In some regions of Japan, this time of year marks the peak of the annual rice harvest season. Traditionally, Japanese farmers have reused leftover rice straw (“wara” in Japanese), a byproduct of the harvest, to feed livestock and better the soil. Artisans have used it for making tatami mats and other household objects. But over time, technology has replaced these traditions with the utilization of industrial materials, leaving farmers with enormous amounts of dry rice straw for which they have no use.
In the coastal region of Niigata Prefecture, a major rice-growing area, the Wara Art Festival brings a creative solution to this problem: enchanting, oversized sculptures of animals and mythical creatures made exclusively of rice straw. The straw sculptures are designed by students from Tokyo’s Musashino Art University and installed in collaboration with local residents in Niigata. After a year of hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival is now back for its 13th edition, welcoming visitors at the local Uwasekigata Park through October 31.
Founded in 2007, the Wara Art Festival is organized jointly by Niigata City’s local tourism council and the Musashino Art University. It is the brainchild of Shingo Miyajima, a professor at the Department of Science and Design at Musashino, who in 2006 was asked by Niigata’s farming community to think of a solution to the problem of unused rice straw. The professor came up with a creative idea: monumental animal sculptures supported by wooden frames. Since then, the festival has become a major tourist attraction in the region.
Rising from the fields, the mammoth artworks can climb to the height of 30 feet. The exhibition features menacing, sharp-toothed beasts and dragons alongside endearing apes and elephants. This year’s displays also include a representation of an Amabie, a beaked mermaid or merman from Japanese mythology.
Ideal for a family trip, the festival’s Facebook page shows visitors of all ages posing for pictures inside the open jaws of a crocodile or in the lap of a giant gorilla. The festival has only one request from visitors to ensure the safety of the displays: Please don’t fly drones in the park!