June in Nakatsugawa

 A photograph of rice fields in Nakatsugawa taken by Ito Jintaro in around 1930

June in Japan is when tsuyu (梅雨), the rainy season, arrives. With the weather getting warmer, all that rain contributes to perfect conditions for the cultivation of rice.

Because of its particular geographical circumstances, Nakatsugawa, though situated in Yamagata Prefecture, is more suited to the production of rice that is normally grown in areas further north. But Nakatsugawa does also produce typical Yamagata rice brands. 

"Haenuki'' is a very popular rice brand of Yamagata. So delicious that Seven-Eleven, the convenience store chain, uses Haenuki rice brand for their rice balls, i.e., onigiri. 

Haenuki was established in 1992 and since then it has bagged the Special A excellence award more than 20 times. Nakatsugawa produces delicious Haenuki rice. The rice grains are firm and fluffy, and the taste does not fade even when cold. 

Another type of rice that is produced in Nakatsugawa is called "Kodaimai'' which means “ancient rice”. Kodaimai comes in beautiful shades of red and purple. It was introduced from China in ancient times, which explains the origin of the name. It is becoming more popular because of its health benefits when compared to conventional rice. 

If you live in Japan or have visited, you may well have come across "mochi." Mochi is a sticky rice cake which is made from a special type of rice called "mochigome." Mochigome is glutinous rice. The rice cakes that it is used to make are especially widely consumed at the New Year. Nakatsugawa produces two varieties of mochigome called Koyukimochi and Himenomochi. Himenomochi has a notably light taste and is considered to be the best variety for recipes that include other ingredients.

An aerial view of the central part of Nakatsugawa

This image shows the central part of Nakatsugawa. Driving through Nakatsugawa in the summer is beautiful because of the long stretch of cultivated rice fields on both sides of the road. 

With all these rice varieties, it may seem that the agricultural scene of Nakatsugawa is flourishing but the reality could not be further from the truth. Like so many villages around Japan, depopulation has left beautiful countryside houses abandoned, and countless acres of fertile land uncultivated. Fields that once flourished have been taken over by weeds and wild grass. It is a sad scene and demotivating for the people who continue to battle on. 

So the farmers of Nakatsugawa decided to take special measures to maintain the agricultural scenery that is part of their proud cultural identity. They make sure that fields remain cultivated in the main stretch of the village. That represents fields for over 4km. Keeping all of those fields active is not an easy feat but the people of Nakatsugawa work hard to make it happen year after year.

Please take a look at this quick drive-through video of the main part of Nakatsugawa to get an idea about the distance we are talking about. 

When you live amid beautiful mountains, June is not just a month for rice farming but an opportunity for everyone to go into the mountains to gather wild vegetables. In the old days, people ate dozens of different wild vegetable varieties. Some are still part of the everyday diet in Nakatsugawa. Warabi (fiddlehead bracken) is very popular in cities, too. In years when it is easy for people to visit, many visit Nakatsugawa in June just to enjoy the experience of harvesting warabi on special slopes in the mountains. Here is a photo of warabi harvesting.

Warabi plants being harvested.

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