Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Water World

May 1, 2012
Japan and other Asian countries have diets based on rice. Everyone knows that. But what foreigners don't realize is just how much land is reserved for one monoculture and the impact this has. For example, the month of June is Japan's rainy season. On a previous visit to Japan we left Japan towards the end of May and there was extensive fog over the countryside near Narita airport. The countryside was composed of vast expanses of rice fields. No wonder June is the rainy season. Simultaneously it is not unusual for the temperature to drop as the rice fields are flooded.
In early April they begin cultivating the rice fields with tractor attachments that operate like large Canadian rototillers. The edges of the rice fields (tanbo) are re-edged to form a relatively hard impervious clay barrier. The fields are very level to provide consistent water depths for the little rice seedlings. In countries that are not level this necessarily produces terraced fields.
In more mountainous parts of Japan there may be reservoirs of water at higher elevations from which canals allow water to flow into rice fields down below. Ibaraki is quite a flat prefecture so other means needed to be created. The nearby lake Kasumi-gaura was a brackish lake, but various initiatives have been desalinating the water. A extensive system of canals connects to the lake. In our area Inashiki, forty years ago a system of plastic underground pipes was installed. A number of pump houses near the canal area literally pump the water out of the canals and into the rice fields. While walking the dog, the thought has crossed my mind of turning off the taps that are on and turning on the taps that are off. But I value my life a little more than that. Apparently the 3/11 earthquake did significant damage to the plastic pipe system.
The fields have been flooding for the past week or more. Tractors continue cultivating the flooded fields sometimes with hilarious looking rear wheels consisting of the rubber tire and exterior to this are mounted paddle wheel like metal wheels to allow for traction in the mud as the tractors can sink up to their rear axles.
The extensive cultivation and the presence of water, I suspect, will help to control weeds. The water also provides homes and hunting grounds for many animals. Common birds are the snowy egret. There are small fish, insects, turtles, crayfish (which Muku the dog loves to hunt and eat carapace and all) and many many noisy frogs. Frogs are supposedly endangered due to a mutant fungus, but I see many small frogs in both the dry fields and the rice fields.
This week is golden week in Japan and many people either have the week off or have long weekends before and after a two day work week.
This last weekend was extremely busy as rice farmers took to the fields with their automated rice planters which plant little tufts of green seedling rice at very regular intervals and quite quickly. No, the day of people up to their knees in muck, bent over tucking in the rice are almost over, except for the corners that the machinery cannot reach. These planters are loaded with multiple plastic trays of seedlings and away they go. Just don't ask me exactly how they function and exactly what is going on under water.
Later in summer the water will be allowed to drain as the rice approaches maturity. Then harvesting and starvation is averted for another year. Many Japanese people eat white rice three times a day.
Another crop that is grown in water on a smaller scale is the lotus root (renkon). Previous years unused roots are separated and husband and wife wade in with hip waders and stick pieces of the rhizomes in the mud. Wonderful job - ha ha, but the two seem to be very nice people.
Please see photographs on Picasa at Water World.

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