At 5am on a Thursday morning, groggy and jetlagged, 20 of us OPENharvest participants, with Food Light Project members piled into three vans headed for Niigata prefecture. As we drove through the quiet morning streets of Tokyo, we eagerly anticipated the adventures ahead.

Three hours and several rest stops later, we made it to Uonuma, a region of Niigata well known for the rice, koshihikari. It is a variety of rice that is presently grown all over Japan, but it is here in Uonuma that it originated. According to Satoshi Imai, rice farmer and owner of the Minami Uonuma Farm, koshihikari was discovered in the wartime years, and grows best in Uonuma, due to factors such as the fresh spring water that drips down from Hakkaisan Mountain, which towers over the region; as well as the terroir, or fuudo (watch Yoko Kumano’s video on this subject here).

DSC_0085Magazine editor Toru Iwasa and rice farmer Satoshi Imai. Photo by Yoko Kumano

Luckily, the 3/11 disaster did not effect Niigata very much, in terms of farming and production. This surprised me, given how close the prefecture is (just due east of Fukuoka), but there is a large mountain range that divides this part of the country, so they lie on separate seismic plates. Good to know!

We were warmly welcomed to Minami Uonuma Farm, and the field full of rice crops ready for harvesting.

Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

We grabbed our tools, and slipped on some rain boots. The sun, just starting to peak out from the fog, warmed our faces; the air, crisp and clear, boasted the beginnings of autumn. We were ready for action.

DSC_0091Sam White and Charlie Hallowell. Photo by Yoko Kumano

Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

Jerome Waag explains the steps for collecting the rice:

Video by Kayoko Akabori

About two bunches of crops equals one bowl of rice. There was enough rice here to comfortably feed a family, maybe even a small village, until the next harvest.

DSC_0095Photo by Yoko Kumano

Cultivating rice is extremely difficult. From the moment it is planted, it must be watched with keen, observant eyes, getting a feel for the land and all of its uncertainties. The fields are flooded numerous times, and it takes months of careful cultivation to produce each grain. Crops are laid down in April, ready for harvest in late September. In the harsh winter months here in Niigata, the fields are covered with nearly ten feet of snow! This means it is a time for the soil to rest, and get ready for the next planting season.

Sylvan Mishima Brackett and Yuri Nomura. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

Mack Yokokawa. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

DSC_0115Photo by Yoko Kumano

Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

DSC_0099David Wilson and rice farmer. Photo by Yoko Kumano

DSC_0092Photo by Yoko Kumano

Charlie Hallowell. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

We placed each rice bunch on metal poles, for drying. It was incredible to watch the pole fill up, inch by inch, until there was no more room. We even had to set up additional poles for more space!
Junji Tanigawa. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

David Wilson. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

Success! Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

DSC_0113Sylvan Mishima Brackett. Photo by Yoko Kumano

DSC_0107The OPEN, and Food Light Project crew. Photo by Yoko Kumano

Sam White, Sylvan Mishima Brackett, Junji Tanigawa, Kayoko Hirao. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

DSC_0105Photo by Yoko Kumano

After gathering the harvest, which took about three hours, we were treated to onigiri (rice balls), made with koshihikari rice. Hikari means “shine”, and the rice does just that. Brightly.

DSC_0119Onigiri (rice balls). Photo by Yoko Kumano

DSC_0117Umeboshi (pickled plum). Photo by Yoko Kumano

DSC_0116Takuwan (pickled radish). Photo by Yoko Kumano

DSC_0122Photo by Yoko Kumano

Growing up, my mom would always warn me at the dinner table that would eyes be sewn shut if any grains of rice were left behind in my bowl. In Japan, every grain of rice is precious, and must be regarded with respect. I imagine that the rice shortage during the war really traumatized the country, as rice is the central component of every meal, and is vital to Japanese culture, through time.

Sam is reading Rice as Self: Japanese Identity Through Time by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierny right now, and I am reading the One Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka. Although Fukuoka is celebrated by some for his revolutionary “Do-Nothing Farming” method, Japan’s rice fields are still heavily regulated and monitored by the government. Ehem, corn in the States, anyone? Although I am in no position to speak on the commonalities of these two crops in either countries, I did get a sense that the government has a stronghold on rice, and all its related products, in Japan.

But our host Satoshi Imai did say something that delighted me during our interview. He said, “The diversity of the rice grains, and the ability to use the grain in different ways, makes this so interesting. It would not be so interesting if all the grains were uniform.” This celebration of diversity, understanding the terroir, and allowing his crops to take on differences, excited me.

Already on this trip, we’ve experienced rice take on different forms, be it sake or mochi or our onigiri. Harvesting rice together as a group, worked as a unifying foundation for OPENharvest–a building ground for all the experiences to come on this trip, leading up to the big event. As Jerome said in the video, the air in Niigata is so fresh, and the physical labor of harvesting helped clear the mind. In this moment, OPENharvest morphed from metaphor to physical. We will never look at a bowl of rice the same, ever again.

Jerome Waag holding a bag of Minami Uonuma Farm rice. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

Rice being hung to dry. So satisfying. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

*Top photo by Kelly Ishikawa