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SANBU, Japan (Reuters Life!) - Farming just got fashionable in Japan, where scores of stressed-out urbanites are spending their weekends trudging through mud to painstakingly plant rice by hand and, hopefully, find themselves.
Growing concerns over food safety and the environment, and the ideal of a laid-back rural lifestyle, are attracting more urbanites to agriculture, once the mainstay of Japan's economy.
Popular for years among retirees, part-time agriculture courses are now drawing younger professionals seeking a break from the rat-race and a space to call their own.
"More and more young people are now looking at farm life as an alternative," farming instructor Hidechika Akiba told Reuters as some 30 students and their friends squelched through a paddy field 60 km (37 miles) southeast of Tokyo.
Every year, many burned-out employees kill themselves in Japan, a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world which even has a special term for death from overwork.
Students of the agriculture course at Tokyo's Marunouchi Morning University, so-called because it offers office workers classes before they start their jobs in the morning, pay 38,000 yen ($400) for eight lessons over eight weeks.
In addition to the field trips, the students -- all employed full-time -- also attend lectures at the city campus to learn the theories behind rice farming.
"It feels so good to walk in the mud," said 35-year-old Sahoko Kashina, who planted rice with her 4-year-old son, Yuu.
"It's also educational to my son, though I need to keep my eyes on him to stop him playing with mud," Kashina added as Yuu gleefully scooped up a handful of snails.
At the fields, the students learn to plant rice in the laborious, traditional "hand-pick" way, which is obsolete among Japan's modern, mechanized farms.
This throw back to ancient methods, however, appeals to city-dwellers looking to find their roots.
"I've always believed that agriculture is the pillar and foundation of a society and is of utmost importance. But until now I didn't have very much involvement with it," said Kohta Yamamoto, a 23-year-old businessman from Tokyo.
Introduced about one month ago, the university's agriculture class has inspired some students to consider full-time farming as an alternate way to earn a living, lecturer Masato Wakisaka said.
"There are city people, still not that many, that are starting to look at farming not merely as a different lifestyle but a business they can live on," Wakisaka added.
For some students, like 33-year-old Masami Hasegawa who recently quit her Tokyo job, farming could possibly be the final escape from the stresses of the city.
"I had felt stressed-out at my job, working day-in-day-out in the IT industry. I am hoping this farming may help me enjoy the day moment by moment," Hasegawa said.
Editing by Miral Fahmy