Peering out their living room window over the fence, a wife calls to her husband, “Honey, that greenie neighbour of ours has gotten himself a buzz cut and now he’s saying that he’s leaving town for eight months. I think he might be on the run. Should we call the police?” Not an unreasonable response, right? Well, my ‘neighbour’ has undergone that exact same drastic change. But there’ll be no ‘boys in blue’ (policemen) darkening my doorstep chasing down leads. You see, my ‘neighbour’ is a tanbo (田圃 rice field) and harvest time has come and gone.
Rice or kome (米) hasn’t featured much in my posts yet. But since I’m living in a land of rice, it would be remiss of me not to write about something that’s so intrinsic to life here and is my ‘neighbour’ from May until September every year.
Given its wide coastal plains, Mie is a very fertile rice bowl. It’s been that way for hundreds of years. The warlord who united Japan’s right hand man ended his days as lord of Tsu and Ise in Mie, and he was staggeringly rich. Back then, and in some ways even now, wealth was measured in rice, and Tōdō Takatora (藤堂 高虎) had plenty of it – 320,000 koku. A koku equates to enough rice to feed a man for one year and is approximately 150kg. That’s 48 million kilograms!
Growing rice is still very much part of life for a wide slice of society here in Tsu. My colleagues are professionals, not farmers, but plenty of them still plant their own fields every year and lament about the work that’ll be waiting for them over their summer holidays in August, which just happen to coincide with harvest time. I felt sure that I wouldn’t see any harvesting this year given that I’d been gone from Japan for most of August. Looking out over the nearby fields in search of that glorious golden hue that belies a field ready for harvest, I saw nothing but dried stalk stubs dotting fields that had already had their bounty gathered. No matter which direction I explored in near my apartment, the only other scene that greeted my eyes were fields that had been harvested so long ago that they were now lusciously green again with foot-high regrowth.
But after riding a few kilometres from home, my luck turned and golden fields gradually started popping up and I rode past an old couple just as they started their harvester up. Though there are a few different models about, almost all of harvesters around here are either mostly flaming, ‘safety’ orange or have orange racing stripes on them. Make that expensive racing stripes. According to one rice farming friend, everyone owns their own harvesting machine and a basic model with no extras costs around ¥6,000,000 (AUD$ 70,000). There is no hire system because the harvest season is so short, often shortened further by typhoons, so everyone needs the machines at once. Talk about being the complete opposite of farming in Australia, where most harvesting work is contracted out. Imagine every wheat or cotton farmer in Australia owning their own combine harvesters, gigantic machines which can cost over AUD$500,000 used. Given the size of Australian farms and their output, such a practice might make some sense. But here where the fields are super tiny, tiny enough to be harvested by hand in some cases, the machine salesmen must be a very happy bunch. How tiny are the fields you ask? The average size of a tanbo is 30mx100m, but their size can vary a lot from as small as 20mx30m up to almost 1000m2. As for yield, one tsubo (坪 the traditional unit of area measurement in Japan, 3m2) should produce 1.6kg of rice, which roughly equates to 240kg per acre.
Watching the harvesting machines speedily mow the fields down, you’d be forgiven for thinking that rice farming is an easy caper. Some of the machines even bag the rice as they go. But one rainy afternoon spent at my rice farming friend’s workshop dispelled that idyllic notion.
It turns out that the plenty of hard yards await the farmer after harvest. It’s then time to fill the silo, fire up the dehusking machine and package the rice into 30kg bags, that are being churned out once every 90 seconds. Not exactly much time to tie the bag shut, carry it across the room, add it to the pile and dash back before the next bag is ready to go. It’s hot, hard and dusty work, even at almost 6pm.
Thankfully for my friend, all his work for this year’s harvest is behind him so he can stash away next year’s seed and leave his fields sit empty until spring. Alas his days won’t be quite so idle. Winter is on its way, so it’s time for him to be getting his glasshouse ready to plant his strawberry crop without delay. I think I can foresee a strawberry-related post come December. Onegai, Kats.