From ground level, the scene looks like a lot of rural Japan: rice paddies with tender shoots in shades of green, rippling in the wind and stretching off into the horizon.
Ascend the viewing platform and something starts to emerge. Patches of pale green and reddish brown start to take shape in a detailed image of Godzilla mid-attack.
It almost looks as though the monster could rise out of the field and start crushing the little houses under his feet, perhaps crunching a few humans in his well-defined teeth.
Hundreds of thousands of people are flocking to the village of Inakadate, in Japan’s northern Aomori Prefecture, to see this unique art-form.
Tanbo Art, which translates to ‘rice paddy art’, consists of thousands of strategically planted rice shoots grown to produce field-sized, living, 3D paintings.
The imaginative undertaking started in 1992, when the then-mayor instructed his staff to think of an event that would draw crowds to the village.
Takatoshi Asari of the village tourism and planning division explains: “One employee had seen an elementary school rice paddy that was planted with yellow, purple and green rice plants in a striped pattern, and thought, ‘What if we planted a field with three colours of rice plants to make a drawing with text?’ There was no concept of art at the time.”
In this remote village of 8000 people, rice is a cornerstone of life. It has been cultivated for around 2000 years; Inakadate’s official flower is inenohana, or rice flower; and the village song also features the rice flower.
The first year, about 100 villagers helped plant the rice. The result was a simple geometric representation of nearby Mt Iwaki, with the words ‘Rice Culture Village Inakadate’ in Japanese.
Very few spectators turned up. Realising they needed to create something more impressive, “every year, we increased the colours of rice plants that were used, and the technology for creating the art improved,” Asari said.
Atsushi Yamamoto, the art teacher at the village school, is in charge of drawing the plans.
“In 2003 there was a plan to make a rice paddy artwork of Mona Lisa, but it was complicated,” he explained.
Yamamoto drew the Mona Lisa design, with mixed success. The perspective was off, and some said the famous mystery woman looked fat.
“At the beginning when I started rice paddy art, there were some failures, but after some trial and error, I gained experience, and now, the rice paddy art comes out the way it’s envisioned,” he said.
The project has come a long way since Mt Iwaki and Mona Lisa. Tanbo Art now has a planning process, which starts in autumn after the rice harvest, and is wrapped up in April, a month or so before planting commences, explained mayor Koyu Suzuki.
“We try to choose a design that will be enjoyable to many different people,” Suzuki said.
Next, Yamamoto makes the drawing, and a survey company in the village produces a computer-aided blueprint, which helps ensure the perspective will look right when viewed from the observation points.
Planting occurs in late spring, and the paddies grow from May to October.
“There are 12 varieties of rice plants used, and seven colours. Right after planting the seeds, you can’t tell the difference between the colours, but once the rice plants start growing, you can tell the difference quite distinctly,” said Inakadate tourism chief Masaru Fukushi, who is also in charge of paddy maintenance.
The images begin to emerge from the mud sometime in June, but the living paintings reach peak splendour in July and August, when the viewing areas are crowded with spectators.
From humble numbers in the 1990s, a total of 340,000 visitors came to the two viewing sites in 2016. The town has even built a railway station and viewing tower to accommodate sightseers.
Over the years themes have included scenes from Star Wars and Gone with the Wind, but the villagers now tend toward Japanese motifs.
Last year the main pictures were Godzilla and actors from Sanada Maru, a popular historical samurai TV show.
Suzuki was coy when asked for a hint of this year’s artwork, but did say that “it will be a Japanese-style design.”