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…




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!


Japanese spring vegetables: wild bamboo shoots

Spring in Japan starts in the depth of winter. At least around where I live, they say that February is the coldest month. It’s a temperate zone so we don’t have to shovel snow off the roofs, but nights hover around freezing or just under, and the days don’t get much warmer than 40 F, if we’re that lucky.

But right in the coldest month, the plum trees bloom and a hazy pink shades hillsides that were brown or a dormant green before. The air is still freezing but the faint smell of the plum blossoms almost fools you into thinking of sunny, warm meadows. No matter how cold it is, we roll down all the windows when we drive by a big orchard in bloom.

The plums are just a tease—it’s cold for weeks longer—but soon the peaches bloom in their vibrant pink, mountain spring vegetables like tsukushi and taranome poke out of the ground, and our strawberry growing friends start talking about the end of the strawberry season. And suddenly take (tah-keh) no ko, bamboo shoots, show up on food trays and in the grocery stores and you think “Is it really that time already?”

But not this year! We haven’t heard a whisper about take no ko, but we went up to the bamboo forest yesterday and dug our first shoots. We beat the Joneses, we beat the grocery stores, and I hope to hear some comment from our customers about the surprising turn of the seasons when we serve it as a side on our lunch sets soon.

If you have a bamboo forest nearby, here’s how to dig your own. First, you need a pickaxe, or better, a takekuwa (bamboo hoe). In English we think of a hoe as something to turn dirt; in Japanese it means pretty much anything attached to a stick at something near 90 degrees that’s obviously not a rake. So the 3-pronged pick is a hoe, the crowbar for bamboo is a hoe, and everything in between is too. Check out this Google search for the range of tools falling under that category.
The takekuwa looks like half of a pickaxe but with a chisel for the head.

Then you’ll need some gloves. If you’re Japanese you’ll probably have ‘guntei’, or the white woven cotton gloves that actually do an OK job against dirt but get soaked by a bad weather report. If you’re smart you will have somehow gotten a pair of LL or XXLL leather gloves to fit your foreigner hands, and these you will use to sweep ground cover from the bamboo forest floor while feeling for bumps that feel like a shoot about to stick out—as they say, if it’s still underground it’s take no ko; if it’s above, it’s already take.   Many will disagree with me here and say that you’re really supposed to shuffle along with your feet to feel for the shoots, and I’d invite those people to try to shuffle up or down our mountain…

When you find the little shoot sticking out, you’ll use your crowbar of incredible power to somehow cut through the ground, which is not so much dirt as it is a carpet of bamboo roots, without hitting or otherwise breaking the shoot. When you get enough ground cleared away, a powerful stroke or four will separate the soft shoot from the incredibly tough roots, and if you’re really skillful, your shoot will come away unbroken. The pictures show that I failed at this most of the time.

Either way it tastes just as good.    Next: how to cook it.