How to Grow Organic Rice in Japan

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The rice field in front of my uncle’s place.

Around this time of the year last year, I spent 3 weeks in Japan and one of the key experiences from the trip was going to visit my uncle’s place at the Southern tip of Izu peninsula. It’s a lovely place where rolling mountains and oceans meet with plenty of onsen (hot spring bath) dotted around the place.

My uncle has been growing rice for the past 25 years and have started from scratch, tried various sizes of fields and methods and have settled on a particular method. I found it absolutely fascinating so I thought I’ll upload some of the things he shared with me on this platform.

He’s had much larger fields in the past where he used to use a breed of flightless ducks (specifically a cross-breed between Mallards and domestic ducks) to weed and fertilise the rice paddies. The ducks were then butchered at the end of the season to eat and sell.  

The picture to the right is from 10 years ago when I first killed, gutted and cooked these ducks for the first time in my life. I still remember the dense, rich flavours of the stew, how much fun we had as a family and the overwhelming appreciation of how we living things eat life.

Anyway, my uncle retracted from a medium sized rice production to a size that was more manageable. At the time, he was producing honey from a crop he’d grow in between the rice growing seasons but several years of failed bee colonies have shifted his business model towards just producing rice for his own consumption.

I’m sure some of you might have heard before but the bee colony collapse disorder is an incredibly serious issue facing humanity at the moment. Bees pollinate our food crops and if they disappear completely, the cost of food production will sky-rocket and ensuing geo-political instability could be catastrophic. Check out more on the subject here. I will probably do a more in depth post on this subject but Paul Stamets is currently doing a large scale feasibility study of a fungal concoction that can protect bees against colony collapse and it looks super promising. He’s also patented the formulae to protect it against large chemical corporations.

But back to my uncle who currently has about a quarter acre rice field just by his house. This field is enough to feed a family of 5 for a year and have surplus to gift newly harvested rice to many people. It’s small enough that he can hand plant the rice with his wife in 2 days, and only requires a tiny tractor for cutting and bundling. The process is systematised to a point where minimum of input is required to produce the maximum amount, while remaining organic.

Nitrogen fixing

According to my uncle, there are several key factors that makes this rice field successful. At the beginning of a season, he grows Japanese Milk vetch which was a traditional way to fertilise rice paddies before chemical fertilisers were introduced and the plant is known to accumulate nitrogen around its roots. This is then raked in before the rice growing season.

Micro-organism

He collects the tips of mugwort that grows like weed around his place and places a load in a container with water and high quality brown sugar and leaves it to ferment. Basically creating mugwort wine, feeding and multiplying the bacteria and other micro-organisms that exists in the shoots of this plant.

He fills up the rice field with water and sprays this black liquid into it. Apparently, the entire rice field starts bubbling up as the micro-organisms starts to break down organic materials from the milk vetch. After a week or two, it’s ready for planting the rice.

Healthy Strong Seedlings with Husk Charcoal

The young rice plants are raised in a special bed devised yet again by this powerful bloke. The black grains you see here are the husks of rice from last year which he has charcoaled himself. This is layered at the bottom of the trays and compost is placed on the top to grow the seedlings. It apparently purifies the water and possibly adds nutrients. He’s tested with and without and the growth is significantly better with the charcoaled husk.

Water Quality

The rice is also grown in water flowing straight from the mountains. A little bit cold for growing rice but definitely very pure and clean, without any fertilisers or pesticides contaminated from neighbouring fields. It’s a well known fact in Japan that the quality of water affects the final outcome of rice by a significant margin. The regions most well known for Sake production is intimately linked with regions where good rice is grown, and those regions are most known to have high quality water.

I am in love with the idea of being able to grow your own staple diet. The newly harvested rice was so damn good. Each rice grain was sparkling in my bowl and I could taste life with each bite. And to do it at this manageable scale, with this much efficiency and creative problem solving, with so little impact to nature was absolutely mind blowing.

My name, Chikara, is written in Japanese as 力 and rice field is written as 田. Now if you put the two together as 男, it means a man. I feel like it’s a prerequisite for someone with my name to grow rice to become a real man, so I’ve seriously considered how I might be able to grow rice here in the UK. But it seems that even with a help of a greenhouse, rice plants require a certain number of consecutive sunlight hours during the growing season and the UK is definitely not known for sunshine.

So I must remain a boy until another chance pops by. Perhaps somewhere warmer – Spain, Portugal, South France?

Next post will be on hunting.

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