Japanese Village Creates Living Rice Paddy Art

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 
rice paddy art
A large depiction of an oiran, a high-class courtesan, left, and an image of actress Marilyn Monroe from the film "The Seven Year Itch," were created using nine different colored varieties of rice plants in 2013. STR/AFP/Getty Images

The rice paddies of the tiny village of Inakadate in rural Japan are a sea of swaying green, yellow, white, ochre and purple stalks, but they also hold a secret that draws thousands of visitors every year — and it's only revealed with a bird's eye view.

From a skyward position on a nearby observation tower, visitors can view intricate artworks, freshly created each year. The rice paddy art, known as tanbo art (tanbo means paddy or rice field), has included incredibly detailed reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," as well as Japanese artist Seiki Kuroda's painting, "Lakeside." These two pictures, along with many other images over the years, are created by a carefully designed planting of different types of rice in various hues.

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The village of Inakadate is located in Japan's Aomori Prefecture. It's about 370 miles (600 kilometers) north of Tokyo and close to Hirosaki, a city known for its cherry blossoms. Inakadate's rice paddy art, however, may soon become the prefecture's main attraction. Throughout the years, the rice art has recreated incredibly detailed images ranging from Marilyn Monroe and Star Wars to samurai and anime characters.

How Did the Rice Paddy Art Tradition Get Started?

The village's rice paddy art tradition began in 1993 when purple and yellow rice shoots were planted by about 20 volunteers to form its first famous image — Mt. Iwaki, a three-peaked mountain about 932 miles (1,500 kilometers) from Inakadate. Since then, the tourist trade has become so vital to the rural village that officials constructed an observation tower at a nearby government building so visitors could view the artwork from above during its peak season: mid-June until early October.

Fast forward to the present, and Inakadate's rice art is an attraction as staple as the rice dishes offered by nearby vendors. Visitors pay between 300 and 500 yen (between $2.50 and $4) to view the tanbo art, while some tourists pay to take part in a harvesting experience at the conclusion of the rice paddy's growing season.

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How Is It Done?

A year in advance, Inakadate officials and volunteers agree on the designs to recreate, then former high school art teacher Atsushi Yamamoto transforms the selected photographs, film images, wood cuts or paintings into designs that can be recreated using just seven different colors of rice plants. While mapping the design, Yamamoto calculates changes in perspective that allow the art to be viewed from its ideal vantage point in the observation tower.

Before the various colors of rice shoots can be planted, survey equipment is used in the rice paddy to mark the dimensions and boundaries of the design. Once these flags are in place each spring, 1,300 volunteers methodically plant specific types of rice shoots grown from rice seeds planted earlier. Weeks later, a dedicated weeding takes place, as well as a replanting of any areas that may have been missed. As the rice plants grow and mature, their height and colors change almost daily and then reach peak viewing range in July and August (although the season, including harvest, runs through October).

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The resulting rice paddy artwork currently draws about 200,000 people who want to witness the designs firsthand each year. In 2016, a rice paddy likeness of Godzilla was so popular that 340,000 people came to see it. In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Inakadate planted rice to form the words, "One for all, all for one."

The concept of tanbo art, created first in Inakadate, has now spread to about 100 other places in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. In Inakadate, tanbo art has lifted the village from obscurity to international fame.

rice paddy art
Godzilla was the theme of 2016, drawing 340,000 visitors to Inakadate.
Vassamon Anansukkasem/Shutterstock

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