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Looking at the Mainichi Newspaper site again today, this time for a story about a rice that disappeared from Yamagata Prefecture… and then returned.

One wet cultivation variety once dominated Yamagata by area, but disappeared before WWII. The village of Mikawa in the Shōnai region has started planting it for the first time in 80 years in order to make it into sake.

The abandoned rice variety has the enigmatic name “Type I” (イ号, i-gō) (which made it hard to track down as it also appears to be the name of a class of Japanese submarine). One reason behind the decision to start growing it again (other then being able to lay claim to the title of “phantom X”, which seems to be inordinately popular) is rising domestic demand for distinctive and individual sake. Farmers and those involved in local tourism see reviving the rice as a way to promote the Shōnai region and its high quality rice. (There’s also a pun in the slogan, as one of the readings for rice, kome, is phonetically identical to the verb ending –kome, where urikome(ru) is to sell/promote/push something.)

Type I was originally developed at the end of the Meiji Era by Yataemon Satō, in the village of Tōgō which grew into the town of Mikawa. It reached its peak in 1927 when it was planted in just under 20,000 hectares of fields, an even greater area than the cultivar Kame-no-o, developed in the nearby town of Shōnai, which was used to create the varieties Tsuya-hime, Haenuki and Koshihikari.

According to the town of Mikawa, the area was a thriving centre for private development of new varieties in the Meiji and Showa Eras, with rival groups competing to develop hardy, productive cultivars. Satō devoted three of his 50 hectares to cultivating new plants, and was devoted to seeking out and developing different varieties. Mikawa has been promoting Satō and others involved in the development of rice varieties as “legends” since 2017, and teamed up with the tourist association to prepare for brewing sake. They purchased 50 g of seed from the Yamagata Prefecture wet-cultivation agriculture testing ground in Tsuruoka and managed to produce more thanks to local farmer Hiromoto Ōtaki (35). Having harvested about 5 kg of seed in autumn 2017, Ōtaki commented that there was no-one alive with any experience of growing the variety, so he had to figure it out as he went along. The initial germination ratio was low and the stalks were long and prone to breaking, so there was no end of problems when cultivating it. Regardless, he was excited to grow a variety of rice that was completely unknown.

15 acres were planted with seedlings on 13 May 2018, which will hopefully yield about 650 kg of rice in mid-September. The tourist association plans to ask a sake brewery to work with the rice after the harvest, creating a new brand that will help to revitalise the region.