Organic farming, Japanese recipes


It's rice planting time in Japan!

The landscape is changing here every day.  Fields that were dry yesterday are flooded today, and the rice planters are out in force from morning to evening.  Some warmer areas of the peninsula are completely planted, and depending on the water supply some neighborhoods are just now setting their seed.

We were a day ahead of schedule and had some pretty short sprouts, but our rice is in and things are looking good.  This year’s been much colder than most: crops in general are two weeks behind average, and lots of people are reporting that their rice sprouts aren’t growing to expectation.  Ours were generally plenty tall, with some strange short spots due to too much dirt over the seeds in the trays or temperature differences inside the tunnels.

To prep for planting the rice, the fields are flooded and then gone over one last time with a tractor to level the ground under the water.  Then pretty much every field bigger than spittin distance wide is planted with a 田植え機 (ta-ue-ki), or rice field planting machine.  Since we don’t have one we contract with a friend who does.

Why don’t we have one?  The big difference between running a field with this machine and doing it with a regular tractor is that with a regular tractor, if you make a mistake you can just go around again and cover your tracks, but if you’re planting rice you only have one go-round.  You really have to know how to cover all the ground without repeating yourself.  So it’s not just a matter of having the machine and the time.

The tractor itself looks like a cross between a bumblebee, and the queen ant if the worker ant were a Segway.  But blue.  Maybe they threw Hello Kitty’s cousin in the vat as an experiment?








It rides on wheels that look like they were lifted from a turn-of-last-century bicycle, so as to disturb as little mud as possible.  The rear consists of a curved feed device for feeding the seed trays toward the planters, which are helped by gravity but controlled by a belt that moves each row of seed trays in steps toward the planting devices.








There’s a hopper for distributing moto-goe, or fertilizer, to the base of the planted seedlings, and finally, there are four rows of rotating twin planting forks.  The videos will go a long way to help explaning the whole thing.

Since the rows have to be straight the four planting forks can’t move side to side; thus, the entire feed mechanism moves back and forth, with the belt feeders notching the seed trays down one row with each pass like a manual feed typewriter.








Often early and the morning and with little notice, the driver’s wife swoops by our garden to pick up trays in a small truck and then runs off to the first field.  The planting tractor is carried directly to the field in a heavy truck.

At first the seedlings are transferred from the trays to a transport tray; the root system holds the whole thing together at this point, making transport easy.  Then they’re slid onto the feed mechanism.








The tractor has trays near the driver’s compartment for holding extras; in the case of one of our smallest fields eight trays were loaded into the feeder, with two extra near the driver just in case.  But our driver is really good with his settings, and plants the fields with just a little left over for hand-planting.









While the tractor’s going, the driver’s wife gets in the field and plants the corners by hand which the tractor can’t do.  When they’re done, we get in the field with our special boots that are held on with some extra loops of rubber.  We check that each planted spot has five or so sprouts in it.  If there are too few we add some since they grow better in bunches.  The mud is really soft so it’s just a matter of tearing off some sprouts from the bunch, squish in the mud, and repeat.  The hard part is keeping your balance while shin-deep in mud.  No one’s fallen over yet…


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The tools we use: heavy duty weed cutter

I’d like to occasionally introduce some of the tools we use here on the farm, in the garden, and in the restaurant.  Let’s start with the weed cutting machine.

Now with fairly warm temperatures, intense sunlight, and high humidity, the weeds around here grow like children.  As such, your dad’s string-twirling electric plug-in weed cutter isn’t going to wack it.  We need something that will cut through branches, that won’t give up in thickets of long grass, that will bounce off hidden rocks with a smile.  We need (you may have guessed already) a powerful 2-stroke gasoline engine attached to a shaft-driven naked spinning saw blade!

This awesome machine is called a 草刈機 (kusakariki), or weed cutting machine.  With such raw spinning power, there’s no need to pussyfoot around with fancy model names, so no matter which brand or model you buy, it’s called the same thing.

It’s pretty basic, with a centrifugal clutch that drives the blade at anything higher than an idle but lets go if it runs into something that it can’t get through.  If that happens, chances are you can just back off, increase the throttle, and give it another go—you’ll be cutting to Calcutta before you can say ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’

Safety features include a shoulder strap that reliably keeps the blade away from your body if you fall down.  That’s it.  The rest is up to you.

Drawbacks of the machine are vibration and noise, so if you use it all day like we did today, you’ll be pretty wiped out.







Typical of Japan, you’ll see many people riding around on bicycles with these, though maybe not exactly like this.

The purpose of heavy weed removal around the rice fields, by the way, is to prevent insects from getting too comfortable in close proximity to the rice.  By removing their habitat we can protect the crop.

Today we also removed the vinyl top from the rice tunnels, and replaced it with a shade-providing net.  After three days with the net we’ll remove that, too, to accustom the sprouts to full sunlight.  They get planted within the week!

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Rice update, recent stuff from Japan

I had hoped to be posting more about local culture and travel opportunities in Wakayama and Japan–we’re very safe down here!–but right now is ‘throw a seed on the ground and it’ll sprout’ season, so we’re busy prepping, planting, and harvesting all at the same time.  The spinach is ready to eat as baby leaves, and that means more planting in the spaces left by harvesting.  The radishes came in quickly, and we have to keep eating or serving them before they get bitter!  The daikon is a real mixed bag, but some are sprouting quickly and the ones that didn’t come in I’ll replant soon for a rolling harvest.

The potatoes are also a mixed bag, but as you can see in the picture, the row that we planted under a dry grass mulch is coming in very nicely, while the row that was under a plastic mulch pretty much sucks.  I can’t make any real claim to this success as I had no idea what I was doing when I did it except a sense that you shouldn’t have to cover everything with plastic if you want it to grow, but I’m happy to find that the grass held nicely against some pretty strong winds, is keeping the weeds at bay fairly well, and allows enough air and light to pass so the sprouts find their way through at the right time.  So the neighbors who thought I was crazy can go stick a piece of dry grass in their eye.  At least until I make a fatal mistake with my next venture.

Our rice at day 12 (2 days ago) was at 5 cm.  We checked it for water at 1 week, and after that it’s every three days–if there are no dew drops on the sprouts, or if the dirt on one side of the trays is dry, we open up the whole thing and water it.  Due to differences in height many trays are growing lopsided; those trays we turn 180 degrees before watering.  Our nosy neighbor who loves to give advice (I love to listen, most of the time) says, ‘I tell you guys every year to make it more level…’ and I want to say, ‘And every year we make a small mountain of rice that everyone loves to eat…’  Forgive us if we’re not perfect.  We’re doing fine, thank you.

The bamboo mountain must have absorbed some radiation or something, because everything is coming in huge this year.  No more monster shoots like last time, but the average size is well above normal; today we harvested about 20 kilos easily, and that was with a crowbar handle that was partially broken from overenthusiasm.

By the way, how many bamboo shoots can you find in the next picture?  I see 4.




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Rice update: sprouts growing nicely

It’s been nearly a week since we put the rice in the tunnels, and since we’ll be too busy to water it tomorrow we did it today.  This involved pulling the plastic out from under the dirt that was weighing it down, folding it up along one side of the tunnels, removing the layer of black mulch and giving the trays a good dousing.  There were some dry spots, so a day early was probably just right.  The dry spots are due to high spots on areas that weren’t level enough, so there’s a good note to myself for next year.

As you can see, they’re coming along nicely.



Also in today were ten broccoli sprouts, two tomato sprouts, a handful of ginger and a handful of myouga, which you can see in the google image link.  The broccoli and tomatoes are inside those silver bag cylinders for protection from wind and bugs.  Do you have any experience with this method of planting?  I couldn’t find any information online but the local experts say it’s necessary.  I’m a little worried about sun exposure.

Finally, a Japanese vocabulary word for you: ぐたぐた, or guta guta–it means exhausted or totally worn out.  G’nite!


World record take no ko bamboo shoot?

We went up to the mountain today and bamboo shoots are sticking out just everywhere!  Quite a change from my last posts on recipes for preparation of bamboo shoots, from which a full harvest was a colander-ful, now we can easily gather more than we can carry off the mountain at once and still leave lots of shoots to grow into bamboo.

Like I mentioned, parts of the  mountain are quite steep but the bamboo has no trouble sending up shoots through its root structure any old where, and many of these are perched out on cliffs, leaving me scrambling for footing while digging and cutting them out.  One that I found today looked like one of those but when I started digging it made a turn underground … and kept on going … and going …

By the time I finally uncovered the roots it looked like this–keep in mind that when I saw it, only the top three or four inches were visible above the ground.  The only way I was able to dig it out was that it was on the edge of a steep section that allowed me to peel back the dirt easily.

Hiro said the final result reminded her of a wild boar.  While the two are an order of magnitude apart, I know what she means.  This was an incredible find–so unusual that we called the newspaper.  Hope they print it!  7.2 kg, or almost 16 lbs, as much as a 5-month-old baby!


Measuring in Japanese 2: field sizes

Yesterday was a long day of prepping the rice for planting. We used our isshou masu a while back to measure our rice seeds, and yesterday we measured those into the trays that we will later load into the robot tractor for planting in the field.

You recall that isshou is 1.8 liters, and that we measured 2 of those into most of our mesh bags for germination. That’s because we line the trays up in sets of 10 for seed spreading, and 2 shou is just the right amount of seed for 10 trays.

We line these trays are with vinyl sheets to prevent the shoots’ roots from growing through the drainage holes, and then put in a layer of sprouting dirt and level it off.  Once the trays are lined up, we use a small hopper that distributes the rice seed, fill in any empty areas by hand, and then use another hopper to put a layer of dirt over the top.  We give each layer a good soak, which makes the whole thing very heavy–I think we could just as easily soak them after we transfer them!

Over in the garden we use the tractor to flatten out a good area of land, then scrape it by hand with a board to make sure it’s as level as possible.  A bottom sheet of vinyl goes down, then the rice trays, a layer of black mulch which you can see on the middle row, and finally a heavy silver vinyl sheet makes a tunnel.  It was quite windy yesterday, so wrestling with all the sheets was a real chore.  We were quite proud and exhausted when we finished.  In all it was about 6 hours of work for me and 4 for my mother-in-law.

So where will this all go?  2 shou of rice seeds is enough for 10 trays, and 20 trays will plant one ‘tan’, which is almost exactly 1,000 square meters.  It’s interesting (or maybe not) that the term ‘tan’ is still in popular use, while 1/10 of a tan is called an ‘are’, (pronounced a-ru) which is the actual metric measurement that the hectare is based on.

The long tunnels each hold 30 trays and the short one has 18.  The long tunnel on the left has a variety called Milky Princess, and the middle and right have Milky Queen. They’re very similar to each other, but unique around here as most people use Koshinohikari or other more popular strains. Everyone loves the rice at the restaurant, so I guess that’s proof enough to keep doing what we’re doing.


Measuring in Japanese: using a masu

In planting rice we deal with lots of measurements held over from olden times that are mixed with the easy to understand metric system.   It’s similar to America, except that in America we don’t have the easy to understand metric system–we just have the obscure measurements held over from ancient times.  (It’s odd to me that while some early Americans deliberately changed the spelling of certain words–just one example–to differentiate us from the Brits, they didn’t try to leave the Imperial system of measurement behind.  I’m just grateful we don’t have shillings.  What the heck are those, anyway?)

One of the main measurements of volume is ‘shou’, which is equal to 1.8 liters.  The main things that come in a shou are rice and liquid fermented foods, including sake and soy sauce.

You can buy an ‘isshou’ (1 shou) bottle of sake in stores, but in older times it was measured with a box called a masu.  The masu is now popular as a way to drink sake in the ichigo (1 go) size, which is a good amount of sake to drink and is also conveniently a good amount of rice for one meal for two people.  The masu also came in the ‘gongo’ (5 go) size, and, of course, the ‘isshou’ (or 10 go) size.   When you buy a rice cooker in Japan, its volume is measured in ‘go’ or ‘shou’. Pictured here is the 1.8 liter size.

The cool thing about using a square box as a way to measure is that it can measure more than just its original volume.  If you tip it straight down so that the contents make a line from the lip on one side to the intersection of the wall and floor at the opposite side, you get exactly half of the original volume.  That’s pretty easy to understand.  But if you turn 45 degrees and tip again on the diagonal, so that the contents overflow at a corner and meet the floor at the other two points of the right isosceles triangle, you get 1/6 of the original volume.   Very handy for those of you who frequent sushi joints, I’m sure.

By the way, what you’re looking at there is some of the best water in the world. I feel lucky every day to be drinking it.

Up next: how an isshou masu of rice fits into our rice field area measurements.


Planting rice Japanese style–part 2

Japan’s obviously going through some hard times right now; I encourage anyone with even a little available to donate to Doctors Without Borders or any other organization working to help the Japanese.

I’m happy to report, though, that down here we seem to be just fine.  The winds generally head out to sea from the Fukushima nuclear plant, and the ocean currents flow northward.  We certainly can’t expect to be sitting pretty forever, but we’re also not booking the next flight out.  And local fish might be a real bargain for a while

We’ve completed the next three steps in planting this year’s rice.  One involved walking the fields with azumi, a fertilizer, and scattering it by hand—this was a week ago.  The second step had us attaching a hopper to the front of the tractor to scatter and then plow in “Dirt-making Boy”, another fertilizer, the next day.  Apparently these are both ‘organic’ even though they’re man-made.  I’ll translate the bags and get back to you…

Today we took the seeds from last year’s rice, measured them by volume into bags based on the fields they’ll go into, and set them soaking for a few days in water.  Into the soaking water we added a very definitely not organic, nasty-smelling chemical to prevent mold and other diseases.  This is one of the two hold-outs that my wife’s mother can’t get rid of, as problems at this stage could jeopardize much of the harvest.  In fact, our rice has never had a problem that might effect this stage of sprouting, but because of cross-pollenation we have to be careful.  Cross-pollenation affects rice enough that we order new seed rice every three to four years to make sure that our strains are what we want them to be.  It’s a fair sight better than farmers who sign a Monsanto contract and then can’t reseed their own crops on pain of a lawsuit … if you’re near a computer (I think you are) please google an anti-Monsanto action and sign, send support, call your representative, do something!  Harvesting and replanting seeds is a human right older than almost any other.

There are certainly other organic ways to inhibit mold, including a strong green tea solution.  The easiest and probably best-documented way is to use EM-1 (Effective Microorganisms), which I’ll be researching for a trial run next year on a portion of the rice seeds—I hope to be using it exclusively two years from now.

The next steps in the field we’ll contract out to neighborhood friends—levelling the dirt under water, which I’m definitely still too green on the tractor do to, and planting the rice, which is now done by a freakin sweet tractor that looks like something out of an anime, which we don’t have.  Pics of that are definitely to come.