So by and large, I don’t like to write about my specific day-to-day experiences in Japan, because it’s usually old news to the people who know me, and none of the business of the people who don’t.
But anyway. A couple of weeks ago, one of the elementary schools I worked at invited me to join their fifth- and sixth-graders in planting a field of rice. Well, I say invited, but they basically conspired with the other school I work at regularly and rearranged my entire work schedule so that I could attend the rice-planting (in Japanese, ta-ue). This made me a little suspicious – were they going to so much effort because they thought that as a huge foreigner I could do more work? (It’s a joke, of course; Japanese people never assume foreigners can do anything better, except for drinking and being noisy).
Actually, I think they genuinely wanted me to have one of the most authentically Japanese experiences it’s possible to have.
I live in one of Japan’s few really “rural” areas. Of course, it’s pretty small and convenient compared to the vast expanses of nothing in places like Australia or South Africa, but to people living in Tokyo or Osaka, this is practically a foreign country. The main part of the city I live in is reasonably built up (we have like, five take-out joints – again, totally the sticks to people from the big cities), but about forty minutes from the central area is where it starts to get really, really rural – by which I mean you can see some unspoiled nature that is both so beautiful and so rare in this country.
Out in the sticks is where my elementary school is. Every year, they plant, maintain and harvest a small rice paddy in the locally famous terraced rice fields, which stretch six hundred metres up the mountainside.
I took the bus with my students up a narrow winding road and listened to the old man who owns the plot of land we’d be planting explaining about the terraced fields. The paths between them – where there are paths – are steep and narrow, so nearly everything needs to be done by hand, probably including lugging heavy bags of harvested rice up the mountain. The rice harvested there is apparently sold at a swanky department store in Tokyo.
We planted a fairly small field, which a teacher later told me should yield around fifty to sixty kilograms of rice. On doing some research, I discovered that the average Japanese person consumes about 59kg of rice per year, which seems like an incredibly huge amount – my husband and I between us consume about 15-20kg of brown rice and maybe 4-5kg of white rice a year. (I guess we eat a lot of pasta…)
The actual planting was a pretty difficult and unpleasant job. Within about five minutes my lower back was aching like crazy. I was barefoot and the mud came about halfway up my shins. It’s amazing soil, pitch black and rich, but it’s about one part mud to one part water, so walking was quite a challenge (although the rude sucking noises make for a certain amount of emotional satisfaction whenever you yank your foot out of the mud). I am not fond of creepy crawlies and the field seemed to be crammed with spiders and tadpoles. The fact that I didn’t scream hysterically from start to finish actually makes me fairly proud, although mostly I was just terrified of falling over as I forgot my change of clothes at the school.
It took us – thirty students and me – about forty minutes to plant the whole field. I imagine it must take a lot longer when it’s two Japanese over-sixties, which accounts for something like two-thirds of the Japanese farming population, possibly more.
I was pretty amazed and moved by the whole experience. It sounds terribly twee, but I felt intensely grateful that there are people out there willing to engage in such hard, thankless work to keep us all fed. I realize that the vast majority of commercial agriculture isn’t done in the traditional Japanese way and is probably a lot more efficient than the way we planted rice, but still… I was really glad that I got to experience that. In Japan I’ve gotten into the habit of starting a meal by saying “itadakimasu” – it literally means, “I gratefully receive”. There’s a complex explanation for this involving thanking the spirits of the plants, even the spirits of the clay that makes the rice bowl, but I think that when I eat rice from now on, I will add an extra layer of thankfulness for the people who work so damn hard to get food to us.