that the introduction of rice growing changed the actual topography of Japan’s countryside, as farmers leveled fields and channeled irrigation courses. Rice farming has also created complex ecosystems in the paddies that attract insects, amphibians and wildfowl, each of which contribute to the wider environment.

And we are told that modern rice varieties multiply themselves 1000-fold. That means the 3,000 grains contained in a typical bowl of cooked rice are the yield of three bundles of stalks that have emerged from just three grains of paddy rice.

In the main hall, we get to see actual rice plants close up. Giant test tubes display almost 50 different strains gathered from around Asia, demonstrating the wide range of variation in size and color. None of them are white, of course: There are hands-on installations that illustrate how the grain has to be first hulled and then polished to turn brown rice into gleaming white.

The most fascinating part of the exhibition is the four-part documentary film, “Hakusho” by Yu Yamanaka, that plays on a constant loop and is worth watching at least once through. A farmer in Chiba Prefecture talks in a matter of fact way about the deep sense of connection he feels for the rice he grows and the land he cultivates. Another clip follows an ancient ritual still performed on the Noto Peninsula (Ishikawa Prefecture) in the deep of winter to welcome the kami (deity) of the rice.

Simple sustenance: Still from
Simple sustenance: Still from ‘Hakusho’ by Yu Yamanaka | ©YAMANAKA YU; 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT

The general tone is elegiac, capturing and celebrating a culture that has developed over the millennia but which might be lost in a generation in the face of rural depopulation and free-trade treaties. But there is one clip that is much more positive and forward-looking.

It’s the story of how an old sake brewery (also in Chiba) came back from the brink of bankruptcy by abandoning modern production methods and reverting to the traditional techniques. What is particularly striking is not just that they are doing everything by hand, using only organically grown rice, and even composing their own sake brewing songs, but that most of the workers are young and none over the age of 50.

For many of us, the only glimpse we get of rice actually growing — or at least the paddies where it comes from — is on the brief ride through rural Chiba prefecture as we head into the city center from Narita Airport. Short of making an extended pilgrimage out into the remote countryside, “Kome: the Art of Rice” offers a fascinating insight into Japan’s rural and spiritual roots.

“Kome: The Art of Rice” at 21_21 Design Sight runs till June 15; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Tue. www.2121designsight.jp/en/program/kome Robbie Swinnerton writes Tokyo Food File for the Japan Times and blogs about all matters culinary at www.tokyofoodfile.com

Other grains of beauty not to be missed

From the opening exhibit of three giant rice grains in different guises — unhulled, polished and white — visitors to “Kome: The Art of Rice” are invited to see Japan’s staple grain through fresh eyes. Watch the magical, brief flowering of a rice plant. Gaze at a flooded paddy from a frog’s-eye perspective. And peer through a magnifying glass as you write your name on a single grain of rice.

Rice is also grown to be drunk, as we are reminded by the extensive display of sake label art — in itself a graphic illustration of how Japan’s traditional tipple is evolving a contemporary sensibility.

And if by the end your appetite has been kindled, a kiosk has been set up inside the Midtown complex selling varieties of rice from around Japan, all freshly polished to order. (R.S.)

A personal ‘One-straw Revolution’

It is no exaggeration to say that rice brought me to Japan. By the mid-1970s I had already discovered Japanese cuisine and was soon enthused with the idea of eating simply and in harmony with the seasons. It struck a chord with me, especially the principle of ichiju sansai, light meals comprising a bowl of soup and three side dishes — with rice always at the center.

Then I encountered Masanobu Fukuoka, the pioneering philosopher-eco farmer of Shikoku through his seminal book, known in English as “The One-Straw Revolution.” It described an approach to agriculture, a way of life, that made perfect sense. Repudiating intensive modern farming, he just scattered his seed and left it to the frogs, ducks and migratory birds to fertilize his paddies and keep them weed-free.

I had to find out more. By the summer of 1980, I was in Japan and had made the pilgrimage to Fukuoka Sensei’s farm in rural Ehime Prefecture. I discovered that his so-called “do nothing agriculture” involved a lot more hard work than he let on in the book, that Japanese mosquitoes were voracious — and that he grew the tastiest rice I’d ever eaten. I was hooked for life. (R.S.)


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