It was while Connie Patchwork was booking a flight back to Australia that she came across a series of brochures that she thought would amuse Vince. One tourist company was advertising "Ultimate Experience" travel. From the covers of these tour pamphlets, the Ultimate American Experience was not the New York subway as Vince had originally thought, but the thrill of riding a bare backed bronco across the prairie, roping and branding calves and eating baked beans by campfire light. The Ultimate French Experience was picking and treading grapes in Languedoc and tasting the finished product with cheese and olives while the Ultimate Italian Experience was poling a gondola through the canals of Venice while pursued by the Venetian water police or was it the Sicilian mafia?
The Ultimate New Zealand Experience was shearing sheep with wide-combed shears and the Ultimate Australian Experience involved travelling back and forth from the beach to the mountains to enjoy surfing and bunjee jumping.
Vince remembered reading an article about a holiday tour that involved being thrown into a German Prisoner of War camp, being beaten up by the guards and interrogated at all hours of the evening in broken English by the camp commandant. Undoubtedly, these ultimate experiences were much the same, catering for the travelling masochist.
Still, they set him to wondering what the Ultimate Japanese Experience would be — being pushed onto a crowded train and shoved as you made your way through the subway tunnels, a day in the life of a sumotori or a samurai. He knew that in the best tradition of Japanese travelling, the ultimate experience was considered to be a good meal and a hot tub at the end of a day's trekking. But this seemed a trifle too insipid for the very concept of the Ultimate Experience philosophy. Travelling for the Japanese was generally a passive experience while these brochures were definitely offering an active if not action-packed adventure.
It wasn't until Vince read an article in the morning paper about the emperor planting some rice within the grounds of the Imperial Palace that he had an idea for his own Ultimate Japanese Experience. Rice planting, what could be more Japanese? 95 per cent of all Japanese ancestors had their feet firmly planted in the rice paddies. Suddenly, taue (the Japanese word for planting rice) was a must-do for Vince while he was in Japan.
The Atsukawas had already introduced Vince and Connie to one element of Japanese rice culture — omochi New Years rice cake making. The old paper on the shoji sliding screens was being replaced, the house spring-cleaned and bamboo and pine decorations arranged at the doorway, when Osamu and other members of his family got stuck into the omochi making. Little balls of omochi were left in various rooms to welcome the gods at New Year, although the rice cakes were made to be eaten as well. Ozoni, soup with rice cake in it, was one of Vince's personal favourites.
Omochi rice was a separate breed. The grain was soaked for 24 hours, by which time you could crumble it to powder in your fingers. It was then boiled for twenty minutes and put through a sausage grinder. From here, the soft rice was spread into a thick flat sheet to harden. It would later be cut into squares and bagged.
Vince was suffering from too much end of year cheer from the night before and he was even surprised to hear himself ask about the traditional method of preparing omochi. The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Osamu was rolling a hollowed out tree trunk called an usu and had a huge mallet called a kine in Vince's hands. Both were made from the same hard zelkova tree wood.
Pounding rice with a headache like Vince's turned out to be a new style of torture. Each batch took some five minutes to pound and he found his arms were soon aching after each jarring blow. Still, he was pleased that he had the traditional male job. The woman turned the rice over and damped it with water between each stroke of the kine. Vince was terrified that he was going to mash Nozomi's fingers.
At last, the mochi rice was the same translucent milky consistency as that manufactured by the sausage grinder. Vince was relieved when Osamu suggested that they go back to the more modern method. Nozomi was not so quickly appeased. She chided her husband for not pounding the rice himself.
"I have done it many times," Osamu explained to Vince in his own defence.
Nozomi picked up the sausage grinder to illustrate her point to Vince,
"You see they invent a machine to do the man's job, but the woman's job is just the same as always."
It was one thing to pound rice, quite another to plant it. Vince was not surprised to discover that rice was rather a sensitive diplomatic issue in the land of the rising sun. An American president had recently visited the country and seemed to be of the opinion that all Japanese rice should be grown in California. Of course, a landslide in an election in the United States is just 51% of the vote, but, as far as Vince could see, every Japanese man, woman and child was adamant that Japanese rice should and could only be grown in Japan. All this in spite of the high price of rice in Japan. At more than 500 a kilogram, rice in Japan cost seven times as much as Californian rice in an Australian supermarket.
He had never seen his friend, Osamu, get passionate over any other issue. Osamu had admittedly drunk quite a lot of sake at the time, but he stood on the table, admittedly a low Japanese style table, and announced to the assembled company that it was impossible for Americans to grow rice for the Japanese market because it took no less than 100 years to prepare a rice paddy properly.
Vince made no bones that he believed that Californian rice should stay in California. Imported rice was after all also putting Australian rice producers out of business. Besides, while he had found Americans generally quite personable as individuals, he thought that the country regarded themselves as the great koban of the world. Not even the Americans were as pro-American as Osamu, but, as they were on the subject of rice, Vince's comparison of the United States with a police box delighted him. He had once spent two and a half months in the country and had found their food totally unpalatable. He had lived the entire time on hamburgers and hot dogs, which he thought were good old-fashioned Japanese staples.
Although Osamu was indeed relieved to discover that they were on the same side in the rice debate, he was doubtful about the possibility of Vince treading any rice paddies himself. He had sucked in a lot of air and suggested that rice planted by a Californian might not be so different from rice planted in California. When Vince pointed out that he was in fact an Australian not an American, and a Victorian not a Californian, Osamu didn't seem to see the distinction.
Finally, it wasn't Osamu who helped him get into the mud. The solution proved a lot easier than he had expected. Vince simply contacted a Japanese greenie called Mr. Sanguchi, the infamous leader of a conservationist movement called Greenpeace. Mr. Sanguchi had left his steady job at the Kanagawa Prefectural Government offices to devote more time to the conservation movement.
This was enough to convince most of Japan that the guy was totally insane. After all, he had left a good position with a respectable annual bonus and a generous terminal increment and retirement package. And now that public servants were getting Saturday holidays, his new three-day a week job at a local piggery didn't really compare.
Mr. Sanguchi didn't seem at all crazy to Vince. They walked together through a valley with great fields of crops that Mr. Sanguchi explained had been planted and would be harvested by groups of ordinary citizens, who would then share the produce — tomatoes, potatoes and leeks — among themselves.
Mr. Sanguchi wasn't a conservationist in the western sense of the word. He didn't plant trees, glue himself to dam-building bull dozers or save whales. He believed firmly that artificial chemicals, introduced almost entirely from the west, had been responsible for most of the pollution in local rivers. His groups used no such chemicals, planted and weeded by hand and threshed their rice in machines that required no electricity.
"See those weeds over there," Mr. Sanguchi gestured to a brackenish clump on the nether side of the valley.
"That's the real issue of rice in Japan."
"And how's that?"
"That land was a rice paddy twenty-five years ago. Then, the government brought in the law limiting the amount of rice that could be produced and a lot of the land was left to go to weeds."
"How long would it take to make that land into a rice paddy again?" Vince asked.
"Two, maybe three generations," Mr. Sanguchi replied gravely. "So, you can imagine how much damage your Californian rice would do to the structure of the countryside in Japan. Instead of neat paddies lining every hillside, the land would be destroyed by weeds and erosion. And we're not just talking about pockets of land like this one, we're talking about tens of thousands of hectares."
Vince tried to explain once again that, as he was neither an American nor a Californian, it could hardly be his rice, but Mr. Sanguchi didn't seem to understand the distinction. He took Vince to an area where a congregation of chattering volunteers was knee deep in mud. They were carefully picking green stalks from a large patch and tying them with straw into bundles of about 30. These, Mr. Sanguchi explained, were the rice seedlings.
He led the way to a gooey paddy where two lines of girl scouts faced each other. Two lines of light cord marked the row and each girl placed three pairs of seedlings in front of her and then moved back a pace for the next row, so that the two lines of girls got further and further from each other. Between the giggling and teetering to maintain balance, the girls laid out row after row of seedlings which looked like typed lines of inverted commas.
Vince developed a sinking feeling in his stomach, reminiscent of the sensation he usually felt before he went swimming. This looked like icky good fun, but what if it were back breaking work. He had hoped to tie some bundles of 30 rice seedlings before he braved the rice paddies, but he discovered that there were now far less people in that small area and that all but a few hundred had been tied into bundles.
When he did eventually slide bare feet first into one of the rice paddies, it felt as if he would keep sinking until he was completely immersed in mud. Vince had had an awkward experience with quick sand when he went panning for gold on Kentucky Creek near Uralla in New South Wales when he had sunk up to his waist in the stuff and had to pull himself out by grabbing the black currant bushes at the side of the creek. This was a similar sensation and Vince sighed with relief when his feet found some support. The floor of the rice paddy seemed to be a network of submerged old rice stubble that made it feel as if he were walking on a net of rope.
Vince was the only non-Japanese person in his line of 15 rice planters. He would later learn that they were from the Kanagawa Public Service, Mr. Sanguchi's former place of work. Perhaps, they were as nervous as he was for they seemed intent on ignoring each other as well. One man at the other end of the paddy lost his balance and sat down in the middle of the mud. No one laughed or even helped the poor guy up.
The string was pulled taut across the top of the watery mud, so that the rows would be straight. Vince would push some of the heavier mud underneath up so that the seedlings would have some support and wouldn't sink completely out of sight. He would position four pairs of rice seedlings in the mud along the line and then wade back and always just manage to prevent himself from overbalancing.
It was very pleasant in the afternoon sun. If you did have to bend over occasionally, you also had time to straighten up and stretch while the row was being finished. The mud oozed delightfully between his toes and stuck coolly against his calves. The whole business of planting the paddy took less than half an hour and Vince thought he could have easily done a dozen more paddies. Still, it wasn't so pleasant that he would have liked to have done it every day or even every year for the rest of his life.
As the last two rows were planted, the people around him became suddenly very friendly as if the solemnity of the moment was gone. They shook muddy hands. The two men who had been working shoulder to shoulder with him jovially hauled Vince out of the paddy and pressed a glass cup of ice cold sake into his hand.
"Is this your first time?"
"It's our first time, too. It's not often that a salaryman gets his feet dirty."
The other laughed handing him a steaming bowl of chanko, "You wouldn't know it was your first time. It looked like you'd been planting rice all your life."
Vince wasn't so sure. Scanning the even rows of seedlings, he noticed that there was a fuzzy bit at the point on each line where he had been. It was if a seismographical needle at registered a minor earth tremor at the very place where he had been planting. As he walked around each paddy, he realised that his own fuzzy area was unique.
He supped on his chanko. It was a thin gruel of cabbage, onion and potato grown in the area with a slice of pork from Mr. Sanguchi's piggery. Perhaps, he decided, reflecting on his own Ultimate Japanese Experience, he was a Californian rice planter after all. Others had planted rice for the first time that day, but their rows looked far more professional.
Vince quietly washed the sticky paddy mud off his legs with the help of a hand pump. It seemed to come off in layers and he didn't get the final film off until he'd had a hot shower that evening. He never returned to the paddies. He had a lurking suspicion that the rice seedlings, which were pure bred Japanese after all, had mistaken him for a Californian and refused to grow.