Fanciful rice art lures tourists

INAKADATE, Japan – Nearly two decades ago, Koichi Hanada, a clerk in
the village hall, received an unusual request from his superior: find a way to
bring tourists to this small community in rural northern Japan that has rice
paddies and apples orchards, but not much else.

Hanada, a taciturn but
conscientious man, said he spent months wracking his brain. Then, one day he
saw school children planting a rice paddy as a class project. They used two varieties
of rice plants, one with dark purplish stalks and the other bright green ones.
Then it struck him, why not plant the coloured varieties in such a way to form
words and pictures?

“I didn’t know it would become such
a hit,” he said.

The result was what is now called
paddy art, and it has been a big enough hit to put this village on the map.
Every year since 1993, villagers have created pictures by using rice paddies as
their canvas, and living plants as their paint and brush. As the village’s
creations have grown increasingly large, complex and polychrome, they have
drawn growing media attention and hordes of the curious.
Last year, more than 170,000 visitors clogged the narrow streets of this quiet
community of 8,450 mostly aging residents, causing traffic jams and waiting for
hours to see the living art.

Indeed, the images are something
that is perhaps only possible in Japan, as the product of an amalgam of high
technology, painstaking perfectionism and an ancient attachment to rice, the
national staple. To create this year’s football field-sized picture of a medieval
samurai battling a fierce warrior monk, villagers used a computer model to
place more than 8,000 stakes to guide them in planting rice plants that have
been genetically engineered to produce three more colors – dark red, yellow and
white.

The images have become so intricate
and detailed that the mayor, Koyu Suzuki, says visitors often ask if they are
actually drawn on the paddies with paints. He said it is the surprise factor
that brings people here, and that the villagers believe they must produce ever
more intricate pictures for tourists to keep coming back.

“We have no sea and no mountains,
but what we do have plenty of is rice,” said Suzuki, 70. “We have to create a
tourism industry using our own ingenuity.”
Residents of Inakadate (pronounced ee-NAH-kah-dah-tay) hope the paddy art will
revitalize their declining village. Like much of rural Japan, the village has
fallen on hard times from a shrinking population, a crushing debt load and
declining revenues from agriculture.

“So many things have gone wrong,
but the paddy art lets the community feel together again,” said Kumiko Kudo,
73, who runs a noodle restaurant.

So far, the village has failed to
turn its accomplishments on the rice paddies to its financial benefit. The
visitors who now flood the village during the summer growing season, when the
rice stalks grow tall enough for the pictures to become visible, do not spend
much.

“Tourists come, say how wonderful
it is and then just leave,” said Katsuaki Fukushi, the head of the village
hall’s economic section.

Before the paddy art, the village’s
only claim to fame was the discovery here in 1981 of the archaeological remains
of 2,000-year-old rice paddies, making it one of the oldest rice-growing
regions in sparsely populated northern Japan. The village tried to capitalize
on the discovery by building a Neolithic-themed amusement park during the
better economic times of the 1980s, when Tokyo generously showered regions with
money for public works.

The public works spigot has since
dried up, and the park now sits weed-filled and often empty. The park is one
reason the village is now saddled with a debt of $106 million, three times as
large as its total annual budget.

Villagers say the less expensive
paddy art is better suited to the current leaner era. The paddies cost just
$35,000 per year to rent, plant and maintain. While the village does not charge
visitors to see the paddy art, it does ask for donations, which last year brought
in $70,000, more than enough to cover the costs.

On a recent afternoon, throngs of
visitors crowded an observation deck at the top of the village hall, which is
built in the shape of a medieval Japanese castle, to see the paddy art below.
Most praised Inakadate for its ingenuity.

“Other parts of Japan need to learn
this spirit,” said Masako Sato, 69, a retired teacher from Akita, five hours
away.

Volunteers plant and maintain the
paddies. In the spring, some 1,200 villagers turned up to plant the half dozen
paddies for this year’s paddy art. That is a far cry from the first paddy art
in 1993, when Hanada and 20 fellow workers from the village hall made a simple,
two-coloured design representing a nearby mountain.

Along the way, the project has
learned from its mistakes. In 2003, a picture of the Mona Lisa ended up looking
“pregnant,” Suzuki said, because she was too narrow at the top and bloated at
the bottom.
To correct the sense of perspective, the villagers asked a high school teacher
here to use a computer to map out where to plant the rice stalks so the
pictures would have proper proportions when viewed from atop village hall.

The village has also spawned
imitators. At least a half dozen other communities across Japan now create
pictures in paddies, though none appear to be as intricate as Inakadate’s.

Feeling that they have been left to
fend for themselves by Tokyo’s spending cuts, villagers say they must find ways
to capitalize on the influx of visitors. Yozo Kikuchi, the head of the chamber
of commerce, says the village must develop new souvenirs. True to form in
Japan, they include a cute mascot, a smiling grain of rice named Little Mr.
Rice-Rice.

The mayor has grander plans. He
envisions increasing the number of paddy art sites and building new facilities
for visitors, including possibly a flower-lined road, to turn Inakadate into an
“art village.”
“We used to treat economic benefits as an afterthought,” said Eiji Kudo, head
of the village council. “Now we realize how important they are.”

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