Harvesting Rice

Owen operating the Mitsubishi VMS 11 rice harvester

On a perfect autumn morning we got to harvest rice in the nearby Shukonoso neighborhood. Our suburb of Minoh is dotted with paddies and rice is such a central part to the Japanese culture and diet, I always wanted to help out in the harvest. Our CAS coordinator arranged the opportunity through one of her neighbors, Kubo-san. His family have been harvesting rice for the past 800 years, so to say it is a family tradition, is an understatement. Osaka, like many metropolitan areas through the world, has grown immensely to overtake what was once a quiet village, Shukonoso is now part of the city. The families of Shukonoso continue to harvest rice, although, it is not a necessity today. Kubo-san is an expert garden and landscape designer, and told me his family does not make much money from their paddies, but they do it more for tradition than anything. Japan is not a big exporter of rice and the government subsidizes its production. Japanese prefer the short grain, glutinous rice that is good for sushi and chopsticks. My children prefer the this short grain rice, especially when we add the rice vinegar. I prefer the long grain jasmine variety, produced in Thailand.

Kubo-san shows us how to cut the rice bundles.

Kubo was very kind to put up with us wanting to “help”. He showed us how to harvest in the traditional manner, with a sickle. Rice seedlings are planted in bundles and 3-5 bundles are cut and laid on the field at a time. They would then be hung and dried before the grains are pulled. Instead, we fed the rice stalks into the harvester. Kubo then allowed us to drive the harvester along the rows. It was like mowing lawns, slowly going down the rows.

Spending time in the field also gave me the chance to look at the irrigation system. There is an intricate system of reservoirs, damns and canals like a spider web going from the Minoh hills down through the city to the Osaka bay. It makes it easier for the rice seedlings to combat pests and weeds to have them grow in a few inches of water. That system must have been developed over the centuries. I am not sure how it works, but everyone must work together to get the water where it needs to go to at the proper time.

We counted between 44 to 62 seeds per stalk.

The experience gave me a better appreciation of rice and brought me closer to Japan. Thanks to Lyn and Kubo san for allowing Owen and I to participate.

It is funny to me that I eat so much rice now. Growing up in 1970s  rural Michigan in the pre-globalization era, my mother never served rice and we didn’t eat at ethnic restaurants. I really didn’t eat much rice until university and my first international posting in Colombia. Rice is as popular in South America as Asia. We were strictly a “meat and potato” family growing up. We eat rice on an almost daily basis and the staples of my youth, bread/butter and potatoes are rare at the dinner table for the Kralovecs.

Growing Rice

Our suburb of Minoh is full of rice paddies and gardens. You can find them scattered between residential and business districts. Often there are several fields together. The method of rice cultivation here requires standing water and so coming from the hills of the Minoh quasi national park down into the city, there is a system of  irrigation canals and reservoirs for capturing rainwater and storing and directing it towards the fields. The field above, as you can see in the another photo below of the field, has an reservoir right next to it. The reservoirs are a great place to see and hear wildlife. I’ve taken many photographs of ducks and herons.

There are canals everywhere, mostly on the sides of roads. In a safety conscious country like Japan, this is unexpected because they are easy to fall into on a bicycle or car.

The rice paddies are mostly tended to by older people, which there are a lot of in Japan. The government subsidizes the production of rice in the name of national culture. Small, private  farms are not economical, but it is nice to see agriculture everyday and the Japanese practicing this facet of their culture. I wonder if the younger generation will continue this practice? I also would like to know how much the government spends on this.

The last week in May and first week in June is when rice if first planted. The seedlings are started indoors and then brought out to the fields. You can see the seedlings in the photo above, they are next to the man.  Most of the planting I saw was by a machine that looked a little bigger than a riding lawnmower. The Minoh city office organized a community planting for families and they did it by hand. The fields are then flooded and farmers watch to make sure the water levels remain static. The water blocks out other weeds from outcompeting the rice.

When I get back from summer holiday and August, the rice will look as it does below. The rice is harvested in mid to late September and I hope to participate in a harvest this year. It would be interesting to see how it goes from field to the store. I have no idea.