For the Japanese, rice is not a side dish (okazu). It is not a question of, should we have potatoes or rice with our fish? It is really the other way around. What will accompany the rice? In fact it is something so important, so essential to the Japanese diet that the Kanji character for rice 御飯 (gohan) literally means "food" or "livelihood".
Katsura, where I am living, in the southwest corner of Kyoto is dotted with rice paddies and little farms. It is an interesting patchwork of rural and suburban living. When I arrived in the middle of September the perfect rows of rice waving in the late summer sun were a brilliant yellow-green.
A couple of weeks later I noticed a farmer with a short curved machete cutting the stalks. I thought, ah-ha, the harvest has begun. But no. He cut just nine plants, tied them neatly in bundles and hung them upside down on the rail encircling the farm. A few days passed. Still just this one corner of the farm cut down and these lonely bundles hanging like hula skirts without a dancer. What is happening? What's wrong? Is it bad? Is he praying for guidance at a local shrine? Has he gone on vacation?
Then it began. The farmer mowed it all down by hand in a day. He erected a series of bamboo trestles running the length of the farm. The fresh-cut rice bundles were slung over these. I have to admit, this was an impressive display and made me think of some ancient agrarian custom somewhere like Hawaii.
On another day he took a small mechanical thresher and separated the rice from the stalk leaving the paddy littered with rice hay. That was later removed and all that remained were thousands of sad little tufts in a barren field. Just like that it was over.
In the spring, I imagine, it will all begin again.