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Working the Fields

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I’ve neglected to write about a couple of social events I’ve partaken in recently, only because there was nothing particularly remarkable to say about them. Two weekends ago I went to a picnic in a lovely park in Tokyo to visit Jack and Lily and a bunch of their friends. A couple of days later I went back to Tokyo to celebrate Stephen’s birthday at a restaurant in Harajuku. Both were pleasant experiences, but neither begged to for full blog documentation.

The social event of this past Saturday, by contrast, was of a culturally interesting enough nature to warrant a full post. Fred, whose company I greatly enjoy but rarely ever see, has gotten involved with a local organic farm company which—among many other things—gets groups of people together to teach them old-school methods of farming. As it’s rice-planting season, they’re currently having groups of people—Japanese and foreigners alike—come and plant rice by hand, the way the Japanese did it for thousands of years before they built machines to do the work. Groups plant rice for a couple of hours, then after a short interval of time to let everyone get a bath or a shower, they have a party in the evening.

I have to confess that I wasn’t looking forward to this at all. It was just one of those experiences I felt obliged to have simply by virtue of it being a rare opportunity. Though the experience probably wouldn’t be fun, it was an experience that very few people nowadays will ever have. Trudging through the mud and doing back-breaking labor in the fields for no pay doesn’t exactly strike me as the most pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but I figured I’d just push myself into it. At least the party afterwards was guaranteed to be a good time.

I met up with Fred, his girlfriend Chihiro, another rarely-seen Togane ALT named Kate, and a guy named Ryan I haven’t seen since last year’s hanami, at the Togane train station at 12:30 and we proceeded to walk the 5 km to the farm. We couldn’t have hoped for a more beautiful day, and the walk was quite pleasant as we all got caught up with what each of us has been up to. Fred will be here for one more year, then he’s going to go back to America to get his masters in forestry and start a career in that field. Ben, whom I haven’t seen since the Christmas party, would join us later, but I found out this is currently his last year living here and he’ll be going back to America in July (the JET program is now officially done in Togane, probably thanks to the fine job Interac ALTs like Kim and I have been doing for less cost to the schools).

We got to the farm’s “headquarters” (nothing more than an ordinary Japanese house) forty minutes early and just hung out until everyone else arrived and we were ready to begin. Fred and Kate had done this last year and said there had been about 60 people, whereas today there were only about 25. That would mean more rice-planting for everyone! Hooray!

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We walked down towards the rice fields, most of which had already been seeded, and stopped to pick up the rice plants themselves along the way. Apparently they let the plants grow a little before putting them into the flooded paddies. Hey, I learned something already!

When we reached our designated section of field, little squares of rice plants were distributed to each of us, and we lined up at the edge of the paddy. A grid had been imprinted into the mud earlier by a big wooden mesh cylinder, and our job was to tear off 3-5 stalks of the rice plants—roots and all—and press them about 2 centimeters deep into every intersection in the grid. We were each responsible for three rows, and once finished we would help finish whatever was left.

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I rolled up my jeans and stepped bravely into the mud. It was an interesting sensation to say the least, but nothing unpleasant and I got used to it very quickly. The hard part was the constant bending down to plant the rice. Once you got the hang of tearing off the stalks, you picked up the pace considerably and ended up hunched over at a 90-degree angle for pretty much the whole time.

The depth of the water varied throughout the field, with the mud above the surface at some points, and sometimes practically thigh deep. You had to be careful whenever you removed your feet from the mud to step forward, or you could easily fall over—which a few people did. Due to the lack-of-ease-of-mobility, whenever you ran out of grass you would shout “nai” (none left) to the farmers and they’d toss you a fresh batch, often missing and splashing you with muddy water.

When Fred had finished his lines I took my camera out from its dangerous location in my pocket and tossed it to him, which thankfully he caught and was able to get some good shots of me in the midst of my labor.

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It probably took me about forty minutes altogether to cross the paddy, but by the time I was done the last remaining sections were all well-covered, so I assumed my work for the day was done. That wasn’t so bad.

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Of course, unbeknownst to me there was a whole other section of field we had to do. Once the first part was done we headed up the hill to that one, a much longer and narrower field DSCF2917than before. This time we were planting black rice, which should only be planted 2 stalks at a time, making the tearing-off part of the job slightly more challenging. For some reason the water in this particular field was more bug-infested than the other, riddled with spiders darting to and fro across the surface. I braved my arachnophobia and made it through, this time tackling four rows at a time to make it go faster. I traversed the field three times before I was done, and while my back was pretty sore by that point I couldn’t deny the strong sense of accomplishment.

The whole ordeal hadn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared—only about an hour and a half of actual labor altogether. I’ve never been one to enjoy getting my hands dirty, but it didn’t come without a small sense of pride at having done it. I spend most of my time sitting in a faculty room at my computer. Doing actual manual labor was a nice change of pace, though it’s certainly not something I’d want to do every day.  There’s another event in the fall when we harvest the rice, and while Fred says that’s more difficult I’ll probably try that too.

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We headed back up the hill, stopping somewhere along the way to wash off the mud, and when we got back to the house the farmers were giving rides to a nearby bath-house. This was an authentic Japanese everybody-take-your-clothes-off-in-front-of-each-other bath-house, so I waited in the lobby while the others went in. I’d already done my Japanese-culture thing for the day—getting naked in front of a bunch of people I barely know is one of those cultural experiences I’m perfectly content to deprive myself of.

The party was as enjoyable as expected. Ben brought his iPod and some speakers and provided us with music. The farmers provided us with meat to grill, delicious fresh vegetables grown right on the farm, and beer. The whole thing cost us 2000 yen apiece, worth the price even though I couldn’t eat most of the meat.

As usually happens at these sorts of things, the foreigners mingled with the foreigners and Japanese with the Japanese until all of us had consumed enough alcohol to start mingling with each other, each doing our best to communicate using as much of the other language as possible, and managing to do so surprisingly well in spite of the difficulty.

When the food was gone and the hardcore partiers were migrating inside, most of us decided to head home so as to avoid getting completely wasted. I walked back to Togane with Fred, Ben, and Ryan, sipping our last beers along the way. It was nice to hang out with those guys again, and hopefully I’ll get to see Ben at least one more time before he heads back to the states.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a Saturday in Japan.

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