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As I’ve mentioned before, we teach amidst the rice fields to the children of rice farmers. So when my 6th period class with the 5th graders at Suwa Elementary was cancelled today because the students had to plant rice (which is clearly more important than learning English) I quickly jumped at the chance to join them instead of sitting in the teachers room reading Bulgakov. After my 5th period class I raced to the changing room, changed into my “outdoor clothes” and took a short ride with my vice principal to the field where the 5th graders were planting their rice.

What they were planting was “sweet rice,” which is not actually sweet, but it’s the rice used to make sweet rice treats and is different than regular eating rice (just as Sake rice, used for making rice wine, is different than both sweet and regular rice). No longer than 3 minutes after I jumped out of the vice principals car was I shin deep in mud pulling a hexagonal cylinder over the rice paddy with another student to create a grid pattern over the field as a guide for planting by hand. Encouraged by my students and the muttering of “eigo-sensei! sugoi!” from the farmers and principal, I worked as hard as I could and smiled from ear to ear. 

When the plotting was done we each took a handful of rice sod and set to work, each of us responsible for 3 to 4 rows.

Hand planting goes like this:

1. set your plot with the hexagonal cylinder, known as a waku, to make a chessboard-like pattern.

2. get a clump of rice in hand, bend over, and start some seriously back breaking work: take 3 to 4 seedlings at a time and plop them into the square corner of the meeting point between each bisected line (remember, the chess board). repeat.

It’s fairly simple, and every time you we ran out of rice to plant we simply raised our heads and one of the mother-farmers would throw us a new chunk. For me, they very gently threw the chunks. For the kids… it wad a muddier affair.

In the Autumn this class will return to the paddy to harvest, thresh and pound their rice into mochi (a delicious pounded rice Japanese treat).

It was an afternoon well spent, much better than English class in my opinion. And the best part was when we were done we all washed off in the bitingly cold stream together and then gathered back next to the rice paddy to notice that the mud had settled and the water had risen to reveal the footprints of 15 people who planted rice together one warm Spring afternoon.