If you are driving around Japan this time of the year you are bound to see one of the perfect images of Japan, the rice planting. In the old days this would have been done by villagers all over the country by hand, working next to each other, both men and women together, old and young, to plant the rice in the water filled fields one by one. These days it is usually done by machines to save time. I met this old man and his grandson tending to the family fields with the shy young man walking behind the sowing machine and filling any spots the quick machine missed. What used to be the work of a whole village is now two to three people and a day of work. When I spotted them they were just about to fill up the last row in the last field. I used to think that rice plants grew in water (pity my ignorance), until a man from the ministry of agriculture told me that rice can grow in dry land as well, but it is exceptionally hardy to being flooded in water, meaning that farmers early on figured out that if they flooded the fields the rice plants would survive while all weeds would drown and die. When the rice is big enough not to be threatened by the competition from weeds the farmers will stop flooding the fields and save the water to irrigate other fields downstream. It used to be that the highest lying fields would get the most water and the first water, but today we have electric pumps and water rights have been established in courts. In the old days, whole regions could go to war with each other over water rights and farmers downstream would use all sorts of manual pumps to painfully get the water into their fields. Work that could easily be sabotaged by a mean peasant from the village down river armed with only a shovel.
As with all countries, Japanese have notions and ideas of the characteristics of people in different areas of the country. Of all the areas of Japan (the 都道府県, the 47 subnational jurisdictions made up of one metropolis, one circuit, two prefectural cities and 43 prefectures), no area gets away without getting attributed with a few bad manners or cultural handicaps. The interesting thing about this nationwide system of good natured making fun of your neighbors, only one prefecture comes away with nothing but a positive image, and that is the north western Akita prefecture. As soon as you mention the name Akita, the associated saying of “Akita beauty”, Akita bijin (秋田美人) jumps into people’s minds. It is said that the most beautiful women of Japan are to be found in Akita prefecture! I have never been to Akita so I can’t verify the truth behind this saying but I am happy for the people of Akita to be regarded so universally positively by their fellow countrymen.
Naturally the tourism and commerce board of Akita prefecture make the most of “Akita Beauty” and use it fully in marketing and export, as these two gorgeous ladies dressed in the wonderful traditional dress of the “Komachi Musume”, the legendary village of beauties whose annual festival is famous across the country. I have seen this dress thousands of times on TV and in photos, but this was the first time I saw it in real life, and as an added bonus I got a packet of delicious Akita rice from them. I have to visit Akita soon!