Статьи Скотта Гормана (Scott Gorman)

January 13, 2009

A Day on Saito-san’s Farm

The handsome traditional farmhouse of Mitsuru Saito was built in the Taisho Period, about 90 years ago, when agriculture was the primary occupation of the vast majority of Japanese people. The roof was made of thatched grass then, as are those of many farmhouses in the region even. The farm itself is much older; no one seems to know how old, waving aside such questions. Very, very old is the implication.

The man now called Showa in death, in life the Emperor Hirohito, who personally led Japan into a disastrous imperial period in the mid 20th Century, had not yet reached puberty when the house was constructed. The population of Tokyo, which in those days before fast public transportation and motorcars seemed even further away from remote Kisakata, Akita Prefecture, was around 1.5 million. Now there are more than 12 million, more people than live in New York City, and where farm fields once stood as little as 50 years ago is a daunting concrete megalopolis the stands as a symbol of future-shock for an entire world.

But in Kisakata, with a population of less than 15,000 people, things look pretty much the same on the surface. Rice farming, which originated in China and was brought to Japan by Koreans in the Yayoi Period (300 B.C-300 A.D.), is still a backbone of the local economy, along with fishing, even more ancient. The snow-capped peaks of Chokai-san (Mount Chokai) still rise above these fields, giving precious water; and combined with the climate that features the sea air from Nihon Kai (The Sea of Japan), mixed with the frigid air from the mountain and winds that inexorably make their way here from the Siberian Plain, still make the rice among the most delicious in Japan, a fact of which the people are very proud.

These fields at what is now called Santaro Farm were planted and harvested in the same manner for many centuries: By hand, with the backbreaking labor of many people and beasts of burden. The relatives, even those who lived far away, would return for the laborious process of planting by hand each spring, usually in the month of May, or Gogatsu in Japanese. Young people from the immediate area were hired if needed. Horses kept in a stable right next to the house were harnessed. Although the farm then and now might seem small by western standards, (it is average size at three hectares, or around 7.4 acres), the rice would have to feed the extended family for the entire year and the surplus would be sold at market for needed manufactured goods and necessary services. Water, a huge amount, would need to be hauled in.

But today, as with much of the rest of still agricultural Japan, everything but the rural landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. The stables are long gone. The fields are planted by machine and harvested by massive combines. Where many people once worked, mechanization means that one person alone can effectively farm this acreage. A system of culverts which channel the water of streams and rivers have replaced hauling. Where the rice was once hung out to dry, it is now done in a fraction of that time in a machine whirring in the nearby garage. Pests which may have devastated the crop in years past no longer have a purchase here; a chemical insecticide called Monceran is sprayed from helicopters.

Saito-san celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary a few years back, but he is still going strong. Unlike in years past, he and most farmers do not have to live 10 to a room in some far off city in the winter months to seek labor to make ends meet; the rice produced here is sufficient income for the whole year.

Two kinds of rice grow here: Sasanishiki, which the farmer says means nothing in particular, and Hirome-bore, which means to fall in love at first sight.

Those sitting down to a bowl of rice from this prefecture will immediately understand. It is a delicious rice of the short grain, sticky variety favored all over Japan. Many of Saito-san’s fellow farmers sell their product through the enormous J.A. agriculture cooperative run by the government, but he does not, instead selling half of his 18,000 kilogram annual yield to local merchants right out of the garage (there is machine for bagging the rice there as well), and half to small wholesalers. A small amount is reserved for the family, which has dwindled is size in recent years, as is the case throughout Japan.

Some farmers still dry a little in the old way for sentimental reasons, and some even claim it tastes better. Saito-san dismisses this claim with a smile; he is a modern man and doesn’t hold much with the old ways; those are for etchings and scrolls, he implies. Like most farmers, as opposed to those who watch them from afar, he didn’t find much romance in the old ways to which he bent he bent his back in the first four decades of his life. He is grateful for mechanization. And when you ask about the possible harmful effects of the insecticides mixing with the water he holds so dear, he looks puzzled. Eventually, he says he knows of no problems; nor does he seem eager to know of any if they exist.

What he really worries about is a drop in rice consumption by the Japanese people. Too many people are eating pasta and potatoes, he says with a slight frown, seeming to imply that this is a failure of morality. The Japanese national government is concerned about this as well, and helps keep farmers like Saito-san afloat with a subsidy equal to about 30 percent of the actual market value of his annual yield.

Rice grows so very well here due to that water and to the fact that during the growing season (harvest is in September, or Kugatsu), the days are very hot but the night cools things off quickly.

So it is throughout most of Akita Prefecture, which is located in the Tohoku Region far to the north of the main Japanese island of Honshu, on the Sea of Japan. The prefecture’s boundaries follow natural geographic divisions; the northern, eastern and southern borders all run along the crests of mountain ranges and the western side abuts the sea. Total land area is 11, 431 kilometers, most of which is covered in forest (about 72 percent, or 840,000 hectares). About 16 percent of the land is under cultivation, 85 percent of that in rice paddies

Rice farms like those of Saito-san produce about six percent of the national yield. In other parts of Japan, Akita is famous for three things; rice, snowy winter weather and beautiful women – just ask, almost anyone will tell you the same thing. The local “Akita Komachi” rice is promoted throughout Japan, and is credited with starting the recent boom in selling “branded” rice identified by its place of origin. The name “komachi” is a reference to the legendary beauty of the Heian Period (794-1192), Ono-no-Komachi, who is believed to have come from Akita.

A consequence (or benefit, depending on your point of view) of all this good rice is the leading role the prefecture has taken in sake (rice-wine) brewing. The prefecture is fourth nation-wide in sake production, and with the very cold and long winters, it will likely not be surprising that is unsurpassed in per-capita consumption.

Saito-san acknowledges liking his sake, and like most of those from Kisakata, drinks the product brewed right in town. As he stood and waved goodbye to visitors on a balmy November day, he invited them back to share a cup or two once winter set in.

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