ICHINOSEKI, IWATE PREF. – Looking out the window as the bullet train crosses into northern Iwate Prefecture, the mighty Tohoku mountains stand tall behind deep forests, rice paddies and the occasional sleepy town. Long gone is the constant buzzing of cars and a view that stops on the other side of the street. If it weren’t for the train, this place must have felt the same 100 years ago as it does today.
In late September, the trees have only just begun changing their colors but the fields of gold swaying in the cool autumn winds are a sure sign that it won’t be long before the rest of the leaves also radiate autumn colors. With remnants of rice fields as far back as 2,000 years ago, Iwate is still today known for its organic agriculture and the country’s iconic terraced rice fields, tanada. In the mountains straddling the city of Ichinoseki is one unlike any other.
Kanayama Tanada, named after its owner, is more than 100 years old. Everything from planting to harvesting is done by hand, according to tradition. The blood and sweat of generations have carved out the mountainside and covered it with roughly 100 puddles of carefully planted rice plants. Still a hidden gem, it is slowly drawing more tourists from both near and afar.
Walking up the mountain to the observation post at the top, one begins to notice the small things around: a frog jumping from the paddies; that earthy smell you only find in wet forests; deer tracks; small birds darting through green felicity. Urbanites spend so much time removed from nature that encountering it becomes almost an experience in itself.
Reaching the top, the path opens up to a clear view of the tanada, flanked on both the sides by Japanese cedar and cypress trees. The horizon is beautifully layered with dense green mountains, interrupted only by the golden terraces themselves. Ears of rice are hung up to dry, but in late September harvesting has only just begun.
Rice terraces are an impressive feat of human ingenuity. Lacking access to rivers, Kanayama Tanada utilizes an irrigation system that dates back to the late Edo Period. At the top is a pond-like reservoir giving easy access to ground water and rainwater. This water is released into waterways going down the terraces, allowing a stable flow that would otherwise be difficult to achieve in the mountains.
As modern agricultural machinery began to take over the country’s rice production in the 1960s, the cumbersome terraced landscape lost its utility as farmers adjusted to a more competitive, efficiency-driven industry, and many fell into disrepair. However, terraced rice fields do more than just grow rice.
In periods of intense rainfalls, tanada helps prevent flooding and landslides by retaining rainwater and letting it seep steadily into the soil. Each terrace is a small watery garden, housing and nurturing thousands of species, including frogs, insects, snakes and, in some cases, even fish. Now it also harbors a peek into bygone times.
Here in Ichinoseki, every person greets you with a smile and a thick accent. Not many people live here, and even fewer visit. The exception is spring and fall, when tourists come in from the big cities to experience a traditional, “rustic” Japan, one that is harder to find even in the remote Tohoku. In recent years, this trend is seen in tanada around the country, leading some to embark on a “Tanada tour,” in which visits include well-known tanada in Niigata, Ishikawa, Nagano and Nagasaki prefectures.
“I’m happy people come to visit,” says Yoshiharu Yoshida, a 64-year-old farmer busy harvesting in a neighboring field. “But it won’t matter if no one stays.”
Walking around you’d be lucky to encounter someone who stayed after graduating high school. A regional specialty is mochi, a glutinous rice cake made from repeatedly pounding rice with a gigantic hammer. Community mochi-making events are held in winter, but some now worry how long there will be enough able men to wield the hammer. Tourists are more than welcome to try.
After all, tourists bring in revenue and vitality, and events and festivals connect generations of people to the community. Some hope that tourism will strengthen community ties, and bring jobs and opportunities back to the region, giving the young reason to stay.
In the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake that devastated the prefecture’s coastal side, locals banded together to form the Kanayama Tanada Protection Association. With the city’s support for rural revitalization, the association works to preserve the tanada, along with its culture and traditions. For a small fee, anyone can step back in time and partake in planting and harvesting rice the way it’s been done for centuries.
Getting to Kanayama Tanada: Take the shinkansen from Tokyo to Ichinoseki Station, a two-hour ride. From there you can take a 20-minute taxi ride (0191-23-1111) or a bus to Maikawa Post Office. Leaving the vehicle, turn right at the intersection and follow route 261 for 10 minutes until you reach a sign indicating that Kanayama Tanada is 900 meters down a small road on the right. Oeystein Sollesnes is a graduate student at Akita International University, Japan. This article is part of his course work in journalism at the Graduate School of Global Communication Practices.