Roots of Rural Japan in Muddy Paddy Fields

looking east across winter paddy fields to the west of Sabae City, Fukui-ken, 916 Japan (stadium lights for baseball)

For the end of January at 35 degrees north latitude the weather was very mild. Instead of freezing temperatures and precipitation of some sort, the gentle breeze, blue vault of sky, and the 12 degrees Celsius were reported as typical of early March, according to the radio. Rolling along the smooth black surface of the new road through consolidated rectangles of rice paddy, I found myself looking for traces of 30 years ago where that consolidating process was just starting in some of the open spaces of the valley floor; olden things like offerings to the spirit of the rice field that would sometimes catch my eye near one of the access slopes leading from road edge down to the paddy ground, or bits of straw binding, or footprints shaped like the worker’s traditional jika tabi or rubber boots. Instead there were large rectangular fields of stalks of rice harvested last fall in neatly machine-planted rows. Perhaps it was the winter air warmed by the unseasonable rising temperatures, or the angle of the light, but there were very faint traces of the earlier time in the 1980s, or maybe decades before that, that came to mind as the afternoon kilometers passed slowly one by one.

panorama view looking south across the Hiyoshi Shinto Shrine 1 km west of downtown Sabae City 916 Japan

It was good to see fresh kirigami (cut paper strips) attached to Shinto shrine gates, buildings, and trees or boulders. That indicates someone still finds meaning in local practices. At the Hiyoshi shrine the sound of dripping water from the snowmelt of rooftops beckoned me to stop and record a video clip. There as the afternoon light filtered in through the old cedars I got a sense for a moment of earlier times, when days often involved physical labor and working in muddy places, and when the pace of completing things was at once slower and unhurried but also possibly less reflective and more a matter of dispensing with the long list of things that required attention to manage one’s day. Before steam power and railroads, before national newspapers and telegraphs, before the 15 years of war throughout the Pacific, but also during the generations of rapid economic growth and infrastructure contracts to local companies and government given out by the Tokyo government, in all these times the Hiyoshi Shrine stood by the cycle of seasons — humid summer, drenching rainy season, and the damp cold of winter. Presumably long into the future and in the care of those yet to be born this place and its shaded collection of huge trees will carry on to occupy a place in the neighborhood, in the psychological space of people’s minds and hearts, and in the general cultural landscape of shared meanings.
After the bike ride I got my towel and 430 yen to pay the teller at the public bath that has survived in the old part of the city when others have closed and new ones at the outskirts have opened up more for recreation than simply getting oneself clean. This one is a bit of a time capsule stuck in the 1960s or 1970s, judging from furnishings in the changing room and lockers on the wall, and the tiles of the soaking tubs themselves, at least on the men’s side. Advertising with long-ago businesses and their phone numbers are painted at the foot of the small mirrors along the wall where the 10 taps allow a person to shave and run a shower hose to rinse suds or sweat off. A sign instructs bathers not to put towels into the baths, and not to enter without cleaning up at the taps first. Another sign urges bathers to conserve water, including the hot water provided. Once in the water seated at the deepest point, there is an inset tile scene at eye level of a mill with water wheel and in the distance the shape of Fuji-san in all its majesty. One tub holds four bathers and shows the deep reddish brown of minerals added to the bubbling water. The middle bath is the biggest and holds 6 in a pinch, or 4 with ample free space. The one nearest the wall with the inset tile is set at the highest temperature for those especially keen to warm up their core body temperature. The small ‘steam bath’ as the sign says has benches at 2 levels with space for 3 or 4.

freeze-frame from video clip of old-style public baths of the city center in Echizen City 915 Japan

Looking for old traces in the agricultural landscape, the city streets and shops, and in the public bath is one way to connect the past to the present (and future); but to observe the connective threads longitudinally, instead of jumping in time from period to period in a disconnected way. When the distraction and preoccupations of current social life are set aside and some of the threads of earlier ways and those preoccupations, pressures, fashions and aspirations of the times at last can be caught, and then there comes some satisfaction from glimpsing something of those earlier people, places, and things. Perhaps the surest way to appreciate those earlier times, in which many of the old buildings still standing can be traced, is to start with the foundation of the rural economy— when JA, Japan Agriculture, the co-op for farmers to lobby the government for subsidies and guaranteed market prices, was more prominent in the local area and in Tokyo decision making settings. Thinking about the agricultural cycle for big producers and for small garden farmers, too, is one way to outline the pace and sequence of work involved that structured people’s day and their lives more generally, too. Finding one’s footing on the rice economy and the roots of village life with mutual aid and obligations makes it possible to see glimpses of the rhythm and textures of the cultural landscape that survives in remnants here and there.
These days not many people make their living in the dirty and sweaty work of farming, timbering, or fishing, as once was true of rural Japan. So the all-enveloping pleasure of clean hot water seemingly in endless supply at the touch of a wall tap at the sento, and in the form of large baths filled to the brim is much less dramatic and soul-quenching than before. One’s physical frame may melt a little in these waters, but not in the same way that someone with 10 or 14 hours of outdoor work in sun and dust, or in cloud and rain, would feel. But by hearkening back to those agricultural lives, the sento (public bath) and the paddy fields and garden patches spread across the valley can be appreciated a little bit like they might have been known a few generations ago.

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