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The autumn harvest takes place in October. The villagers move out in force and also enlist the help of relatives to get the job done. The plants are temporarily placed on drying racks in the paddies, where they await threshing. (Photo by Hiroshi Kato)

Northeastern Aichi Prefecture features a highly mountainous terrain with many mountain villages. Its peaks, which with elevations under 1,000 meters are not all that towering, unfold in an overlapping sequence. The region was not readily accessible in ages past, but the arrival of roads and cars has made it easy for villagers to go to such nearby cities as Okazaki, Toyohashi, Toyokawa, and Toyota for shopping or leisure pursuits. Conversely, city dwellers are now able to climb in their cars and enjoy rejuvenating outings to nearby fields and mountains.

Spectacular scenery is plentiful in mountain communities. But perhaps the most splendid sight of all is terraced rice paddies. These terraced fields are paddies that have been configured in tiered platforms in valleys and on hillsides in order to make a living in the mountains. Compared with the spacious fields found in the countryside overseas, the image of tiny paddies making a gradual ascent toward a mountain's summit has a miniature quality. Some hillside paddies are not much larger than 15 square meters.

The visual splendor of terraced paddies is enhanced by the way they transform their appearance from one season to the next. During the fallow winter months they are dry fields, and their dirt-colored shapes are often covered by snow. In May, with the smell of early summer in the air, water is channeled into the paddies, and rice planting begins. June brings the rainy season, when the rice seedlings soak up this moisture and gradually grow. Covering the mountains, the rice terraces present a solid green landscape as far as the eye can see. With the departure of summer and the arrival of autumn, mature ears of rice give the paddies a golden sheen from September into October. At exactly the same time, cluster amaryllis plants growing in the ridges between paddies produce full scarlet blossoms, and gold and scarlet become interwoven in an exquisite pattern. Other scenes, including the spectacle of harvested rice drying on racks standing in paddies, are also quite splendid. Such a landscape of rice terraces, whose appearance undergoes these seasonal changes, is perhaps uniquely Japanese. For this reason, terraced rice paddies are said to be Japan's archetypal landscape. Their value is more than just scenic, moreover, for these fields perform an array of functions. For instance, they preserve land by preventing flooding and keeping soil from being washed away. They also serve as ground-water reservoirs. Aichi Prefecture still has many terraced paddy fields. They are particularly prevalent throughout the Oku-mikawa region (in Kita Shitara and Minami Shitara counties). As the hillside paddies' presence attests, mountains and mountain villages dot this region in northeastern Aichi. The largest of the terraces is in Yotsuya, a village in the Minami Shitara town of Horai. It occupies the southern flank of Mount Kurakake (elevation: 823 meters).

Lately, however, the continued existence of terraced paddies has come to be threatened. The problem is that the farmers tending them are aging, and the number of people to take their place is dwindling. This is in part because the process of cultivating rice in a mountainous region, particularly in small-scale paddies, and managing such a farming operation demands considerably more effort than for paddies located on level ground. The scenic panorama of terraced paddies is thus slowly vanishing with a change of circumstances in rural Japan.

Yotsuya's terraced paddy fields have been no exception. Cultivation of several of its paddies came to a halt. But when such terraced structures are left untended, the land deteriorates. Formations of soil may collapse, and landslides can occur. Recently, accordingly, the call to protect terraced fields has gone out, and residents of urban areas have begun to respond. Thanks to such volunteer activities the color green is returning to Yotsuya's rice paddies. The municipal government has also begun to subsidize activities to safeguard the terraced fields' multifaceted functions. The survival of as many terraced paddies as possible is desirable so as to preserve the landscape of the traditional Japanese mountain village.

Text by Yoshimitsu Yagi