Lake Yamanaka: The Perfect Weekend Getaway

Lake Yamagata and Fuji Mountain
Lake Yamagata and Fuji Mountain

Lake Kawaguchiko is probably one of the most known out of the Fuji Five Lakes, but we decided to explore Lake Yamanakako. In the morning, the bus ride from the Fuji 5th Station to Mt. Fuji Station, plus the bus ride from Mt. Fuji Station to Lake Yamanakako, together takes only 30 minutes. This summer resort town is the perfect place to unwind!

Once arriving, we made our way to PICA Yamanaka Lake Village (for those spending the night, check out their cabins), where we rented vintage-like, colorful bicycles. Crossing the street over to Lake Yamanakako, we found a safe bicycle lane that goes around the entire lakeside (about 14 kilometers), making it the perfect family activity. Along the way, we passed cafes, a craft shop, an antique shop, parks, and docks where you can board pedal boats in the shape of swans or tea cups. Also, there are multiple spots where you can park your bicycle to take picturesque photos of the lake and Mt. Fuji, so you will want your camera out all times!

Being adventurous, we strayed from the path to visit Yamanakako Hana-no-Miyako Park, where we were met with a vast field of colorful cosmos (when the weather cooperates, you even get a stunning view of Mt. Fuji!).

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Making a full circle, we decided to have lunch at FUJIYAMA KITCHEN, which is also located in the PICA Yamanaka Lake Village. Here they serve fresh, healthy meals; perfect after a day of fun summer activities! On such a beautiful day, we decided to enjoy our meal on the patio, overlooking a garden where they grow vegetables for their dishes. With the lake breeze, it was the ultimate resort experience!

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Do you ever find yourself wanting to take a take a nap after a good meal? Well PICA Yamanaka Lake Village also offers a cafe where you can order a refreshing drink while swinging in a hammock. For those who want to explore, there is also a tree house where you can take your drinks.

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With our stomachs fed and our bodies rested, we were off to catch the Lake Yamanakako Pleasure Cruiser “Swan Lake,” which was in the form of a queen swan! The elegant interior designed by the famous Japanese industrial designer Eiji Mitooka, it feels as though you are royalty. You can either relax in comfort with the indoor seating inside or enjoy the fresh breeze on the dock upstairs. Taking you across the lake in just 25-minutes, it is the perfect place to look back and share the highlights of your trip!

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After being fully rejuvenated, with a heavy heart we made our way back to Tokyo by catching a Fuji-Q Highway Bus from Lake Yamanakako. Throughout this adventure, the transportation and attractions were so well thought out for visitors that it was truly a stress free trip! Lake Yamanakako is the perfect summer resort destination for those looking for a weekend getaway!

Although we have to make our way back to Tokyo from here, Fuji-Q Highland is a strongly recommended attraction. First, hop on a local bus headed for Fuji-Q Highland here. After reaching Fuji-Q Highland, you can tour the premises with a free shuttlebus, stopping by Fujiyama Museum to appreciate paintings of Mt. Fuji and enjoy images of Mt. Fuji’s four seasons projected on a gigantic screen. You can even experience the Fuji Airways virtual flights. Enjoy Mt. Fuji to the fullest even on rainy days by visiting the two attractions.

PICA Yamanaka Lake Village

Address: 506-296 Hirano, Yamanakako-mura, Minamitsuru-gun, Yamanashi Prefecture
URL:http://yamanakako.pica-village.jp/en/index.html (English)

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Mt. Fuji Pass can be used on
–local bus
–pleasure cruiser “Swan Lake”
–Fujikyu railway
–Fujiyama Museum
–Fuji-Q Highland (admission + attraction pass)

Discount fare: 10,240 Yen (2 days). As the two-day bus pass costs 8,000 Yen, you save 2,240 Yen immediately with Mt. Fuji Pass.
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Go back to DAY ONE

Enjoy the Mt. Fuji Area to the fullest with this useful tools

・Mt. Fuji PassThis is a tourist pass especially made for foreigners visiting Japan. Save on sightseeing and transportation and get preferential access to different tourists facilities, including Fuji Q Highland.
Find out more here: http://bus-en.fujikyu.co.jp/mtpass/
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・Fuji-Q Resorts AppGet insider tips to make the most out of your visit to the Mt. Fuji area
The app is available in Japanese, Chinese, English and Thai
Find out more here: http://app.fujiq-resorts.com/fuji-qresorts/lp/
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Nebuta Matsuri

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Nebuta Matsuri Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture
Aug. 2 – 7
Highlight: fireworks festival on the final day

Aomori city comes alive every summer to celebrate the Nebuta festival. Historically the festival functioned as a means of keeping harvesters awake as they worked in the fields gathering rice and other produce. As dusk approaches the parade begins and many floats feature illuminated lanterns with various designs and shapes.

Look for sweets made by locals with plenty of love

Expect a vibrant spring and summer after the long and formidable winter!
Be amazed by Tohoku’s sweets and fruits.

Babahera

The sight of ice cream being sold under colorful parasols on the streets may be reminiscent of tropical countries and seaside resorts, but here in Akita prefecture, the sight of little old ladies selling ice cream on a regular roadside is commonplace.
This ice cream is called Babahera, a specialty of Akita. “Baba” refers to an elderly lady, while “hera” is the spatula that they use to shape the pink (strawberry flavor) and yellow (banana flavor) ice cream into a flower with practiced ease.

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Cherry Parfait

A variety of Yamagata’s delicious cherries top this luxurious parfait. Dig deep to discover the different unique ingredients that make up this multi-layered treat and compare the various cherries. The only time to enjoy this piece of art is during the cherry season, which usually starts in June.

Nature and worship “A journey of rebirth”


In The Realm of the Gods at Dewa Sanzan

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In many cultures, mountains often have religious significance and are regarded as abodes of the gods. Tohoku has three holy mountains, known collectively as Dewa Sanzan, that is regarded as one of the most sacred sites in the country. Its landscape is defined by the stunning natural beauty of mystical mountains, volcanic lakes, hot springs and farmlands. This is where the soul of Japan lies in its traditional and religious culture, and where ancient mountain worship is still very much practiced. Against this background, we embarked on an epic journey to trace the footsteps of pilgrims who are followers of Shugendo.

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The Three Mountain Blessings

Shugendo is an ethnic religion influenced by Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism and spiritual faith. Its main purpose is to strengthen the connection between people and nature, reaching enlightenment in this way. Practitioners preach the teaching that “nature is a manifestation of the gods and we should live alongside it with respect.” Mountains and forests have paramount importance in Shugendo. The Dewa Sanzan mountains of Mt Haguro (419m), Mt Gassan (1984m) and Mt Yudono (1504m) are the centres of pilgrimage in the region. The followers, known as Shugenjas or Yamabushi (mountain monks), have been following the rites of worship for the last 1,400 years. Followers embark on long pilgrimages and practice austere feats of physical endurance of natural elements as an ascetic rite of passage to gain spiritual power. We had the privilege of experiencing the immersive ceremony of Shugendo first hand by visiting the three sacred mountains that represents the present, death and rebirth at Mt Haguro, Mt Gassan and Mt Yudono respectively.

Praying in the Official Shinto Style at Mt. Haguro
We arrived at Mt. Haguro as dusk was setting in and, after a short visit to Ideha Museum nearby to get an insight of Shugendo and Dewa Sanzan, we entered the sacred site through the torii, a wooden gateway that is found in all sacred sites in Japan. A long flight of stone steps, known as the Ishi-Dan, led down to an enchanting forest with towering cedar trees along the ancient pilgrim route. The 1.7km trail built in 1648 has 2,446 steps leading to the Sanjin Gosaiden shrine at the summit. There are 33 carvings etched on the steps and it is believed that if you can find all 33, your wishes will come true. As we were pressed for time, we could only follow the sacred path as far as the 600-year-old Goju-no-to, the five-storied pagoda, a recorded national treasure. In the gloom of the forest, the ornate pagoda exuded an air of mysticism that lent to the belief that a deity of the forest lives in it.
The Ishi-Dan, Mt. Haguro
The Ishi-Dan, Mt. Haguro

When we arrived at Sanjin Gosaiden, the main shrine at the summit, we were met by a Yamabushi dressed in his traditional religious garb. He sounded a horagai, a religious conch trumpet, as a welcome and to ward off bad spirits. We were led to the inner sanctum of the shrine. There, a monk dressed in a splendid ceremonial robe with motifs of cranes performed a special ceremony accompanied by a beating taiko drum, followed by space clearing of malevolent energy around us by wafting a pole with white paper strips attached to the end and ringing bells to cleanse the air. He then chanted some mantras in a trance-like voice, which reverberated around the room, sending powerful vibrations into the ambience. We felt blessed and awed as we bowed twice, clapped our hands twice and bowed once again, completing the ritual where we were “spiritually born.”

Sanjin Gosaiden, Mt. Haguro
Sanjin Gosaiden, Mt. Haguro
Shukubo, Mt. Haguro
Shukubo, Mt. Haguro
We stayed the night at a shukubo, a traditional temple lodge owned by a Yamabushi and his wife, who welcomed us graciously by kneeling Japanese style where they sat on the floor with their legs folded behind them. The delightful lodge was immaculately clean and the minimalist décor was the personified tranquility that we badly needed after a long journey. I would highly recommend staying in a shukubo to attain a Zen state of mind. Early next morning, our landlord performed a Shinto ritual prayer to bless us and wished us a safe journey to Mt Gassan and Mt. Yudono.

Stepping to Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono

We headed to Mt. Gassan in howling wind and rain to visit a shrine. The pilgrimage trail was officially closed for the season, but we braved the elements by treading precariously on the path of a slippery, wooden walkway laid across a marshland of dwarf bamboo and grassland.
After twenty minutes’ walk, we reached a small shrine presided by a giant stone rabbit, the guardian of the mountain.

Mt. Yudono
Mt. Yudono
This mountain symbolized the path to death and it was apt that the short journey we took in the inclement weather seemed to convey that message. In the summer, pilgrims could hike to the summit, where the main shrine lies; from there, they could also hike to Mt. Yudono, the last mountain on the holy trail.
Our visit to Mt. Yudono was an epic experience where we were sworn to secrecy by the priest about the ceremony of “rebirth” that we underwent to symbolize being spiritually reborn to start a new journey in life. It is a taboo to divulge the secret of the ritual, but suffice to say that the experience is something I will always remember.

Dewa Sanzan is a pilgrimage, but mere mortals with spiritual interest will find the journey enlightening and soul stirring. Reflecting on my own awesome experience of the religious encounter, I now appreciate why mountains belong to the realms of the gods.

Hagurosan

Access: 40-min by bus from JR Tsuruoka Station, get off at Zuishinmon.
55-min by bus to the summit.
URL:http://www.dewasanzan.jp/publics/index/47/

Gassan

Hours: Closed late September until June
Access: 1h30-min by Shonan-
Kotsu bus from JR Tsuruoka Station to Gassan Hachigome.
URL:ttp://www.dewasanzan.jp/publics/index/48/

Yudonosan

Hours: Closed late September until June Admission: 500 yen
Access: 1h30-min by Shonan-Kotsu bus from JR Tsuruoka Station to
Yudonosan.
URL:http://www.dewasanzan.jp/publics/index/49/

Mountain and sea delicacies that you can’t get in cities

Local dishes you’ve never had before!

Today, restaurant chains are so popular that there seems to be no diversity in the food and experience wherever you go. But this is not true in Tohoku, where food is reflective of local weather conditions and the region’s rich cultural heritage. Prepared to be greeted with an array of unique dishes that you have never heard of nor seen before. Time to challenge your taste buds!

Shark

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Your jaw might drop at the thought of eating shark meat, but in Miyagi prefecture they use every part of this marine mammal. Prepared in a multitude of ways, such as sashimi or shark fin soup, shark meat’s endless possibilities will surprise you.

Tuna Steak

The number one place to find tuna in Aomori prefecture is Fukaura Town, where natsu maguro (summer tuna) is available for a long period every year. This tuna has an exquisite taste both raw and cooked, and is most commonly found as part of a “tuna steak bowl.”

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Hoya (sea squirt)

Hoya looks like it’s part of another animal, but it’s actually a species of its own. The sea squirt is also called “sea pineapple” because of its thorny appearance, but its taste is anything but tropical. Being described as “the flavor of the ocean,” expect a surprising mix of sweet, salty, sour and sharp.

Hokki (surf clam)

The flavor of this ocean critter is said to reach its full potential when lightly cooked. In Miyagi prefecture, the favored way to eat hokki is as hokki meshi, a rice dish with thin slices of hokki.

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Shojin Ryori

This all-vegetarian Buddhist cuisine is part of monks’ daily lives. Buddhism teaches not to hurt any living creature and Shojin Ryori is an extension of that belief. Even so, this cuisine’s menu is not as meager as you might imagine. From pickled and braised wild mountain vegetables to bowls of miso soup with silken tofu, centuries of Shojin Ryori culture in this area has led to a variety of flavorful dishes. Yamagata’s three holy mountains are a famous pilgrimage spot and the abundance of mountain vegetables makes it a top location for experiencing the life of a Buddhist monk.

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Himemasu (landlocked sockeye salmon)

You don’t have to travel to the ocean to find fresh salmon. Himemasu can be found inland, making it a sweetwater fish with a different taste from saltwater salmon. Lake Towada is the top spot for this fish, where it is mainly served as sashimi to bring out its sweetness and soft texture.

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Discover the warmth of Japan’s No.1 rice


Japan’s best rice
from Niigata


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Rice is an essential part of Japanese cuisine. The rice cultivated in Japan (also known as “Japonica rice”) has a rounded, oval shape, is very sticky and features a slight sweetness. After making the effort to come all the way to Japan, don’t you want to sample the most delicious rice available? “Japan’s rice” is said to be produced in Niigata Prefecture so, for Japanese, Niigatamai (Niigata’s rice) is a very attractive brand. If you are familiar with Niigatamai, you’re already well on your way to becoming an advanced Japanese chef!

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Beyond the Beaten Track : Finding Japan’s Lesser-Known Magnificence

WATTENTION AUTUMN TRIP REPORT

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Never underestimate Japan.

It’s a mistake to confine yourself to the sprawling, labyrinth-esque borders of Tokyo on a visit to Japan. The incessant gleam of neon lights has a sedative effect that easily, and willingly, captures travelers, but make no mistake; as electrifying as the bustle is, it can nevertheless act as a prison as well. To spend a vacation enjoying the Tokyo mirages, without escaping to the other prefectures surrounding Japan’s capital city, would leave a visitor undeniably, and yet naively, happy. People just are not aware of the quiet and unassuming magnificence of the lesser known areas Japan has to offer.

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Just a few short weeks ago, I myself was one of them. Naturally, traveling to other areas in Japan was on my itinerary. Of course I would visit Kyoto. Of course I couldn’t leave Japan without setting my sights on Fuji. It would be criminal to have lived in a country as alien to America without having a first-hand encounter with a ryoukan, a traditional style of housing, akin to a bed-and-breakfast.

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These are the places in Japan to escape Japan, the kind of safe haven that is pure without the crowds of tourists seen pulsating like a hive in Tokyo or Kyoto. Each prefecture surrounding Tokyo, while not distinctly well-known on their own, possess an unbelievable amount of charm and splendor that make traveling there well worth it. With mountains, beaches, waterfalls, and anything a traveler’s heart can desire, these areas on the outskirts of Tokyo are a dream simply waiting to be explored.

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Beyond the Beaten Track : Finding Japan’s Lesser-Known Magnificence

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Enclosed by the Japanese Alps, (an embarrassing moniker according to the local tour guide, as he directs our focus to back to the manicured vineyards of Koshu grapes and the glimpses of Mt. Fuji in the distance) Yamanashi can be accessed easily from Tokyo, and yet traveling there seems worlds away. The air is crisp, chilled by the high altitude, and the only haze comes from the thin trails of fog still crawling in the mid-morning atmosphere. Yamanashi is a prefecture that at gives the impression of a safe-haven that has remained pure and natural. It bears fruit in a variety of seasons, attracting visitors who desire to pick their own harvest. It has a variety of waterfalls, such as the Ootaki Waterfall near Kofu City, gorges, and onsen, and wildlife as varied as bears and boar.

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Seeing Fuji is indescribable. Like some fictitious beast breaching through the clouds, Fuji-san is unavoidable and commands all attention. Our group stayed at the viewing point, on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi, for over an hour, watching in a trance-like awe as the sun set behind the mountains. Around the area, there are many sites and experiences based upon Fuji. Iconic locations, such as Chureito Pagoda, while originally intended to honor the souls lost in WWII, have reached notoriety for having picturesque views of Fuji on a clear day. While the clouds covered Fuji on the morning we went, the sight was nonetheless impressive.

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Even the air itself in the Minami-Izu Peninsula is saturated by the ocean; warm sea-breezes, soured with the taste of salt, course through the fields of pampas grass lining the shore, tossing back hair and loose hats alike. This power is strong enough to be harnessed as energy, and so even the views from Mt. Omoro are littered with wind turbines that, oddly enough, seem to fit in with the landscape. From the summit, seven surrounding islands, such as Ooshima, can be seen on a clear day. Known for their tangerines, the entirety of the area possesses a still excitement, like the charged energy that foretells a storm.

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Beyond the Beaten Track : Finding Japan’s Lesser-Known Magnificence

While in Japan, there are a seemingly unlimited amount of temples and shrines to visit; the Inozaki Cape, though small, offers stunning views and a peaceful solitude that comes from the alienating intensity of the wind. A trip to the Ishimuro-jinja there oddly begins to mimic “Jurassic Park.” The path down is covered by an expansive, leafy overpass that winds past weathered buildings long since abandoned; it is all too easy to imagine that one of the large spiders stretched across the high branches preying upon a visitor who strays too far from the route. To fully experience the site, visitors much trek down a steep staircase and walk out across the ocean to a lone-standing rock; from there, surrounded on every side by infinite views of the sea, and separated from others by a noise-stealing sea breeze, it feels as if you are on the edge of the earth.

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This area also boasts the opportunity to onsen on the beach. The beach, already the epitome of relaxation, is close enough to natural hot springs that visitors can enjoy submerging themselves in the hot water while enjoying ocean views. The beaches in Minami-Izu are worth spending hours experiencing, and while locals may know of their existence, many visitors are completely unaware of what they might be missing out on. Green cliffs, such as the ones seen in Cape Aiai in Yusuge Park, that jut off the coasts are incredible to see, but especially incredible to view at sunrise or sunset.

Beyond the Beaten Track : Finding Japan’s Lesser-Known Magnificence

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Yokohama is the haven in Kanagawa prefecture that Tokyo citizens often escape to for a day-trip when their everyday life becomes overwhelming. The port city, located only a mere 45 minutes from Tokyo’s city center by train, boasts a variety of activities, sightseeing opportunities, and nightlife for any visitor to enjoy. In Minato-mirai, right along the water’s edge, visitors can easily walk from the Cup Noodle Museum to the Cosmo World amusement park to the Red Brick Warehouse shopping center, all within a few minutes of each other.

Yokohama’s Chinatown is impeccably clean, yet still retains the vibrancy that comes with vendors calling out their fares and the sight of various types of meats hanging bare in the windows. While undoubtably impressive during the day time as well, the neon landscape of Chinatown after the sun goes down is something that should not be missed.

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Beyond the Beaten Track : Finding Japan’s Lesser-Known Magnificence

Of course, no trip to Japan would be complete without spending time in Tokyo. In actuality, there is never enough time a person could spend in Japan’s capital city to let them do and see everything; the city, brimming with its own unique wards and sections, could take weeks, or even years, to successfully navigate in its entirety. For instance, the stark contrast between a modern, eccentric area such as Harajuku, a mecca for pop fashion and desserts as sugary as the clothes people wear, and a traditional relic such as Asakusa, which is supported by the ancient frames of the old market that gives visitors a taste of what life in Tokyo might have been like in the past, gives visitors a full spectrum of Japanese flavor. While the connotation that goes alongside with the Tokyo name might not include a rich historical background, the market area of Asakusa, which has an expansive layout of outdoor stalls that direct traffic towards an ancient temple, is among Japan’s finest. Here, guests can enjoy a rickshaw ride or sample local flavors, all while experiencing a view of the SkyTree as well.

On your next trip to the Tokyo-area, don’t confine yourself to only the hypnotic energy of Shinjuku or Shibuya; while exciting, Japan has more to offer than only these experiences. Without ever straying too far from Japan’s capital, visitors can travel to warm beaches, onsen mountain retreats, vineyards, and almost anything else imaginable. Make the move to explore the Japan less traveled, and I guarantee you, you will never regret it.

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WATTENTION NINJA WRITER PROFILE

Taylor Bond
Taylor Bond is a freelance writer and photographer. By day, she writes, but by night, she visits as many tabehodai restaurants as she can find. Despite what her visa says, her true ambition in Japan is to become a professional eater.

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Traditional Rice Harvesting in Japan

Rice is a staple in Japan and has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. In the Edo, period rice yields were a measurement of a lord’s wealth and when asked about your income you would usually say the amount of rice you receive each year.

To create quality rice, farmers first have to create quality soil. This process begins when the Sakura start blooming and ends when the soil is deemed ready. The rice is then planted and will be ready to harvest depending on the region. I visited a traditional rice farming area in Hyogo Prefecture called Kami-Cho. It has a terraced rice field that belongs to one of the top 100 most beautiful rice fields of Japan. The harvest for this particular rice field starts in early September.

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Before the rice can be harvested, the water has to be drained from the fields. The rice paddies stay very muddy so wearing boots is a must. There are two ways to harvest the rice; traditional by hand or using a machine. Some paddies are too small for the machine so they are always harvested by hand using a sickle. Before you cut the rice, the water has to be removed from the grains so the rice can dry more easily. This is done by “brushing” a stick over the rice. But be careful! If you do this too rough, the rice can fall from the plants and you will have less to harvest.

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In the end, your ricefield should look like this
In the end, your ricefield should look like this
Removing the water
Removing the water
Cutting the rice in bundles
Cutting the rice in bundles

The rice is then tightly bound using a piece of rope or a strong dried long leaf of the rice bundle. The bundles are then placed rice down so the remaining water can drip off onto the ground.

In the end, your ricefield should look like this
In the end, your rice field should look like this.

There are two ways to dry the rice. One is to run the rice through a drying machine and the other is to gradually let it dry in the sun. The second method has been proven to make the rice taste much better, but it’s a very risky procedure because it depends on the weather. If there are long periods with lots of rain, the drying process is affected. A drying machine is expensive, so many small rice farmers have no other option than to dry it the traditional way or to buy the expensive drying machine as a community.

To dry the rice, teamwork is needed. To reach the highest tier of the rice-drying rack one person has to climb up a ladder while the other person throws the bundles of rice. All bundles are hung upside down and then the sun will do its work.

The time it takes for the rice to dry depends on the type of rice and the farmer’s preference. But usually the rice stays on the drying racks longer than one week.

Traditional rice harvesting is really hard work, but it pays off to taste the rice your farmed yourself. Rice farmers are always looking for help, so why not volunteer the next time you see a rice field during Fall?

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Ilse Montald
From popular culture to traditional culture, I’ve immersed myself in both. I love writing about tradition, history and sharing fun discoveries. If I’m not outside watching a festival parade I’m leisurely reading manga in kimono.

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