Looking at the kanji character that means "rice," we can see it is composed of two smaller characters---"eight" and "eight." These graphics mean that complicated operations and a tremendous amount of effort are needed to bring the rice into being. Just as these characters suggest, over the years Japanese farmers have exerted many such efforts, putting their hearts into it. All of these cumulative efforts unfold with the changes of the seasons.
Japanese schools and companies typically start off their new year in April. Spring is a season of beginnings, and the same goes for the new beginnings of rice. Rice planting happens in the spring, cultivation in the summer, and harvest in the fall. The Japanese style of rice-growing adjusts its repertoire of operations according to the flux of the seasons. Because Japan has an abundant amount of rain, most rice is grown through the process of wet cultivation. Here's how a farmer's typical four-season cycle plays out over the course of a year.
The rice cycle starts around the time the long winter is over, when the cherry blossoms start to turn reddish. Just at the break of March, farmers start to "wake up" the fields. To produce top-quality rice, it is necessary to have top-quality soil. They till the soil and layer in straw to loosen up the soil and make it easy for water to percolate in. To get strong plants, you need to grow strong seedlings. In spring, farmers tend to their seedlings. They take unhulled grains of "seed rice" from last year's harvest and sow them in water until they sprout. While this is happening, they also conduct the minute work of disinfecting and drying the paddy, and fertilizer is applied after the seedlings sprout and reach a certain size.
Finally, it's time to prep the fields for planting. Water is added, fertilizer applied, and the ground is graded into a smooth surface. It's important to keep the water at a consistent depth so the seedlings can be planted at the same level. When the summer sun starts to make itself felt, farmers pick a still, warm day and plant the 4-5-inch seedlings in the field. In the past, farmers did this by hand, planting each stalk one by one, but today it's general practice to use a rice-planting machine. The planted seedlings then take root, and new stems grow out from the buds near the root and the rice head emerges from the buds of the stem. And eventually, the bud of a flower is created in the ear of rice.
As the rice continues to grow along with the seasonal rise in temperature, farmers get busy with looking after the fields. Water management is especially key. Checking the fields morning and night, farmers confirm that the needed amount of water is available and if there is not enough, they add water. Because the water slowly diminishes as the rice grows, farmers keep an eye on the water level and replenish it as necessary.
Because a good quantity of water is necessary to grow the rice plants, many farmers irrigate their paddies with water drawn directly from nearby rivers or reservoirs. But because much of the terrain is mountainous in Japan, it's common to have the paddies arranged in terraced slopes where the water flows from top to bottom. Because the large volume of downward-flowing water covers a sizable surface area, it is also said that rice cultivation enriches the groundwater. Because the time rice is growing coincides with the arrival of the rainy season, it takes advantage of these favorable conditions and shoots up almost visibly day by day.
A kind of "pest control" against weeds and bugs is carried out at the same time as the water is managed. A whole range of measures is taken, including applying herbicides and cutting the weeds called azé that spring up on the ridges between individual paddies. As the rice grows, farmers continue to fertilize it from time to time throughout the summer.
By the time the full heat of summer has died down and fall is in the air, the fields are full of shimmering golden waves of grain. Finally harvest season has arrived. First, the water is drained form the paddies to make the rice easier to harvest. Next, a combine is used to cut the rice stalks and thresh them, removing the seed-heads. Then the threshed rice is slowly dried and the hull removed to make brown rice.
Bits of stray matter and damaged grains are filtered out with a sorting machine and the rice is sent to nearby agricultural cooperatives for inspection and shipped out to wholesalers and supermarkets. This carefully cultivated rice then makes its way into Japanese households all over the country, and even reaches foreign shores thanks to the many attentions of the farmers and the four seasons of the Japanese climate. And this is what makes the world of differencce in the taste of Japanese rice.