Japan Becomes a WATERWORLD as the Rice Fields are Flooded in Preparation for TAUE (pronounced TA OO EH)- rice transplantation
By Avi Landau
An amazing transformation!
If one were to have a window-seat on a daytime flight out of Narita airport in mid-April, looking down upon the Kanto Plain below, one would see densely packed clusters of houses, the small scattered dark green islands of evergreen trees (mostly cedar) which grow on uncultivatable hills ( many of which are actually ancient burial mounds!), and between them, the dull, lifeless, brown and straw-colored spaces where the rice is grown between May and October. Then, if that same person were to fly back to Narita about two weeks later, again with a seat by the window, he or she would probably gasp in astonishment when looking down below, as they would have witnessed what is surely the most dramatic annual landscape transformation which takes place in this area (where there is practically no long lasting snowfall)- the creation of a veritable WATERWORLD as the rice fields are flooded in preparation for the transplantation of the young rice plants.
The scene from ground level can be just as impressive, but in a different way, with the mirror-like surfaces of the flooded fields dotted with egrets, ducks and herons. Then, at night, there is the crazed chorus of frogs who sound as if they just CANNOT contain the sheer joy of having been so well watered.
Ten years ago , with the nuclear accident in neighboring Fukushima Prefecture and subsequent reports of radioactive contamination in vegetables here in Ibaraki, there were concerns about whether there would be rice growing at all anymore. Fortunately, the government gave the go-ahead to farmers in this prefecture ( though not to those in certain parts of Fukushima), and even before I heard the official pronouncement in that year, I had realized the decision had been made because I could see the fields in my neighborhood being flooded and heard the frogs come to life ( a heartening sound it was indeed) !
This year (2021), I am happily experiencing the same thrill.
In Japan, the first week of May has a string of national holidays in it making up what is known as Golden Week (this year, the first year of Reiwa the holiday is ten days long!). The original intention behind the creation of what is now a popular time for the Japanese ( and foreign residents in Japan) to go on a vacation, or just take a well needed rest, was to provide the rice farmers, most of whom also work regular jobs, with the time to do the rice transplanting. Since the 1970`s and the widespread availability of mechanical trans-planters, this task has become much, MUCH easier than it used to be, when nearly everyone in the village would have to lend a hand to help complete the long, backbreaking labor. Now, with the help of the machines (which most of Tsukuba`s rice farmers own), the work can be done by one person, in less than an hour (for one field).
If you take a walk, bike ride, or drive, around the Tsukuban countryside this week (like I`ve been doing for the past few days), you will be able to see the transplantation (ta ue 田植え, in Japanese), for yourselves. The farmers are usually very friendly and happy to chat about rice production. If you are lucky, they might even let you try your hand at some transplanting (though I am sure the farmers who let me have a try regret that they had- my rows were all crooked!).
Some of you (from non-rice growing regions), might be wondering what I mean by TRANSPLANTING, instead of just plain PLANTING. Well, let me explain a bit about what the farmers have to do in the early stages of the rice cultivation cycle, between late March and early May (of course timings are different in warmer regions like Okinawa and parts of Kagoshima where farmers can get TWO rice harvests per year).
In most regions of Japan, the process of growing rice begins in late March. It is then that the rice seeds are planted in soil in seedling trays (IKUBYO-BAKO, 育苗箱), which are then placed in incubators (IKUBYO-KI, 育苗機) which maintain temperatures at around 30 degrees centigrade. After about 3 days, white shoots appear and when these reach a length of about one centimeter, the trays are moved to large greenhouses, where they will be grown under controlled temperatures for about one month and the plants reach a length of 7 or 8 cm. These days in Ibaraki, and the rest of Japan, this process is often now taken care of by NOKYO, Japan`s huge and powerful agricultural cooperative. In past ages, however, rice seeds were planted in soft muddy soil, and then the seedlings which survived were transferred to the flooded fields.
In Mid-April, just as the cherry blossoms are often starting to drop away, the farmers begin preparing the fields. This is called Ta Okoshi (田おこし) in Japanese (literally- Awakening the Fields). After the stagnant and freezing winter months the soil must be plowed. In the old days, this was again BACKBREAKING labor for both humans and beasts of burden (horses and oxen). Todays tractors do the works 15 times more efficiently. The soil is usually plowed up to a depth of 12-15 cm, optimal for the rice plants to take strong root.
When the plowing is done, the fields are also fertilized. In past ages, the fertilizer was of course all organic (fermented plant and animal waste matter), but now most farmers also use chemical fertilizers.
Then, at the end of April, the fields are flooded. This characteristic of rice culture , which involved a community’s sharing of water resources is often pointed out by Japanese scholars as being the main reason for Japan`s having developed its unique group oriented culture (but is Japanese culture the same as that of other rice growing cultures which shared water resources?).
In the earlier days of rice cultivation in Japan, this all important crop could only be grown near wetlands, lakes or rivers. Water would be diverted to fields just before transplantation. In later years, new rice fields could be developed by the creation of canals and reservoirs. These days, rice fields are flooded and drained with pumps and built-in pipes, which make everything much more efficient.
While the fields are being flooded, the fields are plowed again, to mix the water and soil well and to make the soil surface under the water even, so the young plants will stick out of the water at the same height. This process is called Shirokaki (代かき)
Finally, in the first week of May, we get to the part that you can witness this week at various places around Tsukuba. The trays of seedlings are brought out and placed in the tractor-like transplanting machines. It always amazes me how the farmers make such straight beautiful rows .
Dont miss having a look at this absolutely fundamental element of Japanese culture.This will not require much effort on your part as no matter where you are in Tsukuba, you can never be very far from a rice field (tambo). The flooded fields are most photogenic in the early morning and at sundown.