Photo Essay: The Life of Rice, from Sprout to Harvest

Today’s Halloween – a time for scary decorations, creepy costumes, candy apples, and trick-or-treating. But the arrival of the holiday also signifies another key time of the year – the harvest of crops. All the way out here in Japan, October is generally the end of the growing cycle of rice crops. I’ve been watching and photographing this interesting process for almost seven months now, and today I’d like to share some of the highlights with you. So sit back, scroll down your screen, and watch as rice goes from a little sprout in a paddy to a grain in a bowl on a dinner table.

Tractor Tilling Rice Fields
It seems like most of Ibaraki prefecture looks just like this the majority of the year – giant fields of unsightly mud. But March has rolled in, and many local farmers are starting to prepare their farmland for growing rice. Pictured here is a small tractor tilling soil. In the far background is a seemingly out of place golf driving range, which located just a short walk from my apartment.


Tractor Planting Rice Sprouts
Now it’s late April, roughly a month after the tilling process began, and all of those muddy fields have been deliberately flooded with water, technically making them rice “paddies.” It’s now time to plant some rice sprouts, and pictured here is man driving a tractor up and down a small rice paddy, planting sprouts along his path. Also notice his protective face mask. So very Japanese.


Planting Rice Sprouts by Hand in a Paddy
In this rice paddy, farmers were planting sprouts mostly by hand. I saw just as many farmers doing things by hand as I did those doing things via heavy machinery.


Row after Row of Rice Sprouts in a Paddy
Notice the symmetry and pattern of the rows of rice sprouts in this paddy. Now instead of seeing those muddy fields everywhere I go, I see row after row of little sprouts. That’s a change I’ll gladly accept, as it makes my daily commutes all the more interesting.


Japanese House next to a Rice Paddy
Now that all the rice sprouts have been planted, all one can really do is sit back and wait for them to grow.


Sunset over a Rice Paddy
It’s mid-May now, and the rice sprouts have grown a few inches. Those paddies are starting to look awfully lovely, especially when the sunsets reflect vivid colors off the water. I now find myself going outside and soaking in the sunsets a heck of a lot more than before.


A Rice Paddy in a Residential Neighborhood
Late May has rolled in, and those sprouts are gettin’ awfully tall. The weather has finally warmed up, and it really feels like spring now. Pictured here is a paddy about a quarter of a mile down from my apartment in Kamisu. It lies right smack in the middle of my neighborhood. Like I said above, no field space is allowed to go to waste here in Ibaraki prefecture, especially when that space could be used for growing crops.


House Reflected in a Rice Paddy
I love the way the traditional Japanese houses’ images are reflected in the water of the paddies. This picture right here is exactly the way I envision Ibaraki prefecture – agricultural, green, tranquil, and behind in the times.


A Heron and a Duck in a Rice Paddy
Now that spring has unofficially rolled in, those rice paddies are starting to become little ecosystems. Frogs live in them, which be heard chirping loudly in unison at night – one of my favorite sounds in the world. Insects are starting to thrive in the water too, which means hungry birds are now taking notice of the paddies. Pictured here are a heron and a duck grazing for insect food. On some days, dozens of waterfowl can be seen in just one small paddy.


Rice Grains
It’s now late July, the heart of summer, which means the weather outside has gotten really hot and muggy. These sprouts should no longer be called “sprouts.” Rather they should be called “plants,” because the rice plants are now almost fully developed. Small grains of rice on the stalks of the plants have become noticeable.


Dressed Up Scarecrow in a Rice Paddy
And now that summer’s in full swing and the rice plants have matured, pesky crows have taken notice. This is bad, because crows will eat and damage the crops. So in order to keep the black birds at bay, many farmers have started creating makeshift scarecrows, which come wearing all different styles of clothes. I love the plaid shirt and “Luck” hat on this one.


Homely Scarecrow in a Rice Paddy
This scarecrow on the other hand sure looks rather homely. Its fashion sense consists of a very ratty and worn jacket, alongside a plastic tarp for a dress.


Torii in a Field of Rice Paddies
One of my favorite things about rural Japan is the presence of small shrines and tombs like the one pictured here. This one is located right smack in the middle of several rice paddies, and it features the omnipresent torii – a traditional Japanese style gate that is often placed at sacred spots such as the entrances of Shinto shrines. They come in many different sizes and colors. And it’s now late September, which means it’s officially autumn, so the harvest season is just right around the corner.


Bent over Rice Plants
Now that it’s harvest season, many farmers have prepared the rice crops for harvesting by draining the water from the fields and bending the rice plants over as pictured here.


A Tractor Harvesting Rice Plants
While there are many different methods for harvesting rice, here in industrialized Japan the combine harvester tractor seems to be the most popular method. The machine is driven up and down and side to side over the rice paddy, scooping up the plants into the machine.


Another Tractor Harvesting Rice Plants
Same style machine, but a different field. Notice the long arm sitting horizontal on the top of the machine, as it’s about to be put to use.


Tractor Dumping Hulled Rice into a Truck Bed
Now that the arm is extended out, the combine harvester hulls the rice (separates the rice grains from the husks and stems), and then pours the freshly hulled rice into the back of a farm truck.


Golden Rice Husks
You’re looking at a giant pile of golden rice hulls, which were recently removed from the rice plants. Instead of going completely to waste, sometimes these hulls are used for things like fertilizer or fuel.


Bagged Golden Rice
And now we’ve finally reached the end. All those months of hard labor in the fields have resulted in this – several bags of rice. They will surely wind up in in a corporate factory mill somewhere, where the rice grains will be polished up, rebagged, and ultimately put on the market.


A Bowl of Rice at a Restaurant
Of course we all know where rice ends up after we buy it from the supermarket – in a bowl on our dinner table. It may look like a very simple grain when cooked, but it underwent almost half a year of supervised growing for it to ultimately wind up being part of our meal.

So now you have a better understanding of how that rice on your plate came to be what it is. It’s a months-long journey that’s been perfected over thousands of years of agriculture. The world, in particular Japan and the rest of Asia, has a lot of history and tradition stemming from the growing of rice, and it’s a process that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, especially in our ever-growing world.