A Rice Field is Born 田んぼ

Not being from the countryside, let alone Japan, I’ve asked myself the question: How are all these beautiful rice fields prepared, planted, cultivated, harvested? I’ve heard the same question from friends and family as well.

Fortunately, this year I got to see the process take place over a couple months as the one behind our house was turned from a dry, already-harvested field – into a fresh newly-planted one.

Hooray for rice!
Hooray for rice!

By the time we arrived in March, winter was fading away along with the snow, and most rice fields sat empty with dry stubs where the rice had been harvested last year.

Ready to till
Get outta the way!

But as spring would start to appear, I would see these fields being prepared for growing in the new year.

Empty rice field, pre-flooding.

This starts out as you probably might expect. A tractor tills the dirt with large rotating blades, turning the soil over and chopping up any plant material.
Next the sides of the field are shaped up, corners rounded, and sometimes covered with plastic to help “keep water in”.

Next the fields are flooded. How? Well up here in the mountains water runs everywhere and constantly supplied from the snowy mountain tops and several rivers in the area, so everyone has plenty of water to irrigate their fields.

Quite a difference from water-deprived California from where we came.

Next, the fields are tilled once again…. maybe 3 or more times, getting the soil into a nice fine, smooth texture. I often see people adding fertilizer pellets at this point either walking the field and throwing it by hand, or via a machine (backpack with a pellet shooting  attachment hose). After some time and continued irrigation it’s time for planting the Nae (苗) or baby rice plants.

It seems like most people purchase these by the crate from a nearby grower. And next comes the fun part. The crates are loaded into a small tractor type vehicle which is exclusively for planting the little seedlings into the ground. It is quite satisfying to watch.

Planting By HandDo people still do it by hand as well? Yes, at least I saw several old farmers doing it the manual route, though I have to imagine it adds many hours to the equation.

From here the water stays with the seedlings for a good, long time. How long? I don’t know – I’ll update you when something changes!

And there you have it. I’m sure there are many more steps involved, but for a visual overview, this is what it looks like.

Shirakaba Family Land 白樺 ファミリーランド

A spontaneous weekend family road-trip took place. We recently made it to an amusement park in Nagano, called Shirakaba Family Land 白樺 ファミリーランド. I imagine most Americans are familiar with Nagano due to the winter Olympics of 1998 being held there, and yes as expected there was plenty of mountains and water which would facilitate such an event.

Getting to Family Land from Takayama took a few hours, although I recommend paying the toll roads to get there faster. Skipping the last toll road and trusting our GPS took us up some wild mountain road to get there which had me a bit white-knuckled at times.

Family Land was perfect for ages 3-8 or so I would say, although the whole family had fun and even our 1 year old went on some rides. I would have to say that Japanese amusement parks, or at least this one in the off season (ski season over) was very laid back. Definitely the most stress-free amusement park I’ve ever been to. The number of people wasn’t overwhelming, and the atmosphere relaxed.

Some of the rides they had:

– Elephant ride (similar to Dumbo at Disney)
– A smaller Roller Coaster (still too big for my kids)
– Go Carts
– A beautiful mini-golf putt-putt area
– Zip Lines
– ATV riding
– A canoe water raft ride
– Multiple bounce-house type areas
– Merry-go round
– Large adult-size trampoline area
– Swan boats on a lake filled with fish
…you get the idea!

Plenty to keep little ones busy, but not overwhelming either.

TIPS:

  • You can either pay “per ride” or get an “all day pass”. We opted for 1 day pass and figured the other parent could go per-ride, as one of us would often be watching the baby. In retrospect it was far from strict, and we could have just paid per-ride. I mean how many rides can you fit into a day with two little ones anyway?
  • Attractions were spread out into a few different areas, so there was quite a bit of walking. I’d recommend a stroller, baby backpack, water, sunscreen, hats.
  • The food area we ordered from was nothing spectacular, mostly fried food and took a long time. It’s probably a good opportunity to pack lunches for the family and bring them with you.
  • We stayed affordably in a nearby hotel for one night, which included all you can eat (and drink!) dinner and breakfast, which really makes for a great start & end to the day.
  • I should also mention that the area contains several other places which can be visited including multiple farms, a ski resort, a brewery, etc. You could stay multiple days and find plenty to do.

While I didn’t make it to the brewery, I was able to track down a few of the local Shirakaba beers in our hotel, and managed to end my evening with one in the cool mountain air. Delightful! Adding it to my list of Japanese beers I’ve enjoyed.

Shirakaba Beer Review

Malty, thick but satisfying. Kind of like a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast with a bit of sugar. Surprisingly easy to drink, could easily have 2 or 3 in a row. Not hoppy at all. Slightly sweet aroma like ripened apple skins, but subtle. It’s what I want from a craft beer, a special and complex taste that I can sip and enjoy. It’s my last beer of the night, and perfectly timed.
More Beverages>>

BEER  ビール お酒 飲み物

So yeah, BEER… and all the other great drinks in Japan.
Enjoying the amazing cuisine and beverages is definitely a huge part of my visits. On my last trip I attempted to try a different beer or drink every day. I especially enjoyed the local Hida Takayama brew, which is definitely something special. I have no doubt that after moving there (2 weeks from now) entirely new worlds of flavor will open up to me.

With the popularity of craft beer growing in japan, and Japanese whisky winning “Best in the World” status, it seems as if Japan is making great strides beyond the commonly known ‘sake’ in the U.S.

One of my favorite sipping drinks is Shōchū () which is typically made from sweet potatoes (the good stuff) or barley. To my tastes, it is typically a bit dryer than Nihonshu (what Americans call sake) with mellow herbal flavors and aromas.  Truth be told, the smell of Shochu reminds me of Japan – wherever I’m at. But this beverage will be the subject of a future blog post all its own!

Here are a few tasty beverages that were part of memorable moments;

Hida Beef ひだぎゅう 飛騨牛

So I was born in a small town in California, widely known for it’s famous BBQ. Specifically tri-tip. We’re talking big cuts of meat, slowly cooked over the hot coals of Red Oak wood, typically on an adjustable BBQ pit. Those flavors are burned into my brain, and there is nothing like it!

Japanese BBQ on the other hand, is a whole other story. Completely different and yet amazingly delicious.
In my experience, it’s generally small pieces/slices of beef, cooked rather quickly over charcoal – taken off quickly, sometimes while still a little rare, and enjoyed with salt and pepper or various dipping sauces.

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But one kind of beef stands apart from any other I’ve tried. Hidagyu (or Hida Beef) is beautifully marbled with streaks of fat that simply liquefy upon cooking, making a tender slice of meat – that will essentially melt in your mouth. Many Americans are familiar with Kobe beef, or at least the name. Hida beef might be the best kept secret for carnivores visiting Japan.

FACT CHECK: If you see Kobe beef in the US, it’s probably not real Kobe beef. That’s right, Kobe beef is from Hyogo prefecture, where no slaughterhouses are approved for export by the USDA.  So what is it then? Probably the same breed of cow, raised here in the US under completely different circumstances. Like comparing apples and oranges really. So when you see Kobe beef in the US – be highly skeptical.

IMG_0088

But back to Hida Beef; Hidagyu is still a relatively well kept secret in the US.
Hida cows are all descended from the same original group of black cows, through a strict breeding process, and farmers achieve this especially tender, ultra-marbled beef through various methods. From very low-stress living conditions, to some more famous methods of massaging cows with sake, or feeding the cows beer, and other such methods. Regardless, there is a very high standard and be certified as “Hidagyu” and must be a specific firmness and texture to be considered.

But BBQ is really only one style for cooking this delicacy. You might also see it in Sukiyaki, or even as a grilled steak (although i personally find it best enjoyed in small amounts, complimented by an ice-cold beer).

What it all comes down to:  Visit Gifu Prefecture. Eat the best beef of your life.