paddy

Town creates art in rice paddies for economic revival

The New York Times ran a great story about how a small town in northern Japan named Inakadate has been creating art works using colored rice as a way to attract tourists and revive a struggling economy. Creating this living art work has brought the community together and draws up to 170,000 visitors to this town of fewer than 9,000 mostly elderly residents.

Five colors of rice plotted intricately on the field yield this image of a samurai fighting a warrior monk. The cost of renting and planting the field is about US35,000 making this an affordable rural revitalization effort. Last year 170,000 visitors came to view the rice art. And each year the town tries to outdo previous efforts to continue to gain media attention and visitors.

Rice planting in Nasu, Tochigi

It’s always an adventure to get out of Tokyo and see rural Japan. Recently, TEDxSeeds executive producer Ito Hiromasa (伊藤 弘雅) invited me to join some of his friends on a day trip visit to an experimental “mountain cow” farm and Free Farm, which produces rice and vegetables, in Nasu, Tochigi.

We were lucky to be there on the day of rice planting, called taue (田植え). Farmers use a simple machine that inserts the seedlings into the wet rice paddy. It is amazing how symmetrical it becomes. There was something magical about seeing rice planted. Along with the small machine, two women were working very hard unloading the seedlings and making the watery mud even with a large wood instrument.

The farmers invited us for gyoza dumplings and zero food mile rice. Free Farm has a great blog that connects city people to farmers, and a fresh food delivery service (link in Japanese with lots of great photos). Another TEDxSeeds organizer, Sato Hirotsugu, was at the farm for the weekend, and he was very welcoming.

City and Country, 1970s and now

“The Japanese think of the City in the way that Englishmen used to think of Mighty London. It is either one or the other. Rice paddies or the Ginza.” (p35)

I am reading the wonderful author Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, first published in 1971. Richie is the ultimate American expat in Japan, who stayed from the start of the Occupation until today, and this is a classic travel book focused on Seto Nai Kai (the Inland Sea), which I recently visited.

This passage struck me because Ginza Farm, which I have visited for Tokyo Green Space, overcomes the division between city and country by bringing a rice paddy to Ginza, Tokyo’s most celebrated commercial district full of De Beers, Cartier and now of course Uniqlo flagship stores.

Richie’s The Inland Sea also reminds me of the recently deceased French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, which chronicled an Amazon on the verge of extinction. In a similar voyage by boat, Richie bemoans the new highways and lure of the city that threaten the fishing economy and general isolation of these islands and peoples. What used to be called “salvage anthropology” clashes with contemporary feelings by focusing on purity and what is about to be lost. This antique attitude also portrays the writer as both the “first” and last foreigner to capture a vanishing culture, creating a false sense of importance for the individual writer.

Despite this unease, it is hard not to enjoy Richie’s beautiful writing, his insights on insider and outsider culture, and his only partly closeted attraction to Japan. And I do not doubt the gulf that once existed between city and country, which makes the current urban interest in rural life and agriculture all the more indicative of profound social and environmental change.

On a related topic, I read this week in the New York Times that Korea, which is generally more accepting of national diversity, is having difficulties integrating children of mixed marriages. Most mixed children are the progeny of Korean farmers and their Chinese, Filipino and Thai wives. Partly the social question is of race, but also of class and city versus country.

I was struck that Korea shares Japan’s rural abandonment, and seems ahead of Japan in responding through immigration. Perhaps Japan, too, will first open its doors to immigrants willing to live in its rural areas now inhabited almost exclusively by the elderly. Despite Japan’s xenophobia, immigrants as care-givers and farmers seem more likely than the techno fantasy of robots: more cost-effective as workers and more human in terms of care and culture.

Ginza rice farm

Ginza rice farm

On a side street in Ginza, I noticed a rice farm and met Ginza Farm‘s CEO Iimura Kazuki (飯村一樹) and his assistant who were tending the rice and two cute ducklings. Shop clerks and construction clerks stopped by to admire the rice in its mid-summer glory.

The rice farm occupies an empty lot. At the end of the afternoon Iimura-san was draining the rice paddy, and his assistant was collecting the ducklings to take back to the office for the evening. On the left is a beautiful table and benches, on the back and right side a huge photo mural of rural Japanese rice farms, and in front a bamboo fence, some live bamboo, vines, a black pine, and a few cucumber plants.

The banner reads “100 rice farms make Japan healthy.” The project is apparently funded by this group of Japanese rice farmers, with support from a lumber association. The following day was going to feature an “onigiri” (rice ball) party at 5 pm, and there’s something planned for this Sunday, July 19.

Iimura-san was very friendly, and even pointed out a frog that had somehow discovered the rice paddy.

Ginza Farm's Iimura Kazuki Ginza Farm frog

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