From January 16th to the 17th, I visited Osaki City in Miyagi Prefecture, the next bullet train stop north of Sendai. I was asked to be a foreign travel reporter for a TV program called “Mizu no Kuni Nipppon – Japan: the Country of Water” to be aired on a television station in Kumamoto, the station being part of the Fuji Sankei Group. The program would also be aired a week or two later on Fuji Television during the late night.
I met up with the director, assistant director, sound engineer and camera operator when I boarded the bullet train at Omiya Station in Saitama, and we rode through the morning mist in Utsunomiya, past the cloud-covered peaks of Bandaisan and Adatarayama, and the clear white summit of Azumasan, on past snowy fields to the bare brown fields north of Sendai. From the train station, two people working for Osaki City Hall’s land use and environmental department took us off to the rural areas outside the city.
Our first real stop was Mototaki, a waterfall located in a hidden alcove carved out in layers of volcanic tuff in the small mountain mass of Kagoboyama (加護防山). The water seeping through the layers of tuff was barely a trickle but it was clear and naturally filtered and enriched with minerals leached from the rock.
As we were visiting the area – me shooting away with my camera and the camera operator busy filming this and that – the local caretaker came to the shrine located before the falls. The director said this would be a great chance to speak to a local and ask about the significance of the water. I greeted the old man and first asked if the rock was indeed volcanic tuff. He immediately replied that it wasn’t and that there were no volcanoes around here (I later checked a geologic map of the mountain on the web and found that it truly was tuff). Next I asked about the significance of the shrine. He went on to explain a lot about how in the old days people came here for the New Year’s traditions and the water used to be used for the rice paddies below. These days few people come and the water in the fields is recycled water from the river. I understood that much anyway, but there were many times I couldn’t catch a thing and only looked at him and smiled in interest. After he left, the director said, “I think I understood only half of what he said.” Everyone else concurred. The man had spoken in some local dialect. “If we use that part for the program we’ll have to use subtitles,” said the director.
Closer view of Mototaki
Next we drove to the top of the mountain. In the old days, there used to be a shrine on the summit; however, it burned down. We saw some unnatural mounds in the ground and some large stones place in the ground with hollow bowls carved out. These stones used to be for the main support pillars. Ironically, the name Kagoboyama includes the Kanji for “Add”, “Preservation”, and “Protection”. It seems the mountain didn’t live up to its name when the shrine burned down; due to a drought, there was not enough water at the time to douse the fire!
View from Kagoboyama
We drove down to visit the wide tapestry of rice paddies below. It was unusual to see fields that still retained water during the winter months. Usually the rice paddies are left dry in winter. But here parts were muddy and wet, and a type of wild goose called magan in Japanese and swans waddled about in the mud, searching for rice grains that had dropped off during the previous autumn’s harvest.
Water in the winter fields
As I was to learn, this visitation of water fowl was a crucial aspect for the local rice farming industry. For the time being, however, we drove around and I was filmed walking about and photographing or we went in search of birds in the fields to shoot for the program.
Magan in flight
As evening approached, we went over to see the Kabukuri Marsh (蕪栗沼)where the birds would all come to roost for the night. The weather had been mixed sun and cloud during the day but the clouds were taking over the sky and a bitter wind blew in from the northwest. A Mr. Saito had been arranged to come and meet with me on the dyke overlooking the marsh. He described how in old times people thought the wild geese and wild ducks were the same creature. But then they learned more about the geese. The birds are actually from Siberia but they come to Japan in the winter and try to fatten up. They eat the dropped rice grains in the paddies mostly. Mr. Saito explained how the farmers made great effort to keep water in the fields in winter to provide the birds with a wetland environment and a source of food. I saw how this benefited the birds, but what did human beings stand to gain from this magnanimous activity? I asked but Mr. Saito suddenly looked awkward and said to the director, “He should just ask me about how we look after the birds.” So I did and got the explanation about how the farmers help the NPO people by observing the birds and keeping records.
As he spoke, the sun began spreading a beautiful orange light between the clouds. I was shivering in the wind and eager to start shooting. At last Mr. Saito wrapped up his story and gestured for us to enjoy the evening light as dozens of flocks of geese came in to feather down for the night.
Geese come in to roost at Kabukuri Marsh
As darkness fell, we wrapped up the day’s shooting and headed into town for our hotel rooms and dinner out together.
The following morning we awoke to rain. Nevertheless, we returned to the dyke to watch the birds take to the skies, flock by flock, and start their day.
Once the morning shoot had concluded, the clouds began to stir and soon the sun came out. The crew had to film some scenes of the car driving down the road past the paddies, so I had an hour to kill, roaming about the area until it was time to move on.
We spent some of the morning driving about, looking for scenes of geese to film and visiting another small shrine nearby, though there was not so much for me to do at this time. I just followed along and photographed as much as I could.
Magan in a rice paddy
The next big scene for me was meeting Mr. Nishizawa, one of the local rice farmers. He was out tending to one of his fields, making sure water was being diverted into the paddy and being retained by dams of clay.
Mr. Nishizawa at work
At last I was to learn the secret importance of this operation. In a document from a few hundred years ago, the words “fuyumizu tanbo” (ふゆみず田んぼ) showed up in an explanation about farming practices. It seems that during the Edo Period, local farmers flooded their fields in winter to attract the magan. The birds ate the fallen rice grains and in turn their excrement provided fertilizer. Additionally, the water in the field keeps the mud from freezing and microscopic organisms can continue doing their thing all year just as in the marsh. This means the previous year’s stalks become soft and easily decompose, adding more nutrients to the mud. Crayfish, freshwater eels (dojo), and other larger aquatic critters keep the ecosystem active, too. The net result is more fertile mud for planting and growing rice in the following spring and no chemical fertilizers are necessary.
Mr. Nishizawa invited me to his home for lunch. Well, that was part of the script, so to speak. His house was very new and a little expensive-looking. I asked him how new his house was and he responded that it was built after the 11-3-11 earthquake. Many old farm houses in the area had been badly damaged by the earthquake, but after the tsunami hit, the news focused entirely on that extraordinary catastrophe.
I was served rice balls of just the fuyumizu tanbo rice and I have to honestly say it tasted really good. I felt I could just eat this rice for lunch and be satisfied. But the real winner was the Chinese cabbage. The entire crew agreed that it was so crisp and juicy and served naturally it was a delight. The cabbage was from his garden and watered with water from his well where the mineral-enriched water from Kagoboyama flowed.
After lunch we set off to shoot some more scenes of magan in the fields and then stopped at the Kabukuri Marsh for more bird views. The sunny weather wasn’t going to last as a cold wind blew a messy mass of snow-laden clouds our way.
As we drove north, the snow began blowing horizontally. Our last stop was a sake plant where they made Japanese rice wine using the fuyumizu tanbo rice. Normally, rice wine is made with a different kind of rice than what is used for mealtime consumption. After a tour of the facilities and an explanation of how rice wine is made, I was treated to a glass of the local brew. I can drink sake but I don’t order myself. However, this stuff was actually really good. I was considering buying a bottle when I was told that we were out of time and I had to get back into town to catch my train. As I was quickly being ushered out the door, my tour guide of the plant came rushing up to me with a big bottle of fuyumizu tanbo rice wine.
The short trip was certainly informative, and even though I wasn’t able to capture any views that I consider among my best work, I enjoyed the time I had to photograph and look around at the local scenery.
I am still waiting to hear when the program will be aired. There was a lot of follow up work, including finding photos of myself when I was younger, but the lines have been quiet for a week now and the initial broadcasting in Kumamoto was said to occur in late February. I will update this post when I know more information. For now, I am enjoying a small glass of fuyumizu tanbo saki while I prepare dinner on my days off.