Which makes total sense when you visit. The rice fields in Akita span far and wide, accompanying you on nearly every drive. Old men and women bend over their carefully cared for crops, diligently working as if to prove old age wrong. For people who are used to this sight, much of Akita’s scenery may be boring. But to me, it was beautiful. Over the course of the spring and the summer, I got to see the rice fields start out as mere troughs of water and slowly become beautiful, lush green fields. Cranes and frogs camped around the edges, enjoying the many bugs that became trapped in the watery wells. I wish I could have stayed longer to see them during harvest time, heavy with rice grains waiting to be polished.
Many of my friends did a school excursion to the farms where they learned how to plant rice. Donning rubber boots, they waded into the plots, getting covered with mud and plagued by bugs. I declined because of the bugs and the still chilly weather, but my friend told me it was a lot of fun. She said she was working next to an old lady who could pop in the rice seeds a mile a minute. “She would do twenty by the time I had done three!”
Although I did not join in this activity, and I am still grateful to those dedicated farmers. The rice in Akita was simply the best rice I have ever tasted! It was nearly a meal in itself. Delicately flavorful, with the perfect texture, I could see why Akita was so proud. The best rice is the freshly harvested rice, called shinmai, which has been harvested, packaged, and eaten within the same year. After that it is called komai. (In case you’re wondering, most of the rice you eat at home in the West is probably not shinmai.) Being in Akita meant the school had access to real shinmai year round, and it was one of the few menu items guaranteed to be good there. (The cafeteria food was, on the whole, quite terrible). Although taste variances in rice are subtle, it’s still pretty easy to tell the difference. I wish I could have had some of that rice formed into rice balls, called onigiri, which simple sea salt. It sounds like heaven.
I have a lot of respect for the rice fields of Akita, for reasons beyond their delicious rice. Like in the US, farming helps this area of Japan retain a way of life that has been ousted by urban development elsewhere. Life is simpler here, slower, with more natural beauty. It’s easier to find Shinto shrines in the places where you’d expect them, hidden away in nooks and crannies, surrounded by life instead of concrete. Unfortunately, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to them after the current generation of farmers passes on. As you can imagine, there aren’t many young people clambering to start a lucrative job in rice farming. Japan already has a low birth rate, which means few young people to begin with. Their talents will be needed elsewhere to maintain the economy, which will be a challenge in itself. So, if you want to see this beautiful way of life, I suggest seeing it as soon as you can, because before long all those tranquil fields will be bought up and turned into something else.
For now though, there are still little old ladies with nimble hands, carefully coaxing the finest tasting rice you can imagine from the water.