I recently read the fascinating story of Inakadate, a small village in northern Japan struggling against a global economic downturn.  The rural community with a population of fewer than 10,000 people had none of the charismatic landscapes that typically drive tourism. Twenty years ago a clerk in the Town Hall was asked to figure out how to bring that very thing to the bucolic village surrounded by rice paddies and apple orchards.

The story goes that Mr. Koichi Hanada saw school children planting purple and bright green rice as a class project when it occurred to him that the varied hues could be used like a natural artist’s palette.

The idea was so successful that decades later over a hundred thousand people visit the village annually. Each year the designs have gotten more and more elaborate, the success of which is particularly suited to the Japanese culture of precision and of the importance of the Oryza sativa plant itself within the national psyche.

The “Crop Art” has brought the community together, where volunteers plant and maintain the paddies. The first year Mr. Hanada and a few dozen workers planted a simple design, but in recent years participation has grown to over 1,000 villagers planting and maintaining a half-dozen paddies with ever more elaborate images. (So elaborate that they’ve asked a local teacher to assist with a computer image to assist in mapping out the image as a planting pattern.)

On the one hand the project is part of the annual cycle of planting and harvesting, but it isn’t as sustainable as the village chamber of commerce would like.  Despite the flood of tourists during the growing season the community has yet to fully reap a financial benefit from their labors.  (Visitors aren’t charged admission to view the paddy art, but donations are requested–in recent years Inakadate has received enough to more than cover the costs of planting, as well as the observation deck required to view the images from above.)

If the project brought the community together, the next goal was to come up with ideas to increase the economic benefits for the village. Souvenirs chopsticks anyone?

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