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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 December, 2003, 00:18 GMT
Japan's weekend rice farmers

By Jonathan Head
BBC correspondent in Tokyo

Like so many agricultural areas around the world, Japan's rural economy is in trouble.

Despite heavy government subsidies, farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living, and their children are leaving the land for the city.

A farmer looks at his terraced paddy field in Asuka, central Japan
Visiting urbanites are breathing new life into Japan's farming industry
But now an entirely new kind of farmer can be seen in the rice terraces surrounding Tokyo - though only at weekends.

A growing band of city-dwellers are renting the fields to farm as a hobby.

Osamu Takano lives with his wife and two children in a densely populated suburb of Tokyo, crowded with small houses and apartment blocks. His is the relentless routine of a Japanese salary man, but he has found an escape.

He and his family have joined a growing club of weekend rice farmers. They travel to a beautiful tree-filled valley in Kamogawa, just outside Tokyo, where a group of sunburnt farmers offer light-hearted advice to a crowd of fashionably dressed city-folk.

It's really difficult for our community these days. Many of us farmers are getting too old to do this work, so it's good to have these people up from the city, using the land
Tiyo Yoshida, farmer

Harvesting the rice is back breaking work. The terrace Osamu has rented from the local farmers is so narrow he has to cut the stalks by hand with a scythe while the rest of the family gather them into neat sheaths.

The harvest has to be in before it is time to go back to Tokyo.

"We don't get much contact with nature in Tokyo so this is a good opportunity for us to feel the soil. It's great for the children's education too," Osamu said.

One of the farmers, an old lady in a bonnet, shows Osamu's seven-year old daughter, Hikaru, how to tie the sheaths in the traditional Japanese way.

Sense of satisfaction

Tiyo Yoshida, 75, has lived in this village all her life. She's delighted by the arrival of so many visitors at the weekend.

"It's really difficult for our community these days. Many of us farmers are getting too old to do this work, so it's good to have these people up from the city, using the land," she said.

All around her, the rice terraces are filled with the sound of families enjoying the novelty of growing their own crops.

I came across a group of students, struggling to master the unwieldy bundles of rice. They had been brought by their professor, Icheyama.

He said he was drawn by the beauty of the surroundings, and the satisfaction of growing their own produce.

"Next month we can celebrate the harvest party, and we can eat new rice," he said.

All over Japan, farming communities are in decline, as young people abandon the hard and unvaried life on the land, but in Kamugowa they seem to have found a way to keep rice cultivation going, tapping into the hunger that so many city people have for a taste of the countryside.

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