Anyone can see that tourism is a great thing for a town to generate. Big cities like New York City or Las Vegas have the obvious man-made tourist attractions that bring in huge crowds each year. Remote sites aren't out of the tourism game, either; nature is its own attraction after all. The Grand Canyon, for instance, receives nearly five million visitors each year!
Unfortunately for most towns, sights as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon or the Empire State Building are few and far between. So, what are they to do to drum up some interest (and economic opportunity)? That was the problem Inakadate, a small, rural community in Japan, was facing 20 years ago. The sleepy town had a lot of agricultural assets, but they drew very little attention from anyone but locals. Then, Koichi Hanada, a village clerk, came up with an idea.
He was walking around the village one day and was suddenly inspired by some children playing in one of the many local rice paddies. As part of a school project, they were planting different varieties of rice: one with dark purple stalks and one with bright green.
It hit him; they should plant rice in such a way that the produce would form pictures and words after they sprouted.
The first presentation, a simple two-colored design depicting a mountain, was created by Hanada and just 20 volunteers from the village. Now, over a thousand people come together to plant the increasingly complex designs.
There aren't just more volunteers now; there are increasingly huge crowds that come to the village each year to see the designs. In 2009, officials numbered the visitors to the paddy art as over 170,000!
With more complex images, there is also a more complex method. After a disastrous attempt at recreating the famous Mona Lisa, the villagers began using a computer to map out exactly where each stalk should be planted to achieve their design goal.
Although they are proud of their town's claim to fame, the villagers definitely feel the pressure of making each year better than the last. Mayor Koyu Suzuki attributed the massive amounts of return visitors to the surprise factor of each year's design.
"We have no sea and no mountains, but what we do have plenty of is rice. We have to create a tourism industry using our own ingenuity," he explains.
The designs are chosen from a variety of inspirations. They often include writing and the images are sometimes traditional ... other times, not so much.
The villagers haven't quite figured out how to translate the huge influx of visitors into a big economic boon. They don't charge to see the rice art displays, after all.
They do ask for donations, however, which brought in about $70,000 in 2009.
With the cost of renting the paddies and planting and maintaining the rice adding up to only $35,000, they do make a profit, but villagers report that tourists do not seem to spend much time or money in Inakadate after viewing the fields.
They do receive respect and admiration, though, for their displays. "Other parts of Japan need to learn this spirit," Masako Sato, a resident of Akita, a city a few hours away from Inakadate, said.
Other towns have given tambo, or rice paddy art, a shot but none have been as successful or popular as Inakadate.
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