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Of rice and men: Questions you never thought to ask about harvesting Japan's meal staple

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By Aonghas Crowe

This time last year, I visited Ukiha, a small farming town in the south of Fukuoka Prefecture, to see the tanada (terraced rice paddies) and the higanbana (red spider lilies) that bloom around the edges of rice fields from mid- to late-September. Because the bulbs of the higanbana are highly poisonous, they’re believed to keep mice and other pests away.

As I climbed up a trail that meandered among the rice fields, I was struck by how small many of the patches were. Most were only as wide as a swimming pool lane and half as long. Some of the paddies were so modest in size it begged the question: how much rice could even the most determined farmer ever hope to grow in them? I wondered if it was worth all the effort to lug heavy farm equipment up the mountain, then till the land, irrigate and plant the rice when the yield from such a small plot must surely be negligible?

And so, the following week I went around pestering people to find out exactly how much rice could be harvested from a field that measured, say, one tatami mat in size. Would there be enough rice to make an onigiri (rice ball) or two? I asked some of my college students this question and received answers that varied from 50 to 500 rice balls. Clearly, they hadn’t the slightest of clues. With only 3 percent of the population of Japan engaged in farming today — it’s no wonder.

I eventually got around to talking to an in-law of mine, who like many rural Japanese, is a weekend farmer. He kindly provided the answer.

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Okay, the best rice I ever had was one October, maybe the best time of year too, in Toyoma Ken. Oh me, aroma, flavor, and I have had rice from Hokkaido to Okinawa, locally grown... there is no rice in the world like Japanese rice. Done.

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