INAKADATE, Aomori — It is an important part of Japanese cuisine, paired with raw fish at every sushi restaurant.
Rice is Japan's "go-to" food. But if you want to see rice in a new way head north. Aomori promotes itself as having "ideal sunlight, bountiful pure water and cool summers." These are perfect conditions to grow rice.
"Northern Japan is rice country," said Philip Barbieri, an American citizen who has lived in Aomori 45 years. "Rice is everything here."
But who would have thought the field of the country's most important crop could also be used as a canvas.
"We came up with the idea of making art in the rice fields. We want people to know our rice," said Nakayama Shizuko, who helps oversee the planting of rice in the fields of Inakadate Village.
Every year, the village chooses a theme for the rice paddies. Designers take 20-to-30 hours to create the image on a computer. Workers then go into the field to create the design.
"We draw the picture with tape on the dirt. It's like color by numbers. Then we start planting using different varieties of rice," said Shizuko.
"It takes them about 10 days to work in the rice field," said Barbieri. "They're very intricate. There are more than ten different kinds of rice they use with different colors that you see."
Japanese Rice Paddy Art
"This year the theme is an NHK drama," said Yamamoto Atsushi, who has created Inakadate rice paddy art designs for 17 years.
"Gone with the Wind was my favorite," Atsushi said. "It was a real challenge because there were so many details. There was so much work to turn my picture into art. It was very complicated. It's my greatest work."
Atsushi admits it took time to learn how to create pictures in a rice field.
"In 2003, we did Mona Lisa," Atsushi said. "But we didn't understand perspective. So she came out looking very fat. Everyone said 'fat Mona Lisa, fat Mona Lisa'. We were embarrassed. So we studied perspective and got it right the next year."
The paintings are boosting tourism in this part of Japan. Inakadate village started a "Rice Growing Experience Tour" in 1993 to showcase traditional rice planting and harvesting in an area where the oldest rice field was discovered 2,100 years ago.
Now, more than 100,000 people come every year to see Japanese characters and television shows plus famous Hollywood stars planted in the paddies.
"That's the year (2013) the one with Marilyn Monroe with the blow up skirt over the manhole cover," said Barbieri. "I was blown away. It was unbelievable."
Iconic images featuring Godzilla, Star Wars and Mt. Fuji have also been planted in the rice fields.
It may be growing along the countryside and eaten in every Japanese restaurant.
"The words for conversation for breakfast, lunch and dinner are morning rice, noon rice and evening rice," said Barbieri.
But the king crop and "must have" food is also being used as Japan's most unique artwork.
"I think it's stupendous. When it first happened, I saw it and thought what an idea. What an idea. What an idea. Who would ever think to make a picture in a rice field," said Barbieri.