Rice Season in Shonai

A Brief Photo Essay

The Shonai plain in Yamagata prefecture: home of some of Japan's finest rice.
 
Throughout the centuries, the art and practice of farming rice has been passed down here from farmer to farmer.
 
But although modern technology has greatly improved the efficiency and yields of a typical rice farm over the last few decades, the essential process of growing rice has remained unchanged.
 
Soaking seeds in water, for instance, is still the simple process that starts the transformation from tiny grains to proud plants weaving in the wind.
 
Starting in April in the village of Yutagawa, farmers line up at local pick-up points to purchase their sprouted seeds for the year - their names carefully written on the bags to make sure everyone gets the right bag with the right amount.

For many farmers, the preparation and continued maintenance of the fields includes that ancient agricultural headliner: humanity vs. weeds. Although unconventional, some farmers resort to fire to get the job done.

But although fire can help, water is the real key. Fortunately, Shonai's farmers are blessed with geography, having ready access to nutrient-dense outflow from both the Mogame and Akagawa rivers. Thanks to pioneering irrigation efforts dating back over a century, these rivers contribute a tiny share of their wealth into an intricate network of irrigation canals.

While the fields are being prepared, the tiny sprouts slowly grow taller. Initially, however, sprouts are small and fragile little beings. They must be nurtured in greenhouses with care and protection.

When the seedlings are ready to make it on their own, Shonai's farmers hop on their rice planting machines to put the seedlings into the field.

These machines are magnificent contraptions - planting rows of seedlings into the soil with the accuracy of a dozen grandfather clocks ticking in perfect synchronicity. Passing back and forth, they weave and weave, leaving in their wake a delicate green drape that barely sticks out above the water.

As the rice plants grow, the rice farmer executes on a carefully crafted plan that allows for enough flexibility to take weather variation into account. Indeed, rice season is the busy time of year, where on many days the work is done from dusk till dawn.

Even deep into in the Japanese countryside, the call of convenience and higher yields beckons in the form of modern technology - like these pesticide-spraying helicopter-drones.

Personally, we prefer to keep things a bit more natural. The rice that we use in the Shonai Special Energy Bars is organic and naturally grown. The yields may not be quite as high, and the costs not quite as low, as conventional rice, but in our case that's an extra cost we're more than happy to pay.

When harvest time arrives, farmers take out their combines and dot the landscape en masse. Like giant beard trimmers making their way up and down for a long-overdue shave, these machines cut the plants, remove the grains, and leave behind nothing but a stubble.

Our friend Goori-san is a 17th generation rice farmer, known for his organic Tsuyahime rice that he sells to restaurants in Tokyo Ginza and Macaw - and to us.

His large combine can store up to one tonne of rice. When full, the rice is expelled from the combine in dramatic fashion to make room for the next batch.

At the end of the day, with the fields harvested and the rice safely stored away, one feels a deep appreciation and connection with the land, the food, and the people who sow and reap Shonai's rice year after year ー generation after generation. This rice will go on to feed parents and children, students and teachers, scientists and hikers and farmers and salary men and people who've retired decades ago.

Although there are challenges ahead - aging farmers, a changing climate, cheap imports from abroad - Shonai's rice tradition will continue in one form or another for a long, long time. Here at Shonai Special, we draw inspiration from this tradition and are grateful for the fruits of its labor.

May next year's rice season in Shonai be as special as all the ones that came before it.