Japan Reflections 2: タマネギ Tamanegi, The humble onion

I biked field side for the onion harvest in Hokkaido, Japan. Farms adorned the road, a classical cloak of agrarian life: golden hues of straw harvests, deep greens of potato tops, the well watered and engineered paddies of rice just slightly turning on the tops into a grainy lime, ready to turn brown, ready to start the next stage of life, ready for the bowl. And rows and rows of onions.

Clusters of colourful sheds and large farmhouses sat roadside, offering a curious bike tourist a passing glimpse into rural life. Each farmer had three or four ubiquitous Nissen sheds (sheets of metal bent into a cylinder) with rooves arched over to the ground usually a striking blue or red. The great domes were filled with small white Suzuki trucks and every gadget imaginable to harvest every part of the food bowl.

Japanese Nissen style farm sheds in Hokkaido

Any patch of dirt between the shed and farmhouse was a bright spray of marigolds, sunflowers and enviable vegetable gardens of every vegetable imaginable and unimaginable. This set up played on repeat for miles across the island, passing between five and ten farms like this every kilometre.

Flowers blooming everywhere

Hurried and alive, the farmers worked that summer. And all 600km that I rode, I wondered what it was like inside the staple food bowl that surrounded me. While the rice still grew, onions were turning over and flattening themselves out ready for the next stage of drying and growing. Each field it seemed was in a different process, a different stage of onion life. I’d not really contemplated the life of the onion for long periods of time before this. Had anyone? But bike touring does that, it gives you time to contemplate, inhale smells, digest thoughts, and observe. Japan plans to launch a tear-free onion this Autumn called the ‘Smile Ball’ without the tear jerking properties, but I’m pretty sure I biked next to the old school crying kind.

This farm was just in time getting the onions ready before the typhoons, others not so lucky

A Hokkaido farmer typically grows a variety of crops like corn, potatoes, sugar beets, carrots, rice and onions over the April-November season. And they do it well, the best in Japan for those products. Here each crop had a different machine for sowing seeds, fertilising, harvesting, and perhaps doing a few things in between. Unlike other countries where contractors may come in to harvest, in Hokkaido each farm has every machine required for all stages of each crop. And these are not big farms, the average is 20ha (49 acres). So, say six crops with three machines on average per crop, plus a couple of tractors, means at least 25 different implements in the sheds. In the harsh winter that follows, the tools and machines are tucked away, not all staying in good shape while the snow kicks in and the farmers head on holiday, or to the local gambling houses.

The fields we wed and next to we slept

In some tempura onion striped magic that is Japan, a few days later we were staying on a farm in the north of Hokkaido on the coast. Camping in our tent alongside tamanegi field and helping a farmer weed and prep the fields for harvest, at last my onion oriented questions were answered.

Weeding time

Once you’ve weeded (and wondered if wed should be the past tense of weeded) that many onion rows, your appreciation for those beautiful hand grown balls heightens. Weeding rows like that was incredibly satisfying, albeit hot, 30 degrees in the sun at the 7am start. Until the farmer’s brother came along with a tractor and started to spray the onions with what seemed to be a fungicide. I’d noticed some mould on parts while weeding and knew that fungicides would be used. What didn’t make sense was to spray the very field we were still weeding. It wasn’t cool. We finished our rows and left the field. The sun shone, the typhoons passed, and perfect biking condition arose so we decided to head off, the spray incident a good catalyst for change.

Crates of onions good to go: $1000 USD a crate usually, this year a farmer will get up to $2000 due to the typhoons destroying a lot of crops. Once sorted the excess stems are burnt off.

I saw how much work goes into making a crop and then how much spraying went on, even with hand weeding. It gave me an appreciation of the value of well cared for and grown produce, but even more so for farmers that don’t use pesticides and fungicides.

The onion sorting machine, a few people up top sorting and onions then go straight into the crate

A few days and three typhoons later we headed south on a train, trying to get to the southern coast in an attempt to have better biking weather. The typhoons had caused havoc across the land. Days before we’d biked through Katami, the Onion capital of the north, now passing back through on the train, we saw the flood waters and on land not buffered by the levies, farmers desperately reaping the storm ridden onions, gleaning those they could from the fields. Rows and rows of the brown balls laid washed over with mud from the flood. Sodden and not salvageable, it was heartbreaking to watch.

Onion tops fall over when they are getting ready for harvest. These ones are lucky, not spoilt by the typhoons.

Hokkaido is normally not affected by Tsuyu (East Asian rainy season) and typhoons are rare, hence why we biked there. Unusual incidents like three typhoons in a week was a sobering taster of how vulnerable our global crops are to the impact of increased frequencies of extreme weather events and gave me a first hand taste of growing crops on a mass scale.

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