Autumn is probably my favorite season in Innai, maybe because of how much I suffer in summer's extreme humidity. Summer in Innai is much better than Tokyo, since the temperature drops significantly at night. But this year was an anomaly, summer was very wet and not all that hot. Even still, I was happy when the season started changing in mid-September. Now, nights can be quite cool, though the days are usually warm enough to be outside with just a long-sleeved t-shirt. Summer days and winter nights are probably the least pleasant times in this region, in all the other times the weather is quite mild.
One of the most satisfying autumn tasks is harvesting rice. Our paddy is very small, only about 200 square meters, but it produces just about enough rice to last us a year (it helps that we eat a good amount of great, pasta, udon, soba, etc.).
We start our rice seedlings in mid-May and transplant them in mid-June, so harvest is done in mid-October. But there are several steps from field to rice bowl, so it's usually another month or more until we are actually eating the new rice.
The first step is to cut the rice stalks, tie them in bundles and hang them on bamboo racks. This took us about four hours this year, which doesn't seem like that much work for a year's supply of rice.
Next, the rice is left hanging for about two weeks to dry. After that comes threshing and winnowing. Our first two years we used manual thresher that you power with your legs and then used a regular room fan to winnow out the straw. Together these tasks took four or five hours. This year, a friend brought his mechanical thresher/winnower to our place and both jobs were finished in about 20 minutes. Easy, but not much feeling of accomplishment...
In any case, this yielded 68 kilograms of what is called momi-gara 籾殻, or unhulled rice. Unlike wheat, rice has a hard outer hull that has to be removed separately. Another friend lets us use his hulling machine to turn it into brown rice, but since we are still eating last year's rice, we'll leave it as momi-gara for now, since it keeps better that way. After hulling I expect we will have about 45 kilograms of brown rice, a little less than last year, probably because of the cool temperatures this summer.
At this point the rice is ready to eat. The last step, which is optional, is to refine the brown rice into white rice. The small machine we have for this lets you choose how "white" you want to go. There is a scale from 1 (full white) to 10 (full brown). We usually go with about a 5 or 6, so midway between brown rice and white rice.
We use machines for some steps in this process (this year more than usual). Regular farmers, however, are fully mechanized. Their combine harvesters cut, thresh and winnow the rice, yielding momi-gara. This they take to a "rice center" for mechanical drying and hulling. Usually farmers sell their rice wholesale as brown rice.
Rice harvest is the major agricultural event of autumn, since it produces the main staple food for the year. But there is still plenty of farming to do as winter approaches. Innai's winter is so mild that many plants will survive into and even through the winter. Cabbage, radish, broccoli, spinach and others are planted in late summer and early fall to enjoy until spring. Onions, garlic, peas and beans are planted in autumn to grow slowly through the winter for spring harvest.
Autumn is also when the local citrus (yuzu, kabosu) and persimmon ripen. Our persimmon trees have been temperamental. Last year they produced way too much fruit to eat. This year, the same trees barely yielded a dozen fruits among them. I have four persimmon trees, but have to buy them from the supermarket.
One final reason why I enjoy autumn in Innai: the weeds stop growing. This is a rich land, but what is good for rice and veggies is good for weeds as well. Summertime is a constant battle trying to keep things under control. Once autumn comes, they give me a break for a few months.
The rainy season in the year I moved to South Innai (2012) was disastrous. The downpours were torrential and though this area escaped mostly unscathed, neighboring towns experienced deadly floods. The next year brought a cold spring, a rainy season that barely started before it was over, then a long dry summer during which the garden seemed to go into hibernation. The plants didn’t die (I carried too many buckets of water for that to happen) but they stopped producing. Then when the weather finally cooled, they perked up again and we harvested eggplants, peppers and bitter melon well into autumn, it seemed.
This year the weather has been all-through a treat. Spring was mild, the rainy season brought bountiful downpours that didn’t overwhelm, and summer’s heat has not been punishing. Today was especially pleasant: yesterday’s rain refreshed the whole area, leaving it cool and brightening the green of the rice paddies and hills.
It is maybe a subjective thing to say, but the climate of this area seems nearly ideal. Spring and autumn are glorious, winter is mild but strong enough so you feel it, and summer, well, summer is too hot for me, to be honest, but I guess you can’t have everything. One of the best parts, for me, is that vegetables grow nearly year round. Spring planting actually starts in winter, since you can start potatoes, spinach and other such plants in early March. And veggies that start in the fall often are available through the winter. This year when we left for a trip in early February, the broccoli I planted in September hadn’t grown by very much. By the time we got back, the heads were big and we ate broccoli into April.
I moved to South Innai in late April 2012 with my wife, S, and our cat, M. We
had been living in Tokyo until the summer of 2011, and for the next nine months we stayed with S’s family in another town in Oita Prefecture. We had been planning on moving to the countryside
since leaving Tokyo and had been looking for a house to rent for about six months. After nearly a year in limbo, we were ready to begin life in the country.
I was raised in a semi-rural setting in the U.S. state of Montana, but had lived mainly in cities since leaving high school in 1995 and had never lived in the Japanese countryside. I didn’t know what to expect, though I had read about rural life in Japan and had spent some time on farms in Oita Prefecture in the past year through WWOOF Japan. At first we didn’t think much about adapting to or integrating into the local society, probably because of more immediate concerns about making sure the house was livable and getting the garden started.
The next two years was a time of adjustment, discovery and learning. That journey hasn’t ended, but enough water has passed under the stone bridge that I can look back and see different steps and stages with some clarity. Some things have been easy (potatoes grow without much help), some have been difficult (winters are cold with uninsulated walls), there have been pleasant surprises (the property’s many fruit trees) and less pleasant ones (wild boars in the rice field), but all in all I have found Innai an incredibly pleasant and stimulating place to live.
The Japanese countryside is often described by the media in dire terms. The shrinking population and low birthrate have hit rural communities the hardest. Young people born in the countryside have been choosing for several generations to leave family farms to live in the cities. The elderly people left behind can do little as their neighborhoods dwindle to almost nothing (genkai shuraku), the homes of former friends and family sit empty (akiya) and once vibrant commercial districts fade (shatta-gai), leaving them with the fearful prospect of dying alone and unattended (kodokushi).
But, while these problems are real, after two years living in South Innai, I can’t help but feel optimistic about the future of the Japanese countryside. This area in particular has numerous incredibly positive attributes. Like the rest of Japan, it is safe, clean, and boasts efficient public services and high-quality infrastructure. The natural environment is beautiful with many opportunities for outdoor recreation—from hiking and swimming to hot springs and picnics. It has a mild climate that allows nearly year-round food production. Most of the food we don’t grow ourselves is produced within about thirty kilometers of our home. It is a twenty-minute drive to a small town, forty-five minutes to a larger one, an hour to an even larger one, and less than two hours to Fukuoka, one of the nation’s top cities. Nearby airports have flights to cities all around Japan and many countries in Asia; you can even fly direct to Hawaii.
I believe modern societies like Japan are in a transitional period between a structure in which the best jobs are concentrated in the cities, and a system that will enable more flexible choices between rural and urban. This transition has been caused mainly by technology. With high-speed internet access (available everywhere in South Innai), people can live far from the companies they work for and enterprises based in one area can provide services to people anywhere in the world. In many industries, there is much less of a need to be close to one’s supervisors, coworkers, clients and customers. As this transition progresses, some people will be drawn to the countryside by its many charms. It may take ten, twenty or even thirty years, but I believe a new type of lifestyle will come to exist in rural Japan, one that incorporates traditional modes of life centered around the fields, mountains and sea, but also is deeply incorporated with a globalized, high-tech world.