gaijinfarmer

Organic farming, Japanese recipes


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Talas in Wakayama, Japan: the typhoon that just wouldn't go away

I think one of the two things that were so surreal about tropical storm Talas, or Number 12 as we call it over here, was that it only got started after it was supposed to be over.  Moving excruciatingly slowly, it kept us waiting and waiting for it to pass.  When it finally passed, then it started raining, and that’s when all the stuff you’re seeing on the news happened.

Heavy wind, but relatively little rain yet:

On the night it landed I posted to my facebook page, “Why does it only get interesting after dark?”  I like windstorms and was kind of bummed I’d miss this one while I slept.  I was woken up many times through the night, and then finally in the morning, by rattling windows and pounding on the walls.  The wind was just as strong in the morning, and continued through the afternoon.   As time stretched on, we watched the weather updates on TV throughout the day, with the weather commentators noting that it was only going as fast as someone on a bicycle (and they don’t mean a Bianchi around here), and then giving it the name ノロノロ台風 (noronoro taifuu), or sluggish typhoon.

When the sluggish typhoon finally rode its mama-bicycle far enough away that the wind died down, it started to rain.  And rain and rain and rain.  A freakishly direct line of rain clouds spiraled in toward our peninsula, delivering up to 1,800 mm of rain in a period of six days.  For comparison, the wettest typhoon on record happened in 2009 in Taiwan, with 2,327 mm of rain.  So while 500mm more rain would have been disastrous here, we’re somewhere in the same category I think.

Another factor that contributed to the intensity of this storm was the tides.  During the period of peak wind we had three high tides, which were enhanced by the steady, powerful winds, and got blown onshore, over seawalls, into drainage systems, and most importantly, reduced the draining potential of the swollen rivers.

Although it rained hard and long here, the majority of the clouds broke as they hit the eastern mountain slopes on the other side of the peninsula, and that’s where the record rainfall numbers happened.  But the landslides that the continued rain caused happened all over the peninsula, and that’s the second thing that was really surreal about this storm–that it happened here, after all.

The storm made landfall on Shikoku, far enough away we locked the steel shutters into place but didn’t worry too much.  Any typhoon that makes landfall will cause deaths in one way or another, but after the numbers climbed slowly, spread out over Shikoku, our peninsula, and elsewhere, they began to climb faster–and only here.  Although Mie and Nara prefectures got more rain, Wakayama has a higher number of dead and missing by far, and now the newscasters say it every time they take inventory.  The numbers aren’t catastrophic, but there are people within two degrees of separation there, people who live in areas I know well.

In fact, the landslide featured in the video below cut off the overland route to the other side of the peninsula, essentially stranding an area where I used to teach.  The road will be cleared soon enough.  I was hoping to take my scooter over an incredibly narrow mountain road, the back way into that area, to check out the landslide from the other side–but that road starts in the area of Tanabe hit by a gigantic landslide, a tiny neighborhood where three of only six households were flattened.  Although I can’t help the area that’s been cut off, visiting would be fun.  But I can’t get over the feeling that taking that road to get there would be akin to disaster tourism.

I was happy to see that most of the rice still in the fields was still easily harvestable, with only a few fields really flattened.  A local junior high school’s sports fields were hit pretty hard, and a landslide narrowly missed cutting off the main bridge to where I used to live.  Click on any picture below to start a slideshow of the pictures included.

Here the river is much lower than at its crest, but still really dangerous.

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Rice harvest: dryer to bags to storehouse

The rice in the dryer reached 15% moisture content today, so we hulled and bagged it and moved it into the storehouse.  We ended up with 28 30-kilogram bags, which represents a good year for rice despite the sometimes very strange weather.

This video is a real quick introduction into the hulling and bagging process.

When it’s done, what do you have?  Wakayama rice!

 

We have two more loads to do, each spaced three to four days apart to account for drying.  So we should be done sometime next week.

では、早速!
(Without delay, let’s eat!)

Rice that was harvested a couple days ago–delicious!!


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The Japan rice harvest has begun!

When it gets close to rice harvest time, everyone watches the weather.  Harvesting after a rain means a very heavy harvest, and letting mature rice get hit by a typhoon can be disastrous–it can get flattened and must be harvested by hand immediately or it will rot.

This week’s forecast is for clouds and rain, so naturally it was sunny today.  We went to cut the weeds at the entrances to the rice fields so trucks can get in and out without slipping, and just in time, as the friends who do our harvesting decided to get a jump on the weather and harvest today.

You may remember that their rice planter is bright blue.  To round out the garage palette they bought the orange harvester.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a beautiful day!  Keep going for some videos that show the operation of the harvester.

 

 


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Vacuuming the tomatoes

We can’t exactly say it was a whirlwind tour, but after taking off through a typhoon in early June and returning through a typhoon in mid-July we can surely say that our trip had its ups and downs.

The temperature here has also gone up, and rising with it are all the plants—rice, weeds, and crops.  Rising, or at least growing: we returned to find our new garden plot in disarray.  The broccoli was crawling down the raised bed and the cucumbers had ignored the trellis and were sprawling among the tomatoes, which had been toppled by the wind.

The bugs loved the chaos, too.  Huge drone beetles were crawling facefirst into split tomatoes for feeding orgies, eating until they couldn’t move.  Brown marmorated stink bugs had taken over the tomatoes and sweet potatoes, coating the trunks and branches, raising their young and even mating in plain view.  It was a hedonistic insect heaven.

Our little vacuum changed that pretty quick.  There were far too many of them to pick off one by one, and they seemed to think of my homebrew fermented organic insect repellant as a kind of perfume.  So out came the little hoover, and the stink bug population dropped pretty quick.  The big tomato eaters just got dropped into a garbage bag, tomatoes and all, and were disposed of.

Now we’re back under a semblance of control.  At least our thick layer of grass mulch did a good job of keeping the weeds down while we were gone!


 

 

I don’t think I’ve posted about this garden patch before.  We wanted something a little closer to our home, so we dug part of our lawn up over the spring.  The soil was collected from a mountain road our friends knew about; it’s a leaf compost, which is supposed to be pretty acidic, but our plants seem to love it.  We filled our little truck up with bags of the compost, filtered it through a large sieve, and mixed in just a little bit of additives from the store.  Hiro shoveled it into five little rows, and voila, our kitchen garden.


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Rainy season and ume plum liquor

We’re getting ready for a trip back to America in a couple days, and it looks like we might be taking off through a typhoon! The 2nd of the year is on its way north, over Okinawa right now, and it looks like a doozy.

Seasons around here are wacky. A very popular question for foreigners is, “Do you have four seasons in your country?”, and no amount of meteorological education can sway people’s instinctive belief that Japan is the only place in the world that really has four seasons.

Despite this, you could easily argue that the extended rainy season between spring and summer constitutes a fifth season, and the Japanese certainly treat it as such. Temperatures usually drop a little, the humidity skyrockets, and the typhoons start coming.  As they form in the SW Pacific and start to swing northward they’re a regular feature on the news, and as they get closer they bring days of rain if they swing wide, or an increasing gale and downpour if they come our way.  During the rainy season I’ve had leather shoes grow mold and wool sweaters mildew.  They’re in sealed bags this year!

Japanese plums on the tree

The rainy season apparently started 18 days early this year, and despite the fairly cool temperatures we were lucky that the ume plums ripened a bit early too, in time for our trip.  We like to invite ourselves over to our friend’s house who grows the plums and help ourselves to some of the variety called ‘nan-kou’. That’s the variety used for juice or liquor, rather than pickling, and as such they just leave those trees to themselves and harvest what comes–the other trees they spray, process into salted pickles, and sell mostly on the domestic market.  We always make umeshu, Japanese plum liquor.  If you’ve tried the Choya stuff from the store and found it way too sweet, remember that it’s possible to make your own at any sweetness level you like.  We usually use 40-50% of the standard amount of sugar, resulting in a sweet but very tart liquor.  Delicious!

Finding the best ones

Picking is usually a pretty sweaty affair but this year it was a very pleasant family evening out.

In pretty short order we had 12 kilos or so.

Soaking in water for cleaning

Drying

Processing is pretty easy–just remove the stem connecting point with a skewer or knife, soak overnight to wash, lay them out to dry, and set them soaking in 35% alcohol white liquor and some sugar. That’s it! In as little as 3 months you can enjoy it, but you can soak the plums much longer and then even age the product after you remove the plums. We have some 5- and 10-year stuff around here somewhere… not telling where! 😉

Plums soaking in liquor and sugar

In the last picture you can see the color has changed–these have been soaking overnight at this point.  If you look closely you’ll see that the plums are also floating in the middle of the liquid.  The sugar has dissolved and the sugar-heavy liquid has sunk to the bottom and it’s heavier than the plums.  It’ll all normalize in time.

As a final note on plums, these are not really plums.  They’re actually species of apricot but if we started calling them that no one would know what we’re talking about.  So for everyday purposes, they’re plums! I hope you agree that the misnomer isn’t quite as offensive as, say, the Clean Air or Patriot acts.

And we’re offline for a month and a half!  See you all soon enough in the summer heat!

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The Emperor of Japan rolled through town

When was the last time you saw an emperor?

All joking aside, there were some interesting things about this visit. First, nearly all of the road construction in our area for the past couple months was tied to this visit, and funded by the country rather than our prefecture. We appreciate it and some of those surfaces really needed it (as did the commuting schoolkids, who now have a sidewalk around a very dangerous corner), but it makes you wonder if his eminency is aware of ‘real’ life in Japan, if there is any such thing. On the other side of that coin, however, the empress gained huge respect in the country by insisting on raising her kids by herself as much as possible. To this end she had a kitchen installed which she could use, among many other things.

Second, even given the pair’s position, I thought that that the security surrounding the visit was pretty extreme. Hordes of police were brought in from around the country to stand in front of every business along the Emperor’s route (mostly they just told each and every customer what time the road would be closed, thought not even very clearly at that), and more were brought in to inspect all bridges, bushes, etc., along the route.

Were the hordes really necessary? I don’t want to get invaded by the Japanese secret police or anything, but if I really wanted to do anything harmful I don’t think it would have been too hard given the MO of the police. Can you really trust a man’s life to a group of people who can’t clearly explain that a road will be closed from x o’clock to y o’clock? Don’t know for sure, though–the security guard in the passenger seat of the main car looked like he was made from the same stuff as one of the Terminators.

Finally, we were a little sad that our local park has been closed for a few days getting ready for a visit by his eminenciness. As far as we can tell he actually did show up there today, but it was to a crowd of people who won an all-country lottery and met up at the local airport at 6 a.m. (serves them right?) to pass security and wait inside the park for the event. It would have been nice to have even a section in the nosebleeds reserved for local folk, but oh well.

I guess it was easy enough for us to line up on the side of the road to see them drive by.


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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…