Perhaps no other culture takes rice as seriously as the Japanese.
In kaiseki ryori (traditional Japanese banquet served in courses), rice - along with a bowl of miso soup - is served as the last course and not as an accompaniment to other dishes.
The rice is meant to be appreciated on its own, perhaps with some refreshing pickles on the side, or maybe a sprinkling of chirimen sansho (dried, tiny baby sardines flavoured with Japanese pepper).
At this point in the meal, a few words from the guest in praise of the rice is guaranteed to make the host most happy. Such a gesture also serves to show the guest as someone who appreciates good food.
And if the guest wants to know where the rice comes from, a restaurant that is proud of the rice it serves will be more than happy to answer.
Buying rice in Japan is a serious business as there are over 300 varieties of rice in this country, each with its own name.
The most popular is Koshihikari, which makes up nearly 36 per cent of all rice consumed in the country. Other popular varieties are Sasanishiki, Hitomebore, Akitakomachi, Hinohikari and Yumepirika.
Although Koshihikari is grown all over Japan, the variety that is produced in the Uonuma locality of Niigata prefecture on the Japan Sea side of the main Honshu Island is regarded as the Mother of all Koshihikari rice.
A 5-kg bag of the highest-grade, Uonuma-grown Koshihikari costs between 4,000 yen to 6,000 yen (S$49-S$74). This high-end variety of rice is often used as a seasonal gift in Japan.
In contrast, a similar size bag of a lesser variety can be bought for 2,000 yen or less.
The Japanese also go to great lengths to make their rice special, as seen in the way they store the grains.
Stocks of some of the most expensive grades of Uonuma-grown Koshihikari are stored in silos maintained at below 5 deg C all year around – which poses no great problem since Niigata is covered with a thick blanket of snow in the winter.
The rice is kept cool because it is said to deteriorate slowly even at room temperature.
This is why connoisseurs recommend that uncooked rice at home should be stored in the refrigerator so that they will be in the best condition possible.
Not so long ago, the Japanese grew rice for their own consumption. But these days, Japanese-grown rice is available overseas, including in Singapore.
Exports of Japanese-grown rice are likely to increase in the future as the Japanese government gradually phases out a four-decade old policy that pays farmers to grow less rice so as to support the price of the grain and to guarantee them a stable income.
The reform will mean that farmers will be able to decide for themselves how much rice they want to grow, including converting to rice fields land that is currently left fallow or planted with other crops.
But with rice consumption in Japan declining to about 8 million tons a year at present, from a peak of 13.4 million tons in 1963, Japanese rice farmers will have to look to overseas markets if they wish to grow more rice to sell.
The declining consumption of rice in Japan has prompted manufacturers to design better rice cookers so that consumers will be enticed to eat more rice.
When sales of rice cookers plateaued about eight years ago, Japan’s consumer electronics makers came out with hi-tech rice cookers that could churn out perfectly steamed and delicious white rice even with the use of ordinary rice.
In 2009, I purchased one of those new rice cookers to replace an aging one at home, and was extremely impressed despite the fact that the model I chose was not anywhere near the top of the line.
The latest generation of rice cookers is even more sophisticated. With Panasonic’s latest high-end model, for example, one can choose individual cooking modes for 21 of the most popular varieties of Japanese rice.
There is one mode for Koshihikari in general and a separate mode for Uonuma-grown Koshihikari.
One can even program the cooker to produce rice that is softer than normal or very slightly al dente.
And in a sign of the times, there is even an Android app that hardcore smart phone users can use to program the rice cooker with!
Unfortunately, I understand there is no plan yet to market such sophisticated rice cookers outside Japan.
But you can always put them on your shopping list for your next trip to Japan.
Just remember, however, that they cost around 80,000 yen each.