With fat black clouds hanging ominously overhead, a sludgy field of sweet potatoes in rural Japan might not seem the best place for a date with the woman of your dreams. Still, 33-year-old bachelor Naoki Nakai hopes to get lucky before the rain comes. "Yes, there could be someone for me here," he nods, glancing over at a long-haired beauty in knee-high boots. "There are some nice people here," he adds before his face darkens: "I think some of them are from the city."
In this remote corner of Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, men and women tug at yams while engaging in a courtship ritual as old as time. Jokes fly and shy looks are exchanged across muddy buckets, but today's good-natured flirting disguises a serious purpose. Japan has been hit hard by a demographic problem so severe it threatens to overwhelm the world's second-largest economy. As millions shun marriage and delay parenthood, local governments are turning matchmaker to the nation's lonely hearts.
"It's harder than ever for people to find a partner they want to have a family with," explains Nobuki Manome, head of the Ibaraki Meeting Support Centre, a matchmaking service that operates out of the city office in the prefectural capital Mito. "We have decided to step in and give them a little help." Mr Manome hovers near today's group of hopefuls – 40 men and women, some of whom have travelled two hours from Tokyo. "There's a purposeful atmosphere here today. At least the city women aren't wearing high-heel shoes."
The deal is straightforward. For 10,000 yen (£66), Ibaraki offers a three-year membership to its marriage club, which boasts about 2,800 over-25s. Singles fill in a confidential application form listing vital details: age, height and weight, health and wealth status and preference for children. A staff of 20 matches up the hopefuls at weekend camping and cycling outings, barbecues and cake-making parties. Today's spud-themed expedition targets one of Ibaraki's most stubbornly single demographics: the rural eldest son.
"It's difficult," sighs Mr Nakai, a heavyset, brooding man with a farmer's tan beneath his baseball cap. "You can't tell a woman straight away that she will have to live with my mother and father at home. They won't understand."
In an effort to bridge the yawning rural-urban gap, the local agricultural union works with Ibaraki to run these unusual dates – in a few minutes everyone will jump back on a bus for a tomato greenhouse.
"Farmers have an especially hard time getting hitched," explains Fumio Nohara, a local government official. "They must stay at home, so they don't have the time or chance to look for a wife."
Japan has one of the world's lowest fertility rates. In fact, the shortage of children is so severe that the government has created a cabinet position to deal with it. The impact has rippled through each layer of society, shutting elementary, primary and secondary schools and hitting rural areas like this, where many young people leave for the cities, especially hard. Last year, Japan's population fell by a record 51,317 and despite hints of policy change, it has so far shunned the most obvious solution: mass immigration.
Like most parts of the country, the ranks of the unmarried in Ibaraki are swelling: Since the 1970s, the percentage of women still single in their late twenties has more than tripled. Meanwhile, the number of pensioners is expected to double by 2025. For local authorities, the incentive to be a marriage broker could hardly be stronger: without more children, their already creaking welfare and pension systems will collapse under the weight of the elderly.
"This is such a huge problem, involving care of the old, social security and insurance, as the population decline lowers productivity," warns marriage counsellor and researcher Yoko Itamoto. She says that until recently, local authorities subcontracted matchmaking out to private businesses but as the problem worsens, Ibaraki is part of a growing trend toward a bigger official role. "Governments at the prefectural level now need to get a move on."
Mr Nohara agrees, adding: "Once people get to their forties, it becomes much harder to match them up." As today's singles – aged 25 to 40 – head back to the buses, he professes himself pleased. "The atmosphere is good," he beams. "Do you see how people relax and talk when they're out in the open?"
But back on the bus, there are worrying grumbles. "Honestly? The men are a bit lacking," moans Maki Sato, 35, who says she works as a fashion co-ordinator in Tokyo. "They're not really my type." Her friend Sanai Kumagai, 33, is also unimpressed, but can't say why. "I'm really not that fussy – the only thing I hate is stingy guys. But somehow it's not happening for me."
Over half a million Japanese are now registered with one of about 3,800 private matchmaking firms across the country, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. With most of the unmarried living at home, mothers and fathers too have become matchmakers. According to sociologist Masahiro Yamada, who coined the buzzwords "kon-katsu" (marriage hunting) and "parasite single", 60 per cent of single Japanese men and 80 per cent of women are still stuck in the family nest and unmarried into their early thirties.
Some parents have begun attending large lonely-hearts conventions, where they look for love and happiness – for their offspring. The strategy sometimes backfires when children find out their lives are being planned for them. "The children often know absolutely nothing about these meetings," explains Yasuko Kasai, president of matchmaking firm Marriage Club Wish Yokoyama.
Even Japan's Self-Defence Forces (SDF) are doing their bit for the national crisis, with singles' parties targeting unmarried women in Ibaraki and other prefectures. "They're the most popular with women and are always very oversubscribed," says Mr Manome. "The SDF is a secure job, and the men are considered masculine and attractive." Ms Kumagai, however, has her doubts. "Aren't a lot of them gay, living with each other like that?"
Japan's new Democrat (DPJ) government has launched perhaps the most concerted effort to end the baby drought, proposing a monthly child allowance of 26,000 yen (£170) and appointing Mizuho Fukushima, one of the country's best known feminists, state minister in charge of consumer affairs and the declining birth-rate. Ms Fukushima wants more money for childcare and fertility treatment, and legislation protecting pregnant women from discrimination in the workforce.
Mr Manome wonders if she'll succeed. "There have been so many social changes," he sighs. "Women are often financially independent now, so they don't need to get married." And Japanese men, he says, need a revolution of the mind. "Traditionally, they've been king of the roost, quite old fashioned. They need to be kinder and more supportive."
As the lonely hearts wander around a greenhouse picking plump tomatoes, Keiko Ozaki nods in agreement. A recently divorced woman with two young children, she gives few points to her ex-husband for his homemaking skills. "Men don't do any housework and they hardly help at all with the kids." Is she encouraged by today's outing? "I don't see anyone here for me," she says, glancing around. "I just want to find some company, and maybe someone to help with the children. But most men are not interested in women with a family."
Still, for disbelievers in the aphrodisiacal power of country air, Mr Manome pulls out his statistical trump card: in the three years since it was set up, the Ibaraki office has matched 350 couples – a success rate of over one-in-10. And the number of club members has tripled since 2006. Ibaraki's surveys show that 90 per cent of locals want to get married – if they can find the right partner. "I think we're doing something right," he says, adding that local governments in other parts of the country have come to his office on fact-finding trips.
Back on the bus, droplets of rain begin splashing against the windshield as it drives through darkening fields back for the final leg of the collective date: a barbecue. Farmer Nakai has struck out so far, but even if sparks don't fly over roasted yams and pork, he knows they'll be other days. "If there's one thing we have in the countryside, its time."