Autumn 2017

Here’s a round-up post of some of the things I’ve done this autumn.

The first was a ‘country living’ tour that I did as an experiment for the tour company, at the invitation of a friend who was helping with interpreting and translation. They called it a ‘monitoring tour’ because it was an experiment to try to figure out how to get foreign travellers to discover rural Hiroshima. This meant that it was free and we had to do a substantial-ish survey giving our opinions. There were 7 of us who went on the tour to Tsuta, an area inland from Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture.

We went to a farm house, cooked a meal using old-fashioned equipment and spent a while hanging out in the country, which I loved. Then we went back into the town to an autumn harvest festival.

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This is the farmhouse where our country living experience took place. It was hosted by a lady called Michiko, who may live there, who spelt her own name as Mitiko.

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Rice straw drying out over the harvested paddy behind the house

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The wood-fired stove, aka 竈 かまど kamado, that we used to cook rice and a soup. Might look familiar if you’ve watched Massan.

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Michiko-san showed us how to blow into the fire using this bamboo tube (just like on Massan).

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The rice, tipped out from the kamado pot into this shallower dish, had to get seasoned with salt, and cooled, so we all waved fans at it for a while.

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Michiko-san showed us how to make rice balls, which are as common in Japan as sandwiches are in the West but which aren’t widely known outside Japanese culture, as far as I know.

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These fish were caught the same morning as they were now being grilled. They took a while to cook.

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Meanwhile, we hopped across the river behind the rice paddy. Here Michiko has set up a wooden rack that’s sitting and waiting until it’s mature (read: rotting?) enough to sprinkle some spores on and grow shiitake.

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 Someone made a little friend.

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Near the shiitake rack, we picked bamboo leaves that would be used to serve our grilled fish.

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Our lunch, waiting for the fish to finish grilling. In the front you can see the completed soup that was cooked in the big pot on the kamado.

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We learned how to make a little boat out of the bamboo leaves. Mine’s the one on the right.

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Then we tried racing them.

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These kids were arriving at the shrine with the procession for the autumn festival. It was fun watching everyone arrive. Then I think there were some performances by local children, but unfortunately all I remember is a long, boring ceremony. So no photos of that.

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Some people brought baskets to catch mochi, which the people throwing were taking out of those yellow buckets. I think the mochi were all donated by local groups. If you missed the mochi you were going for, it would be grabbed up by kids underfoot in a second. Good, clean, dangerous fun for all the family.

Here endeth the Tsuta activities, and following are some more general autumn things I’ve been doing.

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At Bakusetsuno Falls in Mihara

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Leaf-viewing at Buttsuji

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Leaf-viewing at Buttsuji

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Driving around Shikoku. Just the country in autumn. Is Shikoku the Hokkaido of the south?

So there you have it for now. Upcoming intended post topics include: more on religion; various media productions (TV shows, books etc.) and maybe some strange things that working with kids has revealed to me. Some of the things they say can be like things cats say in speech bubbles on the internet, like saying ‘night lunch’ instead of ‘dinner.’

As always, thanks for reading 🙂

A case for Japanese ‘religion’

I recently participated in a Shinto festival, and also visited a couple of shrines and temples in the last couple of weeks. Autumn festivities are at their peak in Japan, with its four-seasons obsession, which to be fair is pretty well deserved. The seasons definitely are more noticeable than in Melbourne (then again, we have less contrast throughout the year there because you get so many every day). Autumn is pretty spectacular in Japan. They just need to change the wording from ‘we have four seasons in Japan’ to something more like ‘Japan’s seasons are marked, clearly defined and colourful.’

Being part of the autumn festival a few weeks back, I was really struck at how much fun it was, and how I strangely felt like a useful part of the community even though it was in a part of the prefecture I’d never seen before, almost entirely with people I’d never met. It was a small community festival, in which a mikoshi was carried on a designated route (marked out by little white flags) around the town, making stops at particular houses or empty lots to either give a blessing (is that the right word?) to the people living in the house, or to put the mikoshi down and give all the carriers a rest. Or sometimes both of these things.

At lots of the houses there was food and drink – snack foods, juice, tea and/or sake or beer. This was for the people doing the hard work of carrying the mikoshi around, and it really was hard work. But while we walked with it on our shoulders, there was singing, a kind of chant going on all the while and a flute player who walked ahead. Hard though it was, it was really quite fun. The trickiness of shaking it, or dipping it from side to side, was also exciting.

The exhilarating and difficult tilt that conveyed the blessing. Image taken by my friend Yayoi 🙂

For all the participants, the local shrine office supplied lunch – rice balls, lots of snack foods, tea and beer before setting off to pick up the mikoshi and then a hearty good-quality bento after the whole thing was finished.

I didn’t really know, when we went, what this festival was going to be. A friend had recommended it and I had friends staying, and they said they were happy to have a look. We showed up halfway through the thing and were surprised at how welcome we were. There weren’t enough big, strong people to carry the mikoshi easily so they wanted all the help they could get. It turned out there were another 3 foreigners there, all biggish American men. I wasn’t much use because compared to the men I wasn’t tall enough to effectively shoulder much of the weight, but I did my best anyway, and everyone’s efforts were appreciated – my tallest friend especially so.

As we were carrying this thing around, drinking sake at all the stops and getting gradually soaked through in the light rain that refused to let up, it occurred to me that I’d never heard of any events that were this much honest fun in Christianity or any religion I know of. I myself don’t, what’s the expression? subscribe to any organised religion, but Christianity is the one I have the most experience of, being a choir musician back in Australia. I have definitely had a lot of fun on choir camps, and enjoyed singing Bach or Faure or Mozart or whoever’s done a relevant Mass or Requiem, but through the activities I’ve sat through for those things, I felt something like a pressure or expectation of being converted sooner or later. I felt like a fraud sitting in the choir stand and standing up, sitting down at the right times and responding ‘And also with you.’ As a singer in a church choir once, I accidentally took communion without knowing that you have to have been baptised? Oops. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the embarrassment I felt when I realised.

After carrying this mikoshi around for a couple of hours though, everybody prayed (clap twice, bow twice, clap once), was blessed and received some ceremonial sake from an official man at the shrine. No induction, nor any future commitment, necessary or even considered. I actually tried to skip that bit because I wasn’t sure it was for ring-ins like me, and the other guy who prayed at the same time said ‘Hang on! You’ve got to go and have your blessing and sake.’

Have you ever seen people do this for a yearly event related to modern Christianity? Maybe in some parts of the world. Taken at Kishiwada Danjiri festival in Osaka, 2017.

The danjiri of the Kishiwada Danjiri festival I saw in September 2017.

In this Shinto business though, there’s no ‘God’ because it’s not a religion, so nobody tries to convert you (at least not in modern Shinto. It wasn’t always so, apparently! And these cultural activities are also largely historically limited to men. I’m not trying to say Japanese spirituality is without its problems). Or maybe there are lots of gods, as they see it. The Buddhism I’ve experienced in Japan is similarly welcoming and non-judgmental, with no proselytism. Again, Buddhism is not supposed to be a religion. And maybe that’s just it, that Shinto and Buddhism are not actually supposed to be religions, but some of the most exciting and enjoyable things I’ve seen and done in Japan have been based around shrines and temples. As far as I can tell, there’s no air of normal life and enjoyment stopping because of something being holy. Shinto and Buddhism seems more in touch with normal people. Normal people go to shrines and/or temples to pray at least once a year (at New Year) and at other times, for festivals – usually for fun, in the case of festivals, rather than any sense of obligation. On the other hand, reasons for a non-Christian to go to church in my personal experience in the West are:

  • garage sales
  • concerts/rehearsals I’m singing in
  • tourism (like going to cathedrals or Christmas plays in Europe)

And some of those are definitely fun, but not as much as heaving around a stack of bamboo and rice, singing and shouting while doing it, and drinking sake and eating fish cakes in a stranger’s backyard. Or watching almost-naked men tramp around in the snow, chanting and pouring icy water on themselves.

Sominsai, 蘇民祭 a.k.a. ‘naked festival.’ The kanji actually translates to something like ‘saving citizen festival.’ There are lots of naked festivals. This one was at Kokusekiji in Iwate, 2013. Image taken by my friend Frank.

I also want to note that Japanese temples and shrines tend to have a natural element to them, with peaceful gardens and beautiful grounds, in a way that is different to the Western churches I’ve seen. I can’t comment on other places of worship like synagogues or mosques, and I’m not trying to say other places of worship don’t have their own beauty or peace, nor that places are welcoming refuges for many, many people. I just wanted to take a minute to appreciate and share that nature is a huge part of Shinto and Japanese Buddhism, and that appeals to me.

桜 (sakura = cherry blossoms) 2017

日本人は「花見」という事がわかると思いますが、外国人が知らないかもしれませんね。今年の花見できる週末はなかなか晴れてくれてないけど、とにかく写真をとりました。

Japanese readers will be familiar with the concept of hanami 花見 ‘flower-look,’ which essentially means a picnic with alcohol, with/under/around sakura (cherry blossom) trees. It’s really popular. Some people say it’s the heart of the Japanese people.

The weather this season has been sunny on a couple of weekdays over the sakura season, but cloudy and/or raining on the weekends. I went and hanami-ed anyway and took some photos.

Red leaves

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紅葉, kouyou: momiji on Miyajima

As you may know, some people like to tell you how there are 4 seasons in Japan.
We are now in autumn, or as we ALTs are required to teach it, fall. The name does make more sense here than in Australia, because there are many deciduous trees in Japan.
Autumn leaves here are called 紅葉 kouyou (red leaves), and going to see them is a popular autumn pastime. Have I written about this before?
Anyway, being in Hiroshima and having some visitors at the moment, we decided to go to Miyajima, one of the most popular places for 紅葉 kouyou viewing.

dsc_0335It was unseasonably warm and pretty nice. For the leaves, mid-November is the time to go. Unfortunately, this fact is well-known and the rest of Japan and all its tourists were also there, so it took us a fair bit longer to do the walk up and down the mountain that I like to do. But it was worth it.

dsc_0357That’s about all I’ve got to say about that for now. It’s a particularly busy time of year, and there’s a lot going on round our house at the moment, so I probably won’t write a huge amount next week either. But more content-y content should be coming in December.

Hope you’re travelling well, reader, as we get to the pointy end of the year. See you next week.

Rice 2016

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When it was still kind of nice walking around.

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Plenty of water in the air, though.

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Early summer

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This actually kind of just reminds me of the audiobooks I was listening to at the time: Earth’s Children, by Jean M. Auel

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Little frog

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I make no claims to be a great photographer, but huts, trucks or powerlines always seem to get in the way of how it looks if you were really there. Still, I like the layers in this valley. Gully. Whatevs.

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Fences are probably in the same category as powerlines.

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This was after a few weeks away (in Oz) – colours changing already, though the air was still pretty warm and sticky

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The frogs had well and truly disappeared by this time. Where do they come from every rainy season, and where do they all disappear to?

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Late September – early October, coming up to harvest time

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And the smoky season starts, and new season rice is in the shops.

Education and how it’s done (1)

University: a stressful, busy time for many. A leisurely, carefree or maybe lonely time for some. And a time of learning, that goes without saying. Probably harder than school. Right?

In this post I aim to make a few generalisations about the doing of education in Australia and Japan. Background: I work in the Japanese school system, but I’ve never been a student or teacher in a Japanese university. On the other hand, I’ve completed courses at 3 different Australian university campuses, but school was quite a while ago, so it may have changed, plus my memories are quite vague. And with this kind of asymmetrical balance, on we go.

The point

Education in Japan is largely test-driven. There is often a strong focus on how to pass tests to get to the next stage, into the high school, university etc. you want. Once you get there, wherever it is, you learn the most successful way to behave in that environment: if it’s a company, you get trained for a few years. If it’s a school, you get inducted and mentored (or bullied).

Tests in Japan are often multiple choice with one correct answer. There is usually one way of doing things; opinion, arguing and questioning things doesn’t come into it much until you get to independent research or looking for ways to make a factory system more efficient and profitable. Whether opinion is important in native-language Japanese studies, or in university tutorials, I don’t know. Due to the one-correct-answer mentality and also the value of harmony and agreement in Japan, I have a suspicion that if tutorials are supposed to have discussions, they don’t feature much argument, unlike in Australia.

In Australia, I don’t know how explicit the focus is on this throughout the education system, but there is definitely some focus on critical thinking: questioning, asking why and how and whether you should trust that information. As well as test performance, students are assessed on assignments done at home (e.g. essays) and on class participation, which means asking questions and contributing to discussion (depending on the class) as well as doing the required work. In humanities subjects like English, history and media studies, students are expected and required to present and argue for a particular point of view, and be able to present evidence in a way that supports the opinion they are putting forward, whether it be arguing that a historical dictator actually had a good point or that Gatsby was a sailor (sorry, that’s about all I remember of Year 12 Literature, apart from not understanding Heart of Darkness until the class discussion where I finally started to see what was going on).

So, along with whether you should ask questions and assert yourself or not, I think the main difference between education styles in Australia and Japan is:

Active vs passive learning

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A university class in Japan in 2015

In Japan, it’s mostly one-way, teacher-to-student: teachers talk and write on the board, and students listen and copy stuff down (or don’t). Students do drills, to practice and presumably gain some understanding through repetition of what they’ve been told.

Who asks questions? Teachers, to see if students got the right answer or not. What do students do when they don’t understand? Either go home or to cram school to study until they get it and/or ask a tutor, or give up on it. If they’re not interested in understanding, maybe they sleep, or engage in some personal grooming like cutting their hair or pulling the little hairs out of their fingers with a pair of tweezers that they have in class for some reason (that was a high school in Iwate, in case you’re wondering). Or of course, maybe they chat with their friends nearby, doodle in their book or write notes to someone. Sometimes I think this relaxed attitude about getting the knowledge they need comes from knowing that the teacher will tell them what’s going to be on the test so they can memorise it the night before. I’ve seen this in schools and a friend of mine has told me about it happening in a class of hers in a well-respected university. Teaching to the test is not uncommon in Japan, which maybe makes sense if the aim of the system is for students to pass tests.

(That being said, usually even if students fail their tests, they don’t repeat a year – they’re not held back except by the distance between them and their peers or where the curriculum says they should be.)

This one-way classroom style could be construed as requiring extremely active learning on the part of the student, and for the aces leading the class, who the others turn to for help, that’s exactly what happens. But for less motivated students, it’s pretty passive – copying from the board, doing questions, correcting them, not knowing why they’re getting them wrong – or in some cases, just copying the answers directly from the answer book into their notebook. It’s possible and common to get away with very little thinking and a lot of going through the motions.

Why don’t students ask questions? It’s not the culture, and here is what I think is why: It shows a lack of comprehension, thereby exposing weakness/inferiority. It draws attention to the asker, which is embarrassing. And it holds up the rest of the class, which can be seen as selfish/inconsiderate behaviour.

In Australia, it’s more two-way: teachers also talk, but students are encouraged to ask relevant questions and offer opinions. There is a requirement for students to learn to offer opinions in front of others. This obviously is truer for some subjects than others – maths and science subjects don’t require opinions and class discussions, nor take-home assignments or essays, generally speaking – at least not at school level. But relevant questions are encouraged in every subject, and students are basically supposed to learn to be able to think for themselves and transfer those skills to whatever situation might need them in the future.

Is it common for students to sleep in class? No, in Australia it’s not OK and it’s uncommon, especially at school. You might get away with it at uni if you’re up the back in a big lecture theatre, but in a tutorial, you wouldn’t see it, and if you fell asleep you might be asked to leave. It’s seen as rude towards the teacher because it suggests you find them uninteresting and/or you’re not paying attention to the class.

 

Intensity: when and where?

As seems true for so many things in Japan, school is intense in the amount of your life you are expected to give to it – hours in the week as well as over years – and time is equated with value and effort, especially once you factor in club activities on the weekend and cram school. University, on the other hand, is seen as kind of a relief. It’s your chance to let loose and do what you want for a few years – while probably also working part-time. Going to classes sometimes. Freedom. (This may be more or less true for some fields of study, e.g. law, medicine, etc.) The downside of this may be if you want to get a graduate job overseas – Japanese students often don’t make strong candidates because there is a view that they didn’t really learn anything at university, don’t know how to think for themselves and can’t do anything unless someone tells them to.

That being said, obviously Japan is way up there in many scientific and technological industries, and the education system has them doing maths in junior high school that I don’t think I ever did in high school. One frustrated English learner told me that in Japan, all subjects are taught the same way as maths is. Maybe this is because it works so well in that subject? Their literacy and numeracy is strong, according to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (PDF), in which Japan came out overall in 7th place, preceded by China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Korea and Macau-China. Australia was 19th: ahead of the UK, but behind Canada and Vietnam, among others.

In Australia, school education is probably externally viewed as quite slack because compared to most of Asia, there’s not much homework, you don’t have to stay until 6 with club activities, most students aren’t that drastically underslept, and nobody goes to cram school. University in Australia, however, is probably similarly intense to other Western countries in that it requires significant effort and hard work. As I seem to remember writing once before, I think effort in Australian culture is appreciated more in how hard you try than in how many hours you do something for, or how many repetitions you do. It would be a lie to claim that all Australian students are concentrating all the time, or that mainstream education works perfectly for everyone, but mental effort is valued and sought after.

Right. So. To generalise this page of generalisations a little bit further, in a possibly painful nutshell, educational style:

Japan: 1-way, drills

Australia: 2-way, questions

And with that, we’ll adjourn for now. There is a lot more to be said about school in particular, and plenty about English language education in Japan, in which I work. So as they say, please look forward to that. See you in July!

Rice

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Katakana will make its final appearance soon, but today, rice 米 (こめ kome)/御飯 (ごはん) gohan. It can also be translated as ‘meal,’ as in not wheatmeal or oatmeal but breakfast, lunch, etc. One Japanese word for breakfast is ‘morning rice.’ It’s part of the national identity, and I think the government has requirements for how often rice has to be served in school lunch (as opposed to bread or noodles) for primary/elementary and middle schools.

There are a lot of different kinds of rice. In Australia you can get quite a few. You can choose long grain, medium grain or short grain… basmati, jasmine, calrose, arborio, wild rice, black rice, and others. Increasingly, you can get brown (i.e. wholegrain) versions of these. Most rice in Australia is imported. Doongara is the only kind grown in Australia that I know of. Australia is pretty short on water, and most kinds of rice need a fair bit of water to grow, so it doesn’t make sense to grow them in Australia. Apparently Doongara rice needs less water? But most kinds need lots. So rice paddies are kind of basins sunk into the ground. Here is one in April (spring) before they’d started working on this year’s crop. You can see how the ground level in the rice paddy is below the level of the road.

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When it gets to sometime in April, May or June, depending on where you live, they fill up the rice paddies with water.

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4 June

In Japan, rice is rice. There are different names of rice, but to me, they all look exactly the same, and most of them taste pretty much the same too. Maybe the names are just the grade and/or where they’re grown. Some places are famous for having high quality rice, but I saw a variety show on TV with blind taste testing for low, medium and high quality rice, and out of about 6 participants (all Japanese), only 2 or 3 guessed correctly which was which. In my own experience, in 2 years living in Japan, only once have I had rice that tasted bad, and that was in a shop where they also made fried squid taste bad.

In Japan, ‘rice’ means white Japanese rice. Maybe you know it as sushi rice. The grains are short and they hold a lot of water and stick together really well, which is how Japanese rice is so easy to eat with chopsticks. (Unless you put some kind of sauce on it, in which case most Japanese people will eat it with a spoon.)  Some shops sell brown rice, but it’s not very common. Also, I don’t think I have ever seen other varieties of rice (jasmine, basmati etc.) in Japan.

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6 June

They have little punnets of rice, and they use these funny tractor things for planting. They look pretty funny when you see them driving on the road, on the way to the paddies. You can see a video about it here.

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Punnets/trays of rice plants waiting to be planted

Does it dry out? Not much chance of that. June is the rainy season, and many of the rice paddies probably don’t even need to be filled from wherever they are filled from – the little irrigation channels you can see around the place. There is so much water in Japan! And summer is extremely humid, especially if, like me, you’re from a dry place. There is plenty of life in the water of the rice paddies.

Once planted, as far as I can tell, there is a fair bit of just letting the rice grow.

14 jul

14 July

The place becomes a bit nicer when it’s all green, and it starts to get taller.

10 aug

10 August

Then it starts to make these great brushy whispering noises with these warm breezes blowing through it. Or typhoons, as the case may be.

10 sep closer

10 September

The colour of the grains at this point is quite pale and/or purply.

10 sep closest

10 September

It starts to get floppy.

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10 September

Then it starts looking less green and more – well, I’d like to say gold, but really, it’s more yellow. Like the colour of an old lime?

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5 October

The grain colour doesn’t change that much, but they get slightly floppier. However, the stalky/leafy part gets yellower, floppier and kind of deader, lower down.

9 oct closer

9 October

It gets pretty unruly-looking.

9 oct haircut time

9 October

It looks pretty great at the right time of day – stops looking that sick, greeny yellow, and starts to look more golden.

9 oct

Sometimes it looks like a dog has flopped down and had a sleep on it. As much as half the paddy, for some of them.

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21 October.

So then, time for a haircut.

10 October

Harvest, 10 October

Because of timing issues, I didn’t manage to get a shot of that harvest machine in action, but Rachel and Jun made a video about it, too, so if you’re interested (Mum!) have a look. It’s pretty cool. The rice goes in a mouth at the front, the machine grabs the bunch somehow and cuts it off from the ground, and also takes the grains off. It puts the grains into a compartment somewhere until they can be transferred to a big bag or something for transport. It also ties a bow around the bunch of now grainless stalks and deposits the bunch on the ground behind it.

The place has dried out a bit by this point.

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19 October

The bunches of straw that get left on the ground… what do they do with them? I assume someone makes them into tatami and other straw products (hats, window shades for summer?). Before that happens, though, people dry out their straw in a number of ways.

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11 October

Some stand it up in little tents or doll shapes. Most hang it up on a rack, made of bamboo, plastic or metal.

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21 October

Maybe this lot has gone through the process already. After a while, someone takes it away.
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Then you have all this sad old stubble on the ground, which gets burnt off, after which it’s just black and still there. It makes a lot of smoke that comes into your house/work/school if you open the windows.

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Burning off, 26 October

 

26 October

26 October

There are piles of rice – or is this just husks? I don’t know enough to say – on the ground in some places, too. They eventually disappear too.

The rice gets taken somewhere, shelled, and polished to make the white rice most of the country eats. I don’t know what happens to the husks. Maybe they’re exported for other countries to make rice bran oil. I haven’t seen rice bran in the shops here, or rice bran oil. (The idea of whole grains hasn’t really caught on yet in Japan, but you can buy wheat bran in some more uppity supermarkets.)

This is what we have until next spring. Well, presumably everyone’s going to turn over the dirt at some point like the person with the left rice paddy here has done.

13 December. It's been like this for a while.

13 December. It’s been like this for a while.