Crash Course: Rice Cultivation

They don’t really grow rice in downtown Tokyo. And rice isn’t one of the staple crops of Okinawa (that would be pineapple and sugarcane, if you’re curious). So for the first four years of my life in Japan, I ate a LOT of rice but never quite saw where it came from.

That all changed when we moved to Kumamoto. Some call this prefecture Kyushu’s bread basket and the rice paddies begin just as soon as the city limits are passed. Over the past year, I’ve watched the the paddies go from golden to brown to parched to flooded to iridescent green and back to golden again. I’ve never had an interest in agriculture and I’m not much of a green thumb myself (just ask my poor, neglected herb garden) but for some reason, I find the rice cycle here fascinating.

Rice, food … the word is the same in Japanese (gohan). Rice has been the staple crop of the Japanese diet for thousands of years. Recent carbon dating tests show that rice was introduced to Japan around the 13th century BC. Being originally a subtropical crop, it was never cultivated in Hokkaido (and although strains of rice were later developed to withstand cooler temperatures, I still don’t know if Hokkaido has any rice production … anyone?) Due to its supreme importance in Japanese culture and life, even the Emperor has a little rice paddy that he helps to cultivate, mostly for press events. 🙂

A rice plant at harvest time
A rice plant at harvest time

Rice season in Japan starts sometime around the end of winter and the arrival of the cherry blossoms. Farmers plant and tend to seedlings inside or in a greenhouse, while they prepare the fields for the eventual planning. Here in Kyushu, March is the start of the burning of the rice fields, especially around Mt Aso. It supposedly helps to fertilize the soil, a key necessity for good rice. Around this time, there are a lot of related fire festivals in Kumamoto prefecture to celebrate the start of the season.

Aso's fire festival, to pray for a good rice crop
Aso’s fire festival, to pray for a good rice crop

In early summer, the paddies are flooded and the rice gets transferred to the wet fields. The rice seedlings are only about 4-5 inches at this time and the land has to be graded carefully to make sure the water stays at the same level throughout the paddy. Most farmers do the planting with the aid of machines but you can still catch the tradition of planting each stalk one by one if you attend a rice-planting festival. I caught one at Osaka’s Sumiyoshi Shrine this past June but you’ll find them all over the country in early summer.

Planting rice at the Sumiyoshi Shrine
Planting rice at the Sumiyoshi Shrine

In high summer, the fields of Japan look like a sea of bright green as the rice grows higher and higher. Water has to be constantly added as the plants absorb so much during their growth. Many farmers get water from local rivers or reservoirs, but in mountainous regions or areas short on water, you often see rice paddies arranged in terraced slopes so the water can flow from the top paddy down to the bottom.

Rice paddies in early summer
Rice paddies in early summer

In the fall, the rice turns a golden yellow and the fields are prepped for harvesting. On my drive through Kumamoto prefecture the other weekend, we saw fields at all stages of harvest. First, the paddies are drained of water. Whether this causes the rice to fall over a bit or the farmers come and push down the stalks to make it easier for the machine to cut, I don’t know but half of the rice fields were laying flat. Some farmers appeared to be going through and cutting the stalks with a scythe, while others were using a combine to cut and thresh the stalks (removing the seed heads). In a number of the fields, rice was arranged on wooden racks for drying, the final step of the process before it is removed from the field and sent off to for inspection and bagging.

Rice drying in rural Kumamoto
Rice drying in rural Kumamoto

And that’s the process! It’s been fascinating to see where my daily rice comes from and I’ve loved the chance to get an up close view of the rice paddies here in my home prefecture. If you’re traveling to Japan between June and October, you should absolutely plan a trip out to the countryside just to see the paddies at their best.

If you want to know more, this website was a great resource and even gives you hints on the best way to prepare your rice. (Soaking it makes a huge difference, I think!)

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