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Rice Terrace Experience in Japan: An Ode to the Beauty of Seasonality and Nostalgia

Graduate School of Horticulture, Chiba University, Chiba 271-8510, Japan
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Land 2024, 13(1), 64;
Submission received: 2 December 2023 / Revised: 29 December 2023 / Accepted: 29 December 2023 / Published: 5 January 2024


Rice terraces are a time-honored agricultural feature that overcomes rough terrain and hostile growing conditions. In addition to playing an essential role in agricultural production and land conservation, rice terraces have been recognized as living cultural landscapes, important agricultural heritage, and popular agritourism destinations for their aesthetic, sociocultural, and environmental values. However, there is a lack of understanding of this emerging niche market, especially from outsider perspectives. To fill the gap, this study analyzes Google Maps reviews of seventy representative rice terraces in Japan based on a mixed-method content analysis, aiming to identify visitors’ overall experiences, seasonal perceptions, and the causes of negative experiences. The results indicate that the overall experience of rice terraces in Japan includes seven themes: agricultural landscapes, times and seasons, visual perception, accessibility and infrastructure, sense of place, Genfukei of Japan, and food. Visitors’ perceptions toward the four seasons of the rice terraces have distinctive characteristics and result in different satisfaction levels. The main reasons for negative experiences are farmland abandonment, lack of character, poor accessibility, and bad timing. Leveraging the power of netnography, the study sheds light on the sustainable development of agricultural heritage tourism through the introduction of rice terrace conservation initiatives in Japan and the exploration of rice terrace experience.

1. Introduction

As a sustainable agricultural model adapted to mountain ecosystems during the long-term struggle with unfavorable natural conditions, terrace farming is an excellent example of the coupling between humans and nature [1]. Along with the agricultural production function, rice terraces have a series of ecological and environmental values, such as conserving agricultural water [2], flood control [3], soil conservation [4], and biodiversity protection [5]. The Cordillera Rice Terraces in the Philippines, the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces in Indonesia, and the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in China were registered as World Heritage Sites and renowned around the world for their unique ecological, aesthetic, cultural, and economic values [6,7,8,9]. However, in recent years, the marginalization of farmland due to the rapid expansion of urbanization and industrialization, difficulties in cultivation, and a lack of agricultural population have led to an increase in the abandonment and desertion of rice terraces worldwide [4,10]. Research has shown that the abandonment of rice terraces will lead to a range of problems, such as losses of ecosystem services [11], land cover changes [12], reduced availability of water [13], and soil degradation [14]. Increased vacant and derelict farmland will also reduce the attractiveness of rural landscapes and threaten local communities [15]. The conservation and sustainable development of rice terraces has become a pressing issue [16,17].
On the other hand, the importance of heritage tourism has come into the spotlight in recent years [18]. Due to its strong linkage with other industries, many local economies rely on heritage tourism as an engine of jobs, shared prosperity, and regional resurgence [19,20,21]. Rice terraces have changing sceneries of seasons, carry historical and cultural memories, and are attractive agricultural heritage resources for tourism [22,23]. Tourism development of rice terraces will contribute to the maintenance of agricultural landscape, raise public awareness of agricultural heritage conservation, and improve the diversity and sustainability of local livelihoods [24,25,26].
In Japan, an Asian country where about three-quarters of the national land is covered by mountains, rice terraces have always been an essential source of food production. Most of Japan’s rice terraces are located in depopulated areas such as mountain villages or rural coastal areas and are essential components of the Satoyama landscapes [27]. Satoyama, derived from the Japanese words for village (sato) and mountain (yama), describes a mosaic of socioecological systems such as villages, farmlands, secondary forests, and irrigation ponds, representing the traditional Japanese rural agricultural landscape [28,29]. Such landscapes are regarded as Genfukei (original or virgin landscapes) of Japan. The Genfukei refers to those memorable landscapes that consist of our past experiences with actual places, spaces, and landscapes that remain in our memories [30]. After the Bubble Economy imploded and gave rise to thoughts among city folk of escaping to the idyllic getaway in the countryside, the Satoyama conservation movement emerged and thrived throughout the 80s and 90s in Japan and yielded rich outcomes [31]. In 2011, Noto’s Satoyama and Satoumi and Sado’s Satoyama were designated as Japan’s first Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) [32], with the Shiroyone Senmaida Rice Terraces and Iwakubi Shoryu Rice Terraces (see Figure 1a,b) as representative landscapes. Japan has unique institutional innovation and ample practical experience in agriculture heritage conservation and tourism development of rice terraces, which is of great value for the sustainable development of rural and remote areas worldwide.
However, despite the fact that rice terraces have been recognized as important agricultural heritage tourism resources, there is still a lack of tourism-related studies in the current academic literature on rice terraces. Additionally, research targeting rice terraces in Japan is relatively scarce. Existing studies on rice terraces in Japan are dominated by traditional case studies using methods such as questionnaire surveys, interviews, and observations. The research respondents are mainly insiders (e.g., farmers, residents, officials), while the perspectives from the outside (e.g., visitors, experts) are rarely mentioned. To fill this gap, we adopt a mixed-method content analysis to explore user-generated content (UGC) of seventy representative rice terraces in Japan from visitors’ perspective. Three specific research questions are proposed and answered in this study:
  • What is the overall rice terrace experience in Japan?
  • What are the key features of the rice terrace experience in different seasons?
  • What factors lead to the negative rice terrace experience?
Through the introduction of rice terrace conservation initiatives in Japan and the exploration of the rice terrace experience, this study sheds light on the sustainable development of agricultural heritage tourism.

2. Background

2.1. Initiatives and Practices of Rice Terrace Conservation in Japan

In Japan, rice terraces are located in hilly and mountainous areas, which account for about 60% of Japan’s total land area and about 40% of the total farming households and agricultural output [35]. Hilly and mountainous areas play a crucial role in land preservation and food production. The history of rice terraces in Japan dates back as far as the Ancient Burial Mounds period of the 6th to 7th centuries, and they have been spreading all over the country since the Edo period from the 17th to 19th centuries [31]. According to official statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) Census of Agriculture and Forestry, there were 54,388 rice terraces in Japan in 2005, covering an area of about 137,000 ha [36]. On the other hand, farmland abandonment has become an irreversible trend in Japan mainly due to reduced rice consumption, low farm incomes, a declining rural labor force, and an ageing population [37].
Since 1990, influenced by the Satoyama conservation movement, Japan has carried out a series of top-down and bottom-up initiatives and practices for conserving rice terraces [31,38]. In 1992, the village Yusuhara (Kochi Prefecture, Japan) pioneered a system called “Tanada Ownership” (“tanada” means rice terrace in Japanese), whereby city dwellers could rent rice terraces from landholders and participate in agricultural production and conservation supported by local farmers and experts in various ways [39]. This system was gradually extended to rice terraces throughout the country. In 1995, the Japan Tanada Liaison Council was launched and held the annual Tanada Summit in Kochi Prefecture for the first time. The same year, the Tanada Support Citizen Network (renamed as Tanada Supporters Network in 2002 and approved as a certified NPO) was set up to support rice terraces and bridge the gap between people in urban and rural areas. In 1999, MAFF conducted a nationwide selection called “100 Terraced Rice Fields of Japan” and designated 134 demonstration sites to promote the maintenance and preservation of the terraces alongside public interest in agriculture and rural areas. In the same year, the Rice Terrace Research Association was established. Two decades later, in 2021, MAFF conducted another nationwide rice terrace selection and certified 271 excellent rice terrace demonstration sites [40]. Owing to the conservation initiatives, two nationwide selections, and the GIAHS development, rice terraces have become emerging tourism destinations for rural ecotourism and sacred-place pilgrimage.

2.2. Agricultural Heritage Landscapes and Tourism

Rural landscapes, including historical, natural, and agricultural heritage elements, are a core endogenous resource for regional development [41]. Agricultural heritage landscapes, as an important part of rural landscapes, consist of farmers’ lifestyles and agricultural activities, expressing a process of changing habitat and society [42]. In 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) established the GIAHS Partnership Initiative to identify and safeguard GIAHS and their associated landscapes, agricultural biodiversity, knowledge systems, and culture. Due to this opportunity, agricultural heritage systems have gained worldwide recognition and interest as a new type of heritage. This type of heritage is unique because they are living and growing systems in the sense of ecosystems and cultures [43]. As FAO emphasized, GIAHS is “not about the past, but about the future” [44]. Thus, agricultural heritage systems need to be conserved in a cautious and adaptive way. As confirmed by many worldwide cases, agricultural heritage conservation and rational tourism development are compatible [45].
Agricultural heritage tourism can serve as an alternative and more sustainable form of rural tourism because of its premium and diversified resources seeking origins and authenticity [46]. Under flexible and visionary management, agricultural heritage tourism can bring economic benefits to local communities, reintroduce residents to their cultural roots, reinforce a process of cultural identity, and motivate them to preserve their agricultural identity and culture and build on their territories and communities [47,48,49]. Traditional agriculture is usually located in remote areas with unfavorable socioeconomic status and fragile ecosystems. In this case, agricultural heritage tourism not only serves the economy, but also provides ecosystem services, preserves traditional culture, and maintains biological and cultural diversity [43]. To conclude, as a means for providing dynamic conservation of agricultural heritage systems, tourism plays a fundamental role in sustainable regional development, local economic growth, ecological security, and cultural heritage revitalization.
Rice terraces, a traditional agricultural feature with a long history, are recognized as a typical example of an agricultural heritage system. In addition to the two Japanese terraces mentioned in previous section, across the globe, the Hani Rice Terraces, Rice Terraces in Southern Mountainous and Hilly areas, Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System (China), Gudeuljang Irrigated Rice Terraces (Korea), and Ifugao Rice Terraces (Philippines) were designated as GIAHS [32]. Rice terrace tourism is emerging as a popular niche market for agricultural heritage tourism.

2.3. Current Rice Terrace Research in the Tourism Context

We conducted a literature search in the Web of Science Core Collection database in September 2023 and identified 351 valid articles using rice terraces as a keyword. Analyzed through the Citation Topics schema [50], we found that the current literature on rice terraces focuses primarily on soil science (30.2%), forestry (19.1%), archaeology (4.8%), and crop science (4.6%). Studies under the discussion of hospitality, leisure, sport, and tourism are still scarce (4.0%).
Through a review of relevant tourism-related studies on rice terraces, we discovered that most studies are single case studies, among which the Hani Rice Terraces in China is the most representative [23,51,52,53]. Apart from the Hani Rice Terraces, the Ifugao Rice Terraces in the Philippines [6,54], Oyama Senmaida Rice Terraces [55], and Shiroyone Senmaida Rice Terraces in Japan [37,56] have also attracted the attention of scholars.
In the current literature, the research respondents are primarily local residents [51,53,54], farmers [52], and officials [37], thus requiring more outsider perspectives, such as tourists. The tourism experience has enjoyed a long-standing history of academic discussion and is arguably one of the most pivotal themes in tourism research [57,58,59]. Given its complex nature, examining individuals’ experiences has remained a challenge for both academics and practitioners [60]. Traditional research methods, whether they rely on participants’ independent oral or written reports, surveys, or interviews, tend to be dictated by the researcher’s assumptions and protocols [61].
The proliferation of the Internet has fostered a rapid rise in tourist narratives in the form of user-generated content (UGC) [62]. UGC was created spontaneously without the researcher’s intervention and afforded alternative data to understand the tourism experience through unique perspectives [63]. Netnography is a relatively novel approach as an adaptation ethnography to study online interactional spaces [64,65], which allows researchers to tap into social media communities and draw insights through systematic analysis of narratives, videos, photos, and other forms of UGCs in an unobtrusive way [66]. Nevertheless, the current rice terrace research methodologies are mainly based on traditional questionnaires and interviews, and the implementation of netnography in studies of rice terraces in the tourism context is still in its early stages. To our knowledge, only two studies utilized the netnography approach to explore the rice terrace experiences. Wang and Marafa (2021) used a mixed research method of netnography and traditional surveys to study tourism imaginaries and the potential cultural conflicts at the Hani Rice Terraces [22]. Yang et al. (2022) investigated tourists’ perceived attitudes toward seven representative rice terrace sites in China based on online travelogue data [67]. There is still great potential to apply the method to a broader range of study sites with more comprehensive data coverage.

3. Methodology

3.1. Study Area

Rice terraces are found throughout the hilly and mountainous terrain in Japan, about two-thirds of which are concentrated in southwest Japan (west of Toyama, Gifu, and Aichi) [31]. The current study focuses on rice terraces certified in two nationwide selections initiated by MAFF in 1999 and 2021 (as mentioned in Section 2.1). As illustrated in Figure 2a, among the 47 prefectures in Japan, the only prefectures that have no certified rice terraces are Tokyo, Ibaraki, and Okinawa.
We use the number of Google Maps reviews as the screening criterion (n ≥ 30) and identified seventy rice terraces as representative sites for the current study. The study sites cover most of the prefectures in Japan with certified rice terraces of two nationwide selections, except for Hokkaido, Aomori, Akita, Fukushima, Gunma, and Yamanashi, which are certified for the first time in 2021, and Tottori, which have relatively few certified rice terraces (see Appendix A, Table A1; Figure 2b).

3.2. Methods, Data, and Materials

With the speed and ubiquity of social media and mobilities, netnography is gaining acceptance within tourism scholarship as a feasible solution for researching tourism experiences [68,69]. Netnography is a multimethod that leverages the power of content analysis, historical analysis, semiotics, hermeneutics, narrative analysis, and thematic analysis, among others [70,71]. It is faster, simpler, and more cost-effective than traditional ethnography and more naturalistic, objective, and unobtrusive than focus groups or interviews [65,72]. Thus, we conducted a mixed-method content analysis based on netnography, which is capable of revealing tourist-centered perspectives on the rice terrace experience. The research workflow can be divided into four phases: data collection, data preprocessing, data analysis, and interpretation (See Figure 3).
We retrieved the data from Google Maps reviews, which is a typical type of UGC in the form of text, images, and ratings about locations. In recent years, it has become a common source of data to study destination image [73], tourist experience and perception [74,75], and service quality [74]. Between 28 August and 4 September 2023, 18,702 online reviews were collected from Google Maps using a web crawler. In the preprocessing stage, 8998 valid records spanning from May 2013 to September 2023 were finalized after the manual exclusion of blank and meaningless comments. All non-English comments were translated into English by Google Translate. Recognizable grammatical and spelling errors in comments were corrected to improve data validity. All reviews were read and manually coded, and those with seasonal descriptions (n = 3036) were identified and tagged with labels of four seasons. Negative reviews (n = 268) with ratings below 3 points were also extracted for additional analysis.
We conducted the qualitative analysis mainly with the aid of Leximancer 5.0 and NVivo 12.0 software. Underpinned by Bayesian theory, Leximancer quantifies the texts through a data-driven, iterative, and unsupervised process [76]. Leximancer converts lexical co-occurrence information from natural language text into semantic patterns to visually display the extracted information [77]. Studies have shown that Leximancer provides an analytical ”fresh lens” with objective and rigorous results while reducing the precoordinated bias that can be associated with manual analysis [78,79]. NVivo is widely used as a qualitative auxiliary analysis tool with excellent coding, querying, linking, and modeling capabilities for inductive content analysis in tourism contexts [80,81]. In addition, the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) 27.0 was also utilized for quantitative analysis. The process of analysis involves four stages. First, in descriptive statistics, we described and displayed the number of reviews and ratings by month, season, and year. Second, to explore the overall rice terrace experience, we conducted content analysis based on all reviews and generated a conceptual co-occurrence map. Then, to investigate seasonal perceptions, we identified the most relevant features of the four seasons with a quadrant diagram. Finally, to recognize the causes of the unsatisfactory experiences, we explored the negative reviews through a manual coding process.

4. Results

4.1. Descriptive Statistics

Table 1 summarizes the distribution in the number of reviews by year, month, season, and rating. As shown in Figure 4, the line charts depict the temporal distribution in the reviews and average ratings by month, season, and year.
As for the number of reviews, it reaches its peak in May, followed by September and August. There is a downward trend from late autumn (October) until the end of winter (February). The annual distribution shows an upward trend before and after 2020, with an evident drop in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regarding average ratings, it shows that March and April in the spring and September and October in the autumn have lower ratings. Those are the periods when rice is being planted and harvested. Since rice terrace landscape can vary significantly due to planting and harvesting, it is difficult to select the right timing. If visitors do not see what they were expecting to see, they will be disappointed because of the discrepancy between expectation and reality. Interestingly, although it is off-season from November to February, visitors are generally satisfied, with December having even the highest ratings. It can be explained by the fact that many rice terraces have terrace light-up events in the winter, which are effective compensations during the rice fallow period. The annual average ratings show cyclical fluctuations, continuously rising after 2021.

4.2. The Overall Rice Terrace Experience

To capture the overall experience of the rice terraces, we generated a concept map using Leximancer, which shows the most prominent concepts and themes (see Figure 5).
Precisely, the concept map consists of 82 concepts that are clustered into seven major themes. The size of the concepts (indicated by the gray nodes) reflects the connectivity of the concept. Connectivity is the sum of the number of times the concept co-occurs with all other concepts across all texts. Concepts appearing in the same text block tend to be strongly attracted and close to each other on the map, which can be clustered into higher-level themes (indicated by colored bubbles) [77]. The relevance of a theme is indicated by the color warmth or coldness of the bubbles rather than their size, and as with heat maps, warmer color indicates higher relevance. The names of the themes are default, as represented by the concepts with the highest connectivity, so we renamed the themes according to our interpretations of the concepts.
As shown in Figure 5, the seven themes and their hits (the number of text blocks associated with the theme in the project) are (1) Agricultural Landscape (8245), (2) Times and Seasons (5491), (3) Visual Perceptions (5390), (4) Accessibility and Infrastructure (3663), (5) Sense of Place (3052), (6) Genfukei of Japan (1159), and (7) Food (267). To simplify the explanation, we discuss themes 1, 5, and 6, and themes 4 and 7 as two separate groups.
The agricultural landscape is the most critical theme in the rice terrace experience, including concepts like “rice”, “terraces”, “fields”, “planting”, “water”, “harvesting”, “wonderful”, “amaryllis”, “cluster”, and “green”. It indicates that the rice crop and terraced fields, which can be enjoyed from planting to harvesting, are at the heart of the agricultural landscape experience. A visitor commented, “The terraced rice fields, which look like islands with green stripes after rice planting, are so beautiful”. Additionally, many rice terraces in Japan have cluster amaryllis planted along the ridges or slopes of the terraces. The contrast between the blooming red or white cluster amaryllis and the green or golden rice paddies has become an important symbol of the Japanese rice terrace landscape. Another reviewer wrote, “The ear of rice and cluster amaryllis blooms in autumn create a wonderful scenery. The combination of yellow waves and red lines is fantastic”. Such agricultural landscapes are regarded as Genfukei (original or virgin landscapes) of Japan. As explained earlier, Genfukei are original and virgin landscapes remaining in ones’ memories. Often accompanied by nostalgic feelings, self-identities, and place attachments, Genfukei is also perceived as mother landscapes [39]. This theme incorporates concepts like “landscape”, “original”, “selected”, and “nature”. One visitor reviewed, “It is the original scenery of Japan. Under the blue sky, terraces overlap, and the cluster amaryllis flowers on the edge of terraces are beautiful”. The selection of “100 Terraced Rice Fields in Japan” is frequently mentioned under this theme, which proves that such a nationwide selection deepens visitors’ attachment with the landscape. The Genfukei is inseparable from the evoking of a sense of place. As one visitor wrote, “It is the original scenery of Japan. It is maintained through the efforts of local people”. Sense of place refers to the meanings, attachment, and satisfaction an individual or group associates with a particular place [82]. This theme includes concepts such as “people”, “mountains”, “top”, “feel”, “local”, and “village”. The positive interactions with the locals will make visitors feel intimate and bonded. A visitor shared, “Local people were working on the farm, and they waved at me, which made me feel the warmth of the place”. Agricultural landscapes are also closely linked to the sense of place. Visitors are impressed by well-maintained rice terraces and emotionally empathize with the residents. Another visitor commented, “It is maintained through the efforts of local people. It must be difficult for them”.
The theme of times and seasons is the second largest theme, containing concepts like “time”, “season”, “day”, “sunset”, “early”, “year”, “sky”, “night”, “weather”, “morning”, and “winter”. Seasonality is expressed in the rhythms of natural landscapes (especially agricultural landscapes) and human lifestyles. It is characterized by periodic fluctuations or cyclicality [83,84]. Seasonality encompasses not only the changing times of sunrise and sunset in a single day, but also the four seasons of the year. In an ideal situation, the changing picture of rice terraces makes visitors linger. A visitor reviewed, “It is a place that you will want to visit again and again, as the beauty changes from hour to hour throughout the day, such as the morning mist, the sunset, and the starry sky”. The flow and cycles that arise with times and seasons are identical features of the rice terrace experience.
Visual perception is likewise an important theme in the rice terrace experience, covering concepts such as “view”, “take”, “nice”, “photo”, “Senmaida” (one thousand rice paddies in Japanese), and “light”. Rice terraces have a high aesthetic value due to their advantaged geographical location, unique structure, and flowing scenery. One visitor shared, “I was so amazed by the scenery of the Senmaida near the Sea of Japan that I couldn’t help but stop the car and go down to take some photos”. Another visitor reviewed, “When you look through a telephoto lens, you can only see the green terraces and the blue sea, making it look like a scene from a movie”. A different visitor wrote, “The views are nothing short of spectacular. I would like you to enjoy the view on the spot rather than seeing it in photos”.
The theme of accessibility and infrastructure comprises concepts such as “parking”, “road”, “narrow”, “observation”, “station”, “tourist”, and the theme of food only contains the concept of “delicious”, which can be interpreted as food facilities. The accessibility requires improvement, or it may cause trouble for the visitors. One visitor complained, “The roads along the way are narrow, and there is not much parking space”. In Japan, most rice terraces are private farmlands. Even for those developed as tourism destinations, even simple facilities such as parking lots, observation decks, shops, and restrooms are lacking, which can be inconvenient. One visitor reminded, “There are no restrooms or vending machines at the observation deck, so be sure to be prepared”. The gastronomic experience in rice terraces is simple but still leaves a memorable experience on visitors. The most common food offered is the rice balls made from local rice. A visitor shared, “Rice balls made from the salt extracted from the nearby seawater and the harvested rice is the best”.

4.3. Seasonal Experience

As can be derived from the concept map, the theme of times and seasons is the second most prominent for the rice terrace experience. Since seasonal information can be judged based on the descriptions in the reviews combined with the time of posting, this study explores the characteristics of the experience in different seasons.
First, we conducted a Kruskal–Wallis H test to verify the significance of differences in ratings across seasons. The test revealed a statistically significant difference (chi square = 11.73, p = 0.008, df = 3, n = 8998) in rating scores across four seasons, wherein ratings in summer (mean = 4.24, n = 2844) are significantly higher than autumn (mean = 4.17, n = 2651).
To investigate the different characteristics of the seasonal experiences of rice terraces further, we generated an insight dashboard quadrant report by Leximancer (see Figure 6). As previously mentioned, reviews containing descriptions of seasons were manually labeled and categorized. The quadrant plot divides the relevant concepts (i.e., attributes or independent variables) of four seasons (i.e., categories or dependent variables) into four quadrants by their strength and relative frequency, which are widely used to compare characteristics between different categories of texts [85,86]. The relative frequency axis represents a conditional probability that measures the frequency a concept is mentioned. The strength axis is the reciprocal conditional probability, which gives the probability that a concept comes from a category. Strong concepts help distinguish one season from the other. The intensity and frequency scores are combined using Bayesian statistics to produce prominence scores, which are absolute measures of correlations between concepts and seasonal categories [77]. Table A2 (Appendix A) ranks the most prominent concepts for each seasonal category.
The concepts of four seasonal categories are differentiated by colors. The concepts toward the upper right quadrant are mentioned most frequently and are the most distinctive characteristics in each category. As the quadrant plot depicts, the aesthetic aspect is highly regarded, as the concept “beautiful” has a high relative frequency in each season. In spring, the most typical scenes are the planting of rice seedlings (“planting”, strength 59%, prominence score 4.4) and the water-mirror-like terraces when they are filled with water (“water”, 59%, 4.5). In summer, it is featured by the greenery of the vegetation (“green”, 50%, 4.7). In autumn, the golden rice (“golden”, 64%, 3.7), blooming cluster amaryllis (“cluster amaryllis”, 93%, 5.4), and rice harvest (“harvest”, 69%, 4.0) are most impressive. Winter is distinguished by the light-up events during the fallow period (“light-up”, 33%, 6.0).
It was commonly considered that the features of the seasonal experience of rice terraces are centered around the cultivation of rice, which is also true in this case. However, we find that other landscape elements also strongly connect to the seasonal experiences. For instance, the cluster amaryllis has become an irreplaceable element representing the autumn experience, with 15% of the autumn-related reviews mentioning cluster amaryllis. In winter, watching the light-ups at night has become the primary motivation for people to visit rice terraces, as 14% of reviews describing winter experiences mentioned the winter illumination events.

4.4. Causes of Negative Experiences

We used the four overarching themes derived from the overall experience of the rice terraces as the primary coding structure and applied the combination of inductive and deductive coding approaches to analyze the different aspects and reasons that result in negative rice terrace experiences. As a result, we identified sixteen primary attributes as the drivers in negative experiences (see Table 2).
Within the theme of “agricultural landscape, sense of place, and Genfukei”, the main issues are farmland abandonment and poor maintenance, inappropriate behaviors of others, and the loss of Genfukei. Regarding the theme of “times and seasons”, the problems can be summarized into two categories: bad timing and right timing without expected scenery. As for the theme of “visual perception”, the primary concerns are lack of character, small scale, artificial traces, and lack of viewpoints. Concerning the theme of “accessibility and facilities”, visitors complained the most about issues like poor road conditions, difficulties in parking, a short length of stay, over-tourism, unreasonable charges, bad service, and lack of infrastructure.

5. Discussion

The abandonment of terraces is the extreme expression of the marginalization of farmland [87] and a significant challenge for the conservation of agricultural landscapes worldwide. As the most prominent theme in the rice terrace experience, the agricultural landscape is impaired and threatened by the increase in abandoned and neglected rice terraces. In concordance with previous studies [56,88], we found that terrace abandonment is a major cause of negative experiences. In addition to maintaining existing rice terraces as much as possible, consideration could be given to transforming unsustainable farmlands into alternative low-maintenance landscapes, such as forests. In Japan, the afforestation of rice terraces is often regarded as a failure or even a taboo. However, forests are, in fact, an important a part of the Satoyama landscape. Compared to abandoned rice paddies, afforestation supports a higher level of biodiversity [89] and a high potential for cultural values [90]. In addition to afforestation, the establishment of perennial flowers is also a feasible solution. As discussed earlier, the blooming cluster amaryllis has become a representative symbol of the rice terrace experience in Japan. The rice terraces in the Daidori area of Yamaguchi Prefecture use Shibazakura (moss phlox) to create a floral sea and attract many visitors before rice planting in spring every year. A study supports that replacing roadside shrubs with perennial flower meadows increases insect numbers and reduces maintenance costs [91].
Aesthetic aspects of landscapes are regarded as an important component of cultural ecosystem services, providing a critical connection between people and the environment [92,93] and relating to characteristics of agricultural landscapes [94]. Thus, scenic beauty and visual perception are especially emphasized in landscape planning and management [95]. In the agritourism context, Kastenholz et al. (2017) also proved that the dimension of esthetics plays a prominent role in tourism experience and has evident effects on arousal and memory [96]. This study corroborates previous research that the aesthetic values are central to the competitiveness and attractiveness of the rice terraces in Japan, and is a primary concern for tourists [55,56]. On the other hand, lack of character results in negative experiences. Many successful rice terrace destinations in Japan developed and nurtured their distinctiveness through innovative marketing strategies. The Hamanoura Rice Terrace was certified as a “Lover’s Sanctuary” in 2007 and built a destination image as an ideal scenic spot for couples since then. By inviting celebrities such as entertainers and politicians to be farmland tenants in the name of special honorary members, the Shiroyone Rice Terraces enhances the popularity and public impact of both the place and the “Tanada Ownership” system. Many rice terraces have become popular film-induced tourism destinations after being depicted in movies, television series, and anime. Furthermore, cooperating with other forms of culture, such as music and art, is also an effective way to enhance the characteristic of the place. The Terasaka Rice Terraces holds a Firefly Festival in summer, together with light-up events and instrumental concerts. The Matsudai Rice Terraces is renowned as an open-air agricultural stage for displaying the artworks of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (ETAT), one of the world’s largest art festivals.
The rice terrace experience has a flowing beauty in which seasonal changes in vegetation and constructed landscapes contribute, together with rapid weather changes throughout the day. Such changes tend to create a gap between the expected and perceived experience of visitors. Seasonality is a strong variable influencing the selection of travel time, the overall enjoyment of the vacation, and the destination’s competitive advantage [97,98]. Academics have discussed seasonality in landscape from an early stage [99], most of which focused on landscape preferences and biases [100]. Although seasonality is a typical feature of temperate landscapes, and agricultural landscapes show particularly pronounced seasonality, seasonal aspects are often overlooked when assessing the quality of agricultural landscapes. Stobbelaar and Hendriks (2007) used seasonal factors to assess regional and farm-level landscapes [101]. Schüpbach et al. (2016) innovatively included seasonal indicators in constructing an agricultural landscape quality indicator model [102]. The challenge of seasonality is an issue for tourism planning and management worldwide. Scandiffio (2021) developed a GIS-based algorithm that uses remote sensing to map slow tourism routes through the rural landscapes of European rice paddies, defined according to seasonal landscape changes [103]. Rice terraces in Japan also reveal creative countermeasures for seasonality. During the harvest season, the Onigi Rice Terraces and Inabuchi Rice Terraces hold scarecrow festivals and competitions, and the abundance of scarecrows of varying shapes and sizes can somewhat alleviate the loneliness of the fields left vacant after the rice harvest. The Inagura Rice Terraces organizes field camping events to make full use of the vacant fields during the off-season after the rice harvest. Moreover, the light-up events carried out in the off-season have become the iconic landscape of many rice terraces. The fantastic illuminations have become the primary motivation for people to visit rice terraces in winter. Providing timely and appropriate information about the site is a critical task for destination management organizations. The famous Shiroyone Senmaida rice terraces established a fixed-point, bird-eye view live camera streaming the rice terraces to make it easier for visitors to grasp the status of the terraces in real time. In addition, using social media and official websites to update information on the planting and harvesting times of the terraces together with related activities is also helpful for people to choose the right time to visit the area.
Rice terraces are also blessed with nostalgic beauty, which is a sentimentality for the past. Place-based cultural tourism articulates the history and culture of the place for tourists and connects them with the stories and experiences associated with a place [104]. The history, traditional agricultural knowledge, techniques, and customs are unique and precious resources for establishing place-based senses of distinctiveness. For example, the Nakayama Rice Terraces has preserved the traditional “Mushiokuri” passed down from the Edo period, a torch procession event to drive away crop-eating insects and pray for a good harvest for the year. The experience realm of education is vital to rural tourism [96] yet still not fully tapped in rice terrace destinations. As argued by Su et al. (2020), the diverse values and functions of agricultural heritage systems and their combinations with local cultures and traditions are widely underappreciated [105]. The cultural value of rice terraces can be further developed through more educational and interactive activities. The inclusion of indigenous storytelling into agricultural heritage conservation and development is also a beneficial option, which can foster the sense of place through intergenerational communication [106,107].
Accessibility is a key factor in successful rural tourism development [108]. However, most of the rice terraces are located in remote mountainous areas with poor accessibility and limited capacity. Infrastructure improvement requires large-scale investment and financing, which partly rely on the tourism potential of the heritage site. The ability to develop attractive tourism products based on a strategic transformation of tangible and intangible heritage assets is critical to evaluating tourism potential [42]. Although only simple rice balls are provided in most rice terrace sites, food is still a critical theme of the rice terrace experience. It proved that local food has the potential to enhance the tourism experience by connecting consumers to the region and its perceived culture and heritage [109]. Nonetheless, the current tourism offerings of rice terraces are still far from sufficient from visitors’ perspective. When visitors have to cover a long distance in order to arrive at the chosen destination, they tend to spend more time at the destination and expect the availability of lodging and food facilities [110], while most rice terrace destinations fail to meet this requirement. In this case, the tourism development of rice terraces should be incorporated into the scope of regional planning in order to make full use of other supporting resources and facilities in the vicinity to enrich the tourism experience. Through integrating traditional agriculture and related cultural elements with tourism, potential benefits could flow to other sectors in the local agriculture value chain, such as education and culture, and arts and handicrafts, to cater to visitors’ diverse demands at agricultural heritage destinations [105].

6. Conclusions

This study explores user-generated content from seventy representative rice terraces in Japan using netnography-based, mixed-method content analysis, aiming to explore the overall rice terrace experience, the characteristics of the experience across four seasons, and the main reasons for negative experiences. As illustrated in Figure 7, the results indicate that the overall experience of rice terraces in Japan can be categorized into seven themes: agricultural landscape, times and seasons, visual perception, accessibility and facility, sense of place, Genfukei of Japan, and food. There is a significant difference in the rating scores between the four seasons, and each season has distinctive features and typical images. Summer and winter, when the landscape is more stable and predictable, were rated higher than spring and autumn, when features can alter drastically due to planting and harvesting. The causes of negative experiences can be identified under the four overarching themes of rice terraces experiences. Abandonment and neglect of terraces, lack of character, poor accessibility, and bad timing are the key attributes of negative experiences.
The study has potential limitations. Compared to traditional ethnographies, it is difficult for netnographic research to verify the identity of users due to the lack of face-to-face interaction, and some bias may arise due to the uneven distribution in the sample’s demographic characteristics. In addition, the non-English reviews retrieved from Google Maps are translated into English for data consistency. Despite manual verification and modifications, it is still possible that some information was lost during the language translation process. Nevertheless, to the best of our knowledge, this is the first study that uses netnography to investigate rice terrace experiences in Japan. Through the introduction of rice terrace conservation initiatives in Japan and the exploration of the rice terrace experience, this study contributes to the sustainable development of agricultural heritage tourism, an emerging niche market of agritourism. The findings are informative and inspiring, with enlightening theoretical contributions and managerial implications. Future research could validate these findings through questionnaires, interviews, and other forms of novel methodologies, and compare them with tourism experiences of rice terraces in other countries and regions. In addition, sentimental scores and other forms of numeric data can be used to quantify the rice terrace experience and further explore the impacts inscribed by different dimensions of the tourism experience on visitors’ satisfaction and behaviors. Furthermore, more insights can be drawn from photos, videos, and other forms of user-generated content.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, Q.W. and K.F.; methodology, Q.W., K.F. and X.Y.; software, Q.W. and X.Y.; validation, Q.W., X.Y. and X.L.; formal analysis, Q.W. and X.Y.; investigation, Q.W. and X.L.; resources, Q.W.; data curation, Q.W.; writing—original draft preparation, Q.W.; writing—review and editing, Q.W., K.F., X.Y. and X.L.; visualization, Q.W.; supervision, K.F.; project administration, Q.W. and K.F. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Data Availability Statement

Data are contained within the article.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Appendix A

Table A1. Study sites and details.
Table A1. Study sites and details.
RegionPrefectureNameNumber of ReviewsAreaType *
TohokuIwateYamabuki rice terraces325 hac
Kanayama rice terraces350.7 hab
MiyagiSawajiri rice terraces664.1 hac
YamagataOwarabi rice terraces5413 hac
Kunugidaira rice terraces7814 hac
Shikamura rice terraces13212 hac
KantoTochigiIshibatake rice terraces712.4 hac
SaitamaTerasaka rice terraces4475.2 hab
ChibaOhyama rice terraces20593.2 hac
ChubuNiigataGimyo rice terraces561.1 hab
Hoshitouge rice terraces135130 hab
Iwakubi Shoryu rice terraces10316.7 hab
ToyamaNagasaka rice terraces3618.6 hac
IshikawaShiroyone Senmaida rice terraces56414 hac
Tanada rice terraces4220 hac
FukuiHibiki rice terraces533 haa
NaganoInagura rice terraces37830 hac
Yokone Tanbo rice terraces993 hac
Obasute rice terraces18540 hac
Aoni rice terraces384.2 hac
GifuSakaori rice terraces277170.5 hac
Kamidaida rice terraces405 hac
ShizuokaKurumeki rice terraces677.7 hac
Shirakashi rice terraces302 hab
Ishibu rice terraces1524.2 hab
AichiYotsuya rice terraces8403.6 hac
KinkiMieFukano rice terraces6435 hac
Maruyama rice terraces2167.2 hac
Sakamoto rice terraces5321 haa
ShigaHata rice terraces7813 hac
KyotoSodeshi rice terraces8612 hac
OsakaNagatani rice terraces3130 hac
Shimoakasaka rice terraces3206.1 hac
HyogoBekku rice terraces8515.8 hab
Isarigami rice terraces8010.4 hac
Ueyama rice terraces723.1 hac
Okidani rice terraces4223 haa
NaraInabuchi rice terraces55324.1 hac
WakayamaNakada rice terraces309 hab
Aragijima rice terraces9218.8 hac
ChugokuShimaneSannouji rice terraces4030 hac
OkayamaKitasho rice terraces4579 hac
Ohaga-Nishi rice terraces11049.7 hac
HiroshimaIni rice terraces33812 hac
YamaguchiHigashi Ushitobata rice terraces3448 hac
Kanoji rice terraces403 hab
ShikokuTokushimaKashihara rice terraces865.1 hac
KagawaNakayama rice terraces38011.9 hac
EhimeKashidani rice terraces353 hab
KochiYoshinobu rice terraces58125 hab
Takasu rice terraces3292 hab
Kyushu&OkinawaFukuokaRokuri rice terraces385 hab
Hirouchi-Uebaru rice terraces1265 hac
Tsuzura rice terraces1969.88 hac
Take rice terraces10212.5 hac
SagaWarabino rice terraces5559.5 hac
Oura rice terraces16835.4 hac
Eriyama rice terraces13311 hac
Hamanoura rice terraces8406.8 hac
Take rice terraces7342.6 hac
NagasakiOnakao rice terraces368.4 hac
Kasuga rice terraces12011 hab
Doya rice terraces39818.1 hac
Chijiwatake rice terraces3723.4 hab
Onigi rice terraces24722 hac
KumamotoBansho rice terraces1118 hac
Ogi rice terraces1641 hac
OitaUchinari rice terraces4341.7 hac
MiyazakiSakamoto rice terraces969.4 hac
OkinawaKoda rice terraces4753 hac
Note: * “a” represents rice terrace that was certified in the 1999 selection; “b” represents rice terrace that was certified in the 2021 selection; “c” represents rice terrace that was certified in both selections.
Table A2. Top 10 most prominent concepts of each season.
Table A2. Top 10 most prominent concepts of each season.
SeasonConceptRel. Freq (%)Strength (%)Prominence


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Figure 1. (a) Shiroyone Senmaida Rice Terraces; (b) Iwakubi Shoryu Rice Terraces (source: Wikimedia Commons [33,34]).
Figure 1. (a) Shiroyone Senmaida Rice Terraces; (b) Iwakubi Shoryu Rice Terraces (source: Wikimedia Commons [33,34]).
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Figure 2. (a) The distribution of rice terraces certified in the 1999 and 2021 nationwide selection. (b) The distribution of study cases in this research. Compiled by the authors according to the official information from certified rice terrace site lists.
Figure 2. (a) The distribution of rice terraces certified in the 1999 and 2021 nationwide selection. (b) The distribution of study cases in this research. Compiled by the authors according to the official information from certified rice terrace site lists.
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Figure 3. Research workflow.
Figure 3. Research workflow.
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Figure 4. The temporal distribution in the number and average ratings for reviews by month, season, and year.
Figure 4. The temporal distribution in the number and average ratings for reviews by month, season, and year.
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Figure 5. The concept map of the rice terrace overall experience.
Figure 5. The concept map of the rice terrace overall experience.
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Figure 6. The quadrant plot for seasonal experiences.
Figure 6. The quadrant plot for seasonal experiences.
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Figure 7. The major findings of the study.
Figure 7. The major findings of the study.
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Table 1. Sample description.
Table 1. Sample description.
20191612Jul8355 stars3891
20201149Aug11094 stars3473
20211489Sep11713 stars1366
20221840Oct8222 stars179
20231215Nov6581 star89
Table 2. Reasons for negative experiences.
Table 2. Reasons for negative experiences.
Overarching ThemesFocused CodesFree CodesCount *Examples
Agricultural landscape, sense of place, and Genfukei land abandonment and poor maintenancefallow fields; weeds; poor maintenance43There were many fields left fallow and full of weeds.
inappropriate behaviorsbad manners; illegal dumping; trespassing12When I walked with my 2-year-old daughter, a local man driving a light truck honked at us for a long time, which was scary and made my daughter cry.
loss of Genfukeiunauthentic landscape; no trace of the past13There is no trace of the past.
Times and seasonsbad timingbad time; wrong season31I did not have a good impression of it, probably because it was the wrong time.
right timing without expected scenerynot as expected; disappoint25There were surprisingly few cluster amaryllis, and I was disappointed.
Visual perceptionlack of characterordinary; nothing special35There is nothing spectacular.
small scalesmall; few terraces18It is so small that you will be disappointed.
artificial tracestrash; not natural11I cannot take a nice photo with plastic piping and electric fences stuck everywhere.
lack of viewpointsno viewpoints; bad location 5It would be nice to have a place to take photos with the view of the rice terraces.
Accessibility and facilitiespoor road conditionsnarrow; dangerous; inconvenient; steep; no signs35The road is narrow and inconvenient. Road signs also need to be improved.
difficulties in parkingsmall parking lot; no parking space; inconvenient13The parking lot guidance is the worst. There is still much space for buses, but no space left for passenger cars.
a short length of staynot much to do; boring; short stay8It would be better if I could kill 20 min here.
over-tourismtoo many people; over-developed7It has become too touristy and has no taste: a miniature garden or a diorama-like creation.
unreasonable chargesexpensive fees; unreasonable charges5It does not make sense to pay 100 yen per person for every service separately, even for donations.
bad servicefood service; shopping service5I feel uncomfortable with the way the lady at the cafeteria treats me.
lack of infrastructuretoilet; trash bins; lighting; bench 5I wish there was a bench so I could sit and relax.
Note: * the minimum frequency is 5.
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Wang, Q.; Yang, X.; Liu, X.; Furuya, K. Rice Terrace Experience in Japan: An Ode to the Beauty of Seasonality and Nostalgia. Land 2024, 13, 64.

AMA Style

Wang Q, Yang X, Liu X, Furuya K. Rice Terrace Experience in Japan: An Ode to the Beauty of Seasonality and Nostalgia. Land. 2024; 13(1):64.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Wang, Qian, Xiaoqi Yang, Xinyu Liu, and Katsunori Furuya. 2024. "Rice Terrace Experience in Japan: An Ode to the Beauty of Seasonality and Nostalgia" Land 13, no. 1: 64.

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