Last weekend on a very hot day I found myself out in the countryside some miles away from central Tokyo. Someone I know grows his own rice - organically, I might add - in a small paddy field he borrows there, and it was one of his many weekend visits to the field. And it one of the most important, even, as it was to plant seedlings.
He'd often go to work in the field on his own, but with the rice planting being probably one of the most important and labor-intensive processes in rice farming (most of which he does manually), he had an army of helpers for the weekend; his friends, friends of a friend, and their families, a few folks I know among them.
And I happened to be back in Tokyo for a week or so, and was invited to join the party - but not to help the work; they knew perfectly well that I wasn't exactly keen on doing farm work, but simply suggested that I should go out a bit and get some fresh air. I couldn't help but think that I'd feel rather uncomfortable being in the middle of people who would be there exclusively to help out the field work when I'm not. When I told them about this concern, however, they shrugged it off, saying that everyone was to be there because they wanted to, and they wouldn't mind if I was there doing my own stuff.
So I ended up crawling out of bed at six in the morning and spending the next few hours at the back of a seven-seater, dozing off occasionally before we finally reached the end of a narrow country road by patches of fields.
I spent the day mostly on my own - sitting in a small cottage near the field, reading books and doing a bit of my own work (yes, I took my laptop along).
At about a quarter past noon, they took a break for lunch - and so did I. Everyone was covered in sweat and obviously tired after a few intense hours of field work under strong sun, but their faces were bright with expectation as they huddled around a large wooden table under the trees.
So what's for lunch?
A few of the helpers had cooked what seemed like a truckload of rice, and they were now conjuring up a large plate full of onigiri or rice balls, simply seasoned with salt. Simple enough, you might think, but think again; when you don't have any of the usual condiments such as pickles or fish in the middle of the rice, nor a semi-mandatory sheet of nori seaweed to wrap around the rice, there is nothing that can distract you from the flavor of the rice itself.
To make perfect salt-seasoned rice balls, or shio-musubi, you absolutely do need to begin with good rice cooked right (and good salt, too). And the task of hand-rolling a scoop of freshly-cooked scalding-hot rice into a neat ball (or triangle) that is firm outside but fluffy inside does require some skills. Like so many things in life, the simplest things are the most difficult to make where onigiri is concerned.
(I think a little explanation should be in order here; although we mostly measure food by weight in Japan, there are some exceptions and rice is one of them. Rice is normally measured by a unit of volume called go, which is about 180 ml or 6 fl oz. And a go is a tenth of sho. So 3.5 sho would be 35 go, and considering that a batch of rice we normally cook in an average household would be something like 3-6 go, 3.5 sho of rice was almost beyond comprehension for many of us there. To give you a better idea, 3.5 sho of rice is about 1.7 gallons or 11.5 pounds / over 5 kg before cooking. Heh.)
And that much of rice was demolished by about twenty of us, including several young kids.
And just when we thought we were so full we couldn't eat any more, there came the best bit - or so as far as I was concerned. The crust of burnt rice stuck to the bottom of the pot, or okoge, can be the best part of a batch of Japanese rice in my book, and I know I'm not the only one on this one.
However, apparently the pro-okoge population is a minority in today's society, as you don't get it much with recent models of rice cookers. So I hadn't had okoge for a while, and was thus unreasonably excited to find a gorgeous crust of okoge at the bottom of the heavy iron pots.
yaki onigiri or grilled rice balls. Now I wished I hadn't eaten that last shio-musubi but saved room for more of this okoge ... nah, both were good. I just wished I could eat more.
When we were done, some went home and others retrieved to the cottage for a short nap before going back to the field. Not being in need of a nap, I took a walk around the place with my camera.
This was my second time being down there - first time was in late June last year when they were there to weed the field as the rice was fast growing.
This year, too, the now patchy fields will soon be thick with rice shooting up. Hope they'll get a good crop - good luck!
Now it is already the end of May (!) and the monsoon has already arrived in half of the country, including Tokyo and Nagano, where I am now. This is exceptionally early, especially when spring came so late this year. In fact, we were only just starting to enjoy the warmer weather.
Spring is always a fleeting thing here in Nagano, but this year it seemed even more so than normal - so it was perhaps a good thing that I took a lot of pictures over the period of month or two, capturing the moments when the bare mountains became lush and green as the winter turned into spring. Some of the pictures can be found here (as slideshow).
And of course, it was lucky for me that I got to stay in Tokyo while it was still relatively dry and sunny, enjoying the short spell of pleasant early summer weather before the rainy season arrives, with hot and humid full-on summer at its heels.
Hope it's not too wet where you are and that you are enjoying good weather. Have a good weekend! -cx