Rice fields are an archetypal landscape of Japan, one that boasts a special beauty in each season: the mirror-like luster of the paddy surface just after planting at the outset of summer; the green of new rice shooting up almost day by day under the hot summer sun; the golden stalks of rice that ripple in the fall breeze; and even harsh winter has an upside as the land replenishes itself in preparation for another season. Each shift of the four seasons furnishes its own beauty, one that resounds from place to place all through the land.
Rice cultivation was initially brought to Japan from the Chinese Yangtze delta about 3000 years ago. Rice-growing became the foundations of national identity even before there was a nation, and became a staple of daily life. Rice cultivation thrived in Japan because the hot and humid climate was well-suited to its growing. Water gave it sustenance by infusing the minerals and nutrients from each particular region, and supported rice in the same fields year after year.
But because the majority of the country is covered with mountainous terrain, it was no small feat to put in rice paddies. Moreover, in the event of a large downpour, landslides might be set off setting loose debris that floods the rivers. But on the other hand, too much sun without a spell of rain can cause drought. In order to stave off these problems, farmers dammed up the rivers and subtly changed their course to build reservoirs and drainage canals. This system makes a shrewd use of water by building channels for the water to filter in and out and connect a sequence of fields with these channels. The paddies can regulate and store water like living dams to control floods, at the same time as they provide a living environment for a whole range of living things.
It takes a great deal of effort to bring a crop of rice to the table. It took more than one person or household to grade the rice paddies to make the water level hold consistently throughout the fields, or to draw water from rivers and reservoirs. It took the collaboration of a whole network, so people began to settle based on the critical mass of people needed to grow rice, from which villages sprang up. Out of this necessary collaboration came a spirit of mutual dependence called yui in Japanese.
The physical labor needed to grow rice has diminished greatly because of mechanization, but the attachment to the land itself has not changed. Farmers put a priority on protecting nature in order to produce the best-tasting rice possible, and take care that not a single grain goes to waste.
The rice that farmers grow so painstakingly is one of the life-giving connections of Japanese people. Families are brought together around the dining table by just cooked rice, meat, and the fish and vegetables of the season. The conversations fostered by sitting around the table deepen family bonds and foster the health of both body and soul.
When a Japanese family sits down to eat, typically they give thanks with the word "itadakimasu"---literally, they are using a deferential form of speech to say thank you. They are giving thanks for the bounty of nature, the fact of life itself, and the fellow-feeling of sitting around the table together. As the meal comes to a close, people typically mark the end of a meal by saying "gochisōsama deshita," or "it was a pleasure dining with you." Literally it means "running around," and is a way of referring to the people who ran around collecting all the ingredients for the meal for all to eat---the cooks. Times have changed and fast food is available on every corner, but rice remains the food that ties together people and nature, as well as farmers and families, and people and people.