After moving to Canada from Japan, my husband and I had a lot of adjustments to make. One thing that stayed constant was our need to keep eating our favorite Japanese rice.
Back in Japan, the closet grocery store was steps from our door. We could buy an easy to carry bag of rice whenever we needed to. The other option was visiting Hitoshi’s family home where we would be loaded down with doubled plastic bags bulging with rice from the family land.
Canada was different. While we lived close to grocery stores, none of them sold the rice we wanted. The only store that did was a two-hour roundtrip from our apartment by foot and train. Since we didn’t have a car, we weren’t interested in making this trip frequently. This meant buying an 18kg bag that would last us a few months.
We named this journey the “rice run”. Hitoshi always carried the big bag of rice home. While I knew it was heavy, I didn’t realize how much so until the first time I did the rice run alone. After that exhausting experience, I named the rice run “the burden.”
Hitoshi sets me straight
Just like when Hitoshi taught me to care about the importance of rice through stories and his experiences, he helped me see the light with the rice run.
After that awful first experience carrying the rice home alone, I told Hitoshi what a burden it was, how heavy the bag was, how delirious I was on the train, how much my arms hurt and how I was not going to get the rice again.
I thought buying rice was a challenge without a car and carrying it home was quaint. I even thought the whole ordeal made a funny story until Hitoshi kindly asked me to clarify my complaints.
Swallowing my pride, it was time for me to sit back and listen to Hitoshi’s perspective.
A new view on carrying rice
Hitoshi explained that he never felt buying rice was a burden or that the bag was heavy – rice was that important for us.
When Hitoshi carried our rice, he thought of his ancestors who carried rice from the family farm to the black market in Tokyo during the Pacific War. One bag weighed up to 30 kg (66 lbs) and had to be hidden from the military police. Some people would carry rice between themselves and a child on their back to disguise it.
Breakfast – interpretations on a theme
Rice is nourishment for the belly and soul. It is part of every meal except if noodles are on the menu, but rice is still waiting in the rice cooker.
After Hitoshi and I were married, we spent a few days at Hitoshi’s family home. I wanted to introduce Hitoshi’s family to my favorite breakfast growing up and my sister and I made pancakes. We even had real maple syrup in tiny bottles brought from Canada.
But Hitoshi’s mom went ahead and made miso soup and cooked rice! This was a shock. In my family, pancakes were the meal.
Later, Hitoshi let me in on a few secrets. First, what if no one liked the pancakes? I know. Impossible, but having miso soup and rice would at least mean no one would go hungry.
What if pancakes weren’t enough food? Again, miso soup and rice would save the day.
Finally, Hitoshi’s mom needs soup for breakfast. And rice, too. It’s just the way it is.
More Rice Roles
Along with the obvious need to eat yummy, hot, steaming rice, for Hitoshi’s family, rice is income. While his family no longer works the ancestral fields, they still take some rice from those who lease the fields. And those fields will never, ever be sold.
Rice also has symbolic value. Hitoshi’s family home has four shrines. Two are outside and two are inside. Of those inside, one is for the ancestors and the other is for the gods of the house. Hitoshi’s brother takes care of regularly changing the water and bowls of cooked rice at every shrine.
During our Shinto wedding ceremony, every guest consumed rice wine (sake) to bind our families together. A bottle of sake from our wedding sat on our own shrine behind a little plate of cooked rice.
After Hitoshi’s explanations, I had to admit that I had never thought about food this way. Food, including rice, was something to stop the rumblings in my tummy, ease boredom, accompany social time and ensure I lived another day.
Taking the time to think about my food and consider the role that rice had for Hitoshi was enlightening.
Carrying our rice started me thinking about the effort that went into my food. Being a city girl far removed from agriculture, this reminded me of learning to cut rice by hand in Thailand. Whether you use a machine or your hands, a human somewhere is working to produce the food I eat.
I didn’t get a chance to get the rice on my own after that. Our schedules changed. We had occasional access to a car and then bought one. Grocery stores closer to us started selling our rice.
While the initial challenge is gone, I still think back to the rice run that became a burden. Thankfully it was replaced with greater respect for the food I eat. And the memories stay fresh each time I hoist another 8kg bag of rice into our home.
Have you had an experience that made you completely change the way you thought about food or a daily task?