“You may wonder why a merchant of children’s clothing would take up selling rice,” begins Ryo Saegusa, president of 151-year-old Sayegusa & Co. Ltd., a Ginza apparel business that has always been involved with children’s well-being. “Growing up in the concrete jungle of big cities, children today have fewer opportunities to experience and learn about Japan’s old customs,” Saegusa says. “I asked myself what more we could do for their future, and eventually decided to launch a program that would give them the chance to live closer to nature a few times a year.”

Searching for the best locale to host the program, in 2014 he settled on the hamlet of Kotaki in the village of Sakae, Nagano Prefecture. Kotaki had 13 households living by the Chikuma River, the longest in Japan. The location was inconvenient and out of the way, with heavy snows in winter, but still it was surrounded by nature and steeped in nostalgic elements of the old countryside.

Room to play: Both local and city kids joyously run around the hills and fields enjoying the fresh air.
Room to play: Both local and city kids joyously run around the hills and fields enjoying the fresh air.

The day after the Tohoku earthquake of March 2011, another earthquake had struck Sakae, inflicting devastation; 70 percent of Kotaki’s paddies had been cracked and rendered unfit for planting. Saegusa says, “I had finally found the ideal place for children to learn about nature and country lifestyles, and then I realized how people there were still struggling. I decided to launch a project to promote their fantastic rice.”

So he started the Kotaki Rice & Future Project in 2015 to promote and sell the rice lovingly cultivated by the hamlet’s farmers. After the amount needed for local consumption is set aside, Sayegusa buys the rest of each harvest. “We then market it to emphasize its goodness and the inspiring stories behind it,” says Saegusa.

There are plans to expand beyond Kotaki to include more nearby hamlets; trial sales of their rice are underway. “If the rice is distributed widely and in larger quantities, the village should regain vitality,” and Saegusa reports that “since we started the project, young people have come back to Kotaki and the population has begun to increase.” The project turns a spotlight on the issues challenging many outlying areas. Perhaps the future of rural Japan can be seen in the smiling faces of children.

Visit kotakirice.jp for purchase (shipping within Japan only). Rice is also sold at #0107 Plaza (Ginza Six, 4F) and some Tokyu Hands stores.

For more insight into Japan’s culture, arts and lifestyle, visit int.kateigaho.com.

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