Shonai's Rice Season

April 5th, 2020

A Place Where Rice is Grown, in Pictures

The Shonai plain in Yamagata prefecture features a rich tradition of rice cultivation. It is here that the Tokugawa shogunate commissioned the Shonai domain to produce its high-quality rice for the new capital of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) in the 1600s. With the help of nearby Sakata port, Kitamaebune trade ships spread that rice all throughout the Japanese mainland, firmly establishing Shonai's reputation as one of Japan's most lauded rice areas.
Throughout those centuries, the practice of rice farming has been handed down the generations from farmer to farmer. And although there are new challenges ahead in terms of an aging population, decreasing rice consumption, and cheap imports from abroad, some of Japan's highest-quality rice is still grown in abundance here.
As someone who moved here from Europe, I had never seen rice farming from up close. Perhaps it is for that reason that I've so come to appreciate the scenes of farmers working their fields. This rice season, much of time was spent at home thanks to a covid-induced work-from-home policy. This meant I had the unique opportunity to apply my new camera (Fujifilm X100V) and capture the bustling rice fields nearby my house from up close. What follows is a collection of some of my favorite moments from the start to the end of Shonai’s rice season.

A Bag of Seeds

In the village next to where I live, farmers are given their bags of rice seeds by JA. My camera arrived on the last rainy day of the handouts after most farmers had already picked up their bags. Only a few bags remained.
 

The history of pottery

Farmers prepare the fields by plowing and removing weeds. Everyone has their own way of weed removal, though this fellow's scorched earth policy was the least subtle method I've seen thus far.
 

The history of pottery

Rice plants are first grown in a greenhouse to the seedling stage. Only when they have grown resilient enough to face the element of nature are they finally moved into the field.
 

The history of pottery

Around May, the farmers of Shonai hop on their Rice Planting Machines to put the seedlings into the field. These are magnificent contraptions of mechanical ingenuity, planting rows of seedlings into the soil with perfect accuracy.
 

The history of pottery

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The history of pottery

Slowly, the rice grows taller and taller. Once harvested, this rice will be stored in the giant rice silo.
 

The history of pottery

Weeds are one of the main challenges when it comes to high-yield rice production, and each farmer has their own way of getting rid of unwanted plants. Sometimes, you’ll even see a farmer operate a giant herbicide-spraying helicopter drone to get the job done.
 

The history of pottery

Actually, not all farmers mind intruding plants. Our friend Arao-san, for example, grows his rice naturally, applying no fertilizer or pesticides whatsoever. His yields may not be as high as they potentially could be, but few growers can beat him on taste or nutrition. Here we visited him and obtained some rice bran for the Shonai Special.
 

The history of pottery

When harvest time finally arrives, it’s these harvesting machines that dot the landscape. They cut the plants, remove the grains, and spit them right out of that double-barreled missile launcher on top
 

The history of pottery

Just like this. Depending on the size of the harvester, a single run can harvest roughly a single tonne (1000kg) of grains.  

The history of pottery

Nothing like a classic Shonai sunset to finish off a long day of harvesting in the fields.
 

The Geese Arrive

When the rice season is officially over, the geese migrate here all the way from Siberian to spend the winter. Here they feast on the insects and left-over grains. Their arrival heralds the passage of the seasons, the arrival of deep autumn and soon winter, and marks the end of another season.

Written by Tom Crew

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