Near the end of summer, as one travels further from the sprawling city of Nagoya, one may notice that the rice fields have changed color from green to golden-yellow—this means that the harvest season has arrived!
Fortunately my host family invited Sarah and me along for a trip to a farm in Nagano Prefecture, which is just east of Aichi Prefecture, and I was able to enjoy this change. After a scenic drive, we arrived at a traveler’s inn nestled in the mountainside. Dating back hundreds of years, these inns housed travelers and provided them with food, drink, and shelter. Today, the inn belongs to farmers who continue to work the land not by machinery but by hand. They harvest an assortment of vegetables and fruits along with, of course, rice. Anyone seeking an adventurous weekend may stay at the inn and lend a hand in the daily farming activities. Luckily, I was able to experience work on an inekari (a rice field at the time of harvest).
In America, one can not simply request to experience a day in the life of a farmer; here, however, all types of people may help out. This group included the owners, people who had previously stayed at the inn, people who were new to farming, my host family and Sarah and I.
At the time of harvest, the rice stalks must be cut, bundled into sections, and then hung out to dry on wooden, hand-made racks. Our job was to gather the bundles and suspend each on a rack. I say “our” job because upon arrival, I immediately felt the camaraderie of everyone who had gathered for the day. While working, everyone seemed eager to converse with each other which only strengthened the kazoku-teki na cheerfulness, or the sense that “they are like family.” Among these genuinely thoughtful people, I hardly cared about the ankle-deep mud swallowing my feet or the spiders crawling everywhere—we worked purposefully and efficiently as a group, which is incredibly important in all aspects of Japanese culture. Instead of stressing over one’s own discomforts, each individual focuses on reaching the group’s goal; thus everyone feels a sense of camaraderie through both the obstacles and the fulfillment of tasks.
After the work was finished, we gathered together back at the inn and shared dinner prepared with the farm’s home-grown crops. While miso soup, rice, both raw and broiled fish, and buckwheat noodles made up the hearty core dishes, vegetables and fruit were even more plentiful. These vegetables were served as tsukemono (pickled) and tenpura (breaded and fried). Savory sides included edamame beans and seaweed; edible flower bulbs, pumpkin, and akemi (a mountain fruit with a flavor like coconut) made up the sweeter sides.
The atmosphere was good-humored with the exchange of traditional Japanese folklore—both song and dance were demonstrated; indeed, they remain important methods of storytelling in rural Japan. For example, one song and accompanied dance represented the importance of loggers in delivering wood from the mountains to the valley community below by riverboat. Through song, the community showed both appreciation for the men and thanksgiving for the continuance of the village. Speaking together over a home-cooked dinner was the ultimate reward after a long day’s work.
I am currently enrolled in a Japanese culture course here at Nanzan University and a central theme that always comes up is the notion of uchi and soto, or “inside” and “outside.” This concept applies to many aspects of Japan’s culture, but it is especially important when speaking about family; uchi refers to family members whereas soto represents everyone and everything outside of the family. Customarily non-family members speak to each other using polite speech, oftentimes to preserve the distance between speakers who have just met. For this reason, I had been expecting to hear teinei throughout the day at the farm. Right away, however, the people helping out spoke rather casually not only to each other, but to Sarah and me as well. By conversing in more casual speech I was able to feel and share their enthusiasm and thus sense the importance of traditional values that surround rural areas such as the farm.
I suggest that when speaking to any Japanese person, listen closely to the level of politeness they use; learning to respond in the appropriate manner is important when speaking to your elders or people in positions of authority! With fellow students or friends, however, I hope that you, too, can use more casual speech and become a member of the “in” group!