An expedition to find the green lake in a desert of rice fields.
Hachiro Station. Safely deposited bearpack and Shrewsbury Town holdall in a marvellous station-side cafe called The Apple Forest. Wonderful hotcakes there – so I have heard.
Hachiro was a very quiet town. Found the river then followed it. For a long way. On the right, marigolds, clovers and a silent, green shimmering lake of rice fields; on the left, a concrete bank, thigh-high weeds and a sluggish river.
In the 1960s, with the assistance of Dutch engineers, Hachiro lake was drained to a third of its size to reclaim 17,000ha of fertile land, The land was reserved for producing rice, the most expensive rice in the world. Now Japanese rice is getting cheaper while rice farmers are getting older; many are now either too old or too dead to keep farming. Rice fields across the country lie fallow; in retrospect the whole drainage project looks very foolish.
The lake has been crippled, turned into a matcha-coloured concentration of chemicals funneled in by irrigation ditches. Hundreds of boats used to fish on the lake, now there are just a handful. Even the lake`s museum has closed down.
With lucky timing, the cleaning lady let me in for a quick peek at the old sailing boat inside. She told me the lake was full of fish when she was young; now there are hardly any fish, just a few wakasagi (pond smelt) when it freezes over in winter – just enough to justify a photo in the brochure.
On a brutally-hot day, walking around the rice fields and lakeside was like wandering in a desert. There were no communities, no refuge from the sunshine. It was definitely a day for suncream, sunhat and sensible behaviour I reflected with regret at 5pm when stumbling like Burke and Wills back into Hachiro train station.