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IN THE COUNTRY
The Japanese farmer is one of the steadiest workers in the world; he tills his patch of land, day in, day out, with untiring industry. He works seven days a week, for he knows nothing of the Sabbath, and only takes a day off for a fair or a festival when his land is in perfect order and he is waiting for the crop.
Almost the whole of the land is turned over with the spade, and weeds are kept down until the whole country looks like a neatly-kept garden. Many crops are grown, but the chief of them all is rice, and when the rice crop fails, then vast numbers of people in Japan feel the pinch of famine.
In order to grow rice much water is needed, so the fields are flooded from a river or canal near at hand, and the plants are set in the soft mud. This work is carried out by men or women who wade in slush above their knees, and it is a very dirty and toilsome task. The women tuck their kimonos up, and the men cast theirs aside altogether. After planting, this work in deep slush and clinging mud must be repeated three times in order to clear away the water-weeds which grow thickly around the young rice-plants.
When the rice is nearly ripe the water is drawn off and the fields are dried. The fields are of all sizes and shapes, from a patch of a few square yards up to an acre, and the latter would be considered large. There are no hedges or fences to divide off field from field, for the land is too valuable to permit of such being grown; but the boundaries are well understood, and each farmer knows his own patch.
Another important crop is the plants which are grown for making paper. Paper has a great place in the industries of Japan. It is used everywhere and for almost everything. A Japanese lives in a house largely built of paper, drinks from a paper cup, reads by a paper lantern, writes, of course, on paper, and wraps up his parcels in it, ties up the parcels with paper string, uses a paper pocket-handkerchief, wears a paper cloak and paper shoes and paper hat, holds up a paper umbrella against the sun and the rain, and employs it for a great number of other purposes. He makes more than sixty kinds of paper, and each kind has its own specified use. He can make it so tough that it is almost impossible to tear it, and he can make it waterproof, so that the fiercest rain cannot pass through it.
If your path leads you along the bank of a river you will often see a fisherman at work. He has many ways of catching his prey. He uses a line and hook and the net. In a large stream or pool he may be seen at work with the throwing-net, a clever device.
This net is made in the form of a circle twelve or fourteen feet across, and round the edge of the net heavy sinkers of lead are fastened. The fisherman folds this net over his arm, and then tosses into the water a ball of boiled rice and barley. The fish gather to eat this bait, and then he throws the net in such a way that it falls quite flat upon the water. The leads sink at once to the bottom, and the net covers the feeding fish in the shape of a dome. A strong cord is fastened to the top of the net, and he begins to haul it up. The leads are drawn together by their own weight, and close the bottom of the net, and the fish are imprisoned.
Sometimes he uses bow and arrows. This he does after putting into the water certain fruit and herbs which are very bitter. The juice of these herbs affects the water and drives the fish to the surface, where they leap about in pain. The fisherman shoots them with an arrow to which a cord is attached, and draws them ashore.
As night falls after a hot day, the people and children of the village near at hand will come down to the water-side on a fire-fly hunt. The tiny gleaming creatures now flash along the surface of river and lake, like a myriad of fairy lanterns flitting through the dusk. They are caught and imprisoned in little silken cages. At the bottom of the cage there is a very small mound of earth in which a millet seed has been planted and has sprung up to the height of an inch or more, and beside the little plant there is a tiny bowl of water. Here the firefly will live for several days, to the delight of the children.
PEACH TREES IN BLOSSOM
Not far from the river is the village, with a brook running down the middle of its street. This brook serves many purposes. The women kneel beside it with sleeves and kimonos tucked up, washing clothes and vegetables, or dipping buckets in it to get water for baths. There is a loud rattle of wooden hammers at various points, for the stream turns a number of small water-wheels, and these work big wooden hammers which pound up the rice placed in a big stump of a tree hollowed out for a mortar. As you stroll along the village street you see what every one is doing, for the fronts of the houses are all open, and you can see into every corner of each dwelling.
Behind the houses tall bamboos shoot up, and the bamboo is welcome, for it is a tree of many uses. Its wood serves for the framework of houses, and its leaves are often used as thatch. It will make a dish, a box, a plate, a bowl, an oar, a channel for conveying water and a vessel for carrying it, a fishing-rod, a flower-vase, a pipe-stem, a barrel-hoop, a fan, an umbrella, and fifty other things, while young bamboo shoots are eaten and considered a great delicacy.
On fine summer evenings, when the work of the day is over, the villagers gather in the court of the village temple for the odori, the open-air dance. The court is decked with big beautiful paper lanterns, but there is a special one called toro (a light in a basket). The toro is often two feet square by five feet high. On one side of it is the name of the god in whose temple court the dance is being held, while the other is reserved for some short poem, written by one of the youths of the village. There is keen competition among them for the honour of writing the poem chosen to be inscribed on the toro, and two of these tiny poems run thus:
"I looked upon the cherry that blooms by the fence,
down by the woodman's cottage,
And wondered if an untimely snow had fallen upon it."
"Into the evening dew that rolls upon the green blade
of the tall-grown grass in Mushashi Meadow
The summer moon comes stealthily and takes up her dwelling."
The young men and maidens dance in a ring, circling round one who stands in the midst, from whom they take both the time and music of the many dances performed at the odori. The dancers are always young and unmarried. The older people sit on the steps of the temple and watch the merry frolic with a smile.