Sometimes the best ideas come from failure.
In 1981, archaeologists digging near Inakadate, Japan, discovered evidence of rice cultivation dating back 2,000 years. Hoping to lure tourists, this small town of about 8,000 residents built an amusement park based on New Stone Age history. The tourists failed to arrive, however, and by 1993, $106 million dollars of debt forced town leaders back to the drawing board.
Going with the Grain
A clerk in the town hall had the ingenious idea to honor Inakadate’s rice-growing legacy by using fields nearby as a blank canvas for painting in rice. Including four strains of this staple in hues of yellow, white, dark red, and green, villagers planted the paddy according to precise coordinates. From May to October, as the rice grows, an image emerges. As the rice matures, the colors deepen.
At first only simple designs were used, such as the outline of a mountain with some kanji (characters in Japanese writing). As the Tanbo paddy art grew in popularity, so did the villagers’ skills, resulting in more complicated illustrations that change every year. From geishas to Godzilla to Gone with the Wind, current designs attract hundreds of thousands of tourists.
Inakadate officials built a 22-meter observation tower attached to the town hall that allows access free of charge. Donations are accepted, however, to cover the $35,000 cost of renting the land. The labor of planting and harvesting is contributed by local residents, even though it can take 1200 people to produce one design. Meticulously covering 15,000 square meters with seedlings is a lot of work!
A New Perspective
A notable year was 2003 when planners attempted to draw more visitors by recreating Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. Although a successful reimagining, because the vertical perspective hadn’t been accounted for, visitors thought her head looked too small for her body. That’s when planners learned that they needed to skew the drawing so that it looked proportional from the viewer’s angle.
The success of Inakadate has led other rural Japanese towns to requisition rice paddies for artistic revenue generation. Although each site attracts tourists, any profit is relatively modest. Selling space for advertisements was considered only once and ultimately voted down, so the fields remain non-commercial testimonies to human enterprise, persistence, and creativity.