One of the things I love in Japan almost as much as I love the food is the countryside. Japanese countryside can have it all - incredible hiking, volcanoes, quaint cafes with tables set under trees (ha, ok, that's not a standard thing, but something we have stumbled upon), hot springs, wide rivers to swim in, cute grannies hauling heavy loads of vegetables, local produce stands, pachinko parlors (the pseudo gambling known as pachinko seems to be the countryman's pasttime), temples and shrines, and a whole host of attractions waiting to be discovered by curious foreigners.
Thanks to Justin's car and our combined inquisitiveness, we have been lucky to get to know the countrysides of Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido.
This last weekend we were invited to plant rice with my co-worker's family. They own two of the visible rice paddies and it feeds all of their extended family (in rice) for a year.
Justin was outfitted with these special rice planting rubber tabi, but as my feet are too big for women's shoes and slightly smaller than men's, I had to slop around in the mud barefoot. Which felt really good...
First we were instructed to prepare the rice by sprinkling some good old chemicals on it.
A neighbor hand plants the edge of his tanbo (rice field).
These days, rice fields are no longer completely planted by hand. A machine that is basically a lawn mower with hands plucks bunches of the plants from the flats they have grow in and punches them into the soft mud. First we had to lay out the flats of rice along the edge of the field where the machine could pick them up. (My coworker and I)
My coworker's family doesn't sprout their own rice anymore, but buys it from a local farm store.
We took a break at lunch time and walked over to my coworker's grandmother's house down the street and had a simple and delicious Japanese feast.
All of the water that feeds the field is from a stream up in the nearby mountains. It was clear and fresh and the neighbor caught a fish in one of the aqueducts that looked like the cross of an eel and a catfish.
In these hot, sticky days, it is so lovely to sit with the windows open where the house meets the garden and eat together.
The ramen delivery man. The neighbors had ramen delivered to them after planting their rice, and I love this ramen balancing device. The ramen noodles and broth are assembled and cooked at the restaurant, then driven to the customer and this device keeps the bowls perfectly upright so that they don't spill.
Right, so the rice planting machine. You can't see them, but on the bottom of the machine are basically two hands that grab a perfect about of rice stalks and plant them into the mud. The mud is super squishy and soft, so its really easy to push the plants in. Like most things, driving the machine looks easy but is actually really difficult. The machine propels itself, but you have to keep it going in a straight line, through thick soft mud which wants to pull it in any direction.
This is my coworker's cousin in-law and she explained that when he first married into the family one of his first tests was whether or not he could plant a rice field. He apparently struggled a lot with it while everyone laughed at him except his father in-law, who stood at the edge of the field in disapointment.
Mid-afternoon we broke for a snack alongside the field. Oh delicious Japanese watermelon, you are soooo おいしい (oishi which means delicious!)! I really love the Japanese custom of eating pickled things when you are tired. Apparently something in pickled plums and vegetables is purported to perk you up. Fine by me, I just love pickles.
Justin drives the rice planter. Everyone LOVED how concentrated he was, in the way that it is always fun to watch a novice try their hardest at something you have mastered.
The machine isn't perfect, so you have to go in by hand and plant spaces it has missed as well as rows along the edges. It was tiring work, but a lot of fun.
In November they will harvest the rice with another ingenious machine that cuts the rice and ties it in bundles. The rice will hang to dry for about ten days and then another machine separates the rice from the stalk. On our countryside drives, I have often noticed small buildings that house what looks like a funnel and a mill, and after asking a local I found out that these are rice mills. Like paying for water at the store, you pay in kilograms to put your rice through the mill and have the husk removed. You can set the machine to "white rice" or "brown rice" settings depending on how you like your grains.
After planting was done, the entire family loaded into the car and we went to a local hot spring. My coworker's mother scrubbed all the women in the family down with a scrubby and then came over to me and asked if I'd like a scrub down. That naked hot spring scrub down made me feel close to them and part of something. Ha, a big I love you from Japan.
On another note, 露 （tsuyu) the rainy season started recently and it feels more like a monsoon this year than it did last year. It rains in buckets all day, all night. I woke up recently and felt different and realized it was because the rain had stopped... for a few hours. The moisture is making my house grow and when I go swimming at the gym it feels like I have just given in to the state of moisture that is around me all day long.
We over optimistically tried to go to the beach on a rain day. Snorkeling in the rain, we found out that the shallows are also effected by rain, no one seemed happy (though we did see a bunch of rays and an eel). Here we are trying to look warm, about to go hop in a hot spring to actually get warm.
Before the rain started, we headed out to northern Kagoshima and had this river beach all to ourselves. After swimming we ate somen noodles out of a machine that swirls them around a racetrack on your table, by far the best way to eat noodles ever invented.
On another sunny day of long ago, we met some interesting folks who were ocean kayaking and brought us some awabi (abalone) to barbeque and told us about their travels as medics and teachers to Ghana.
Justin built a raft out of bamboo collected from the forest around his town and set off to sea...