Every year in Niigata, Japan, an exhibit by farmers and young artists shows that you can make more with rice straw than just haybales.
The Wara Art Festival features larger-than-life sculptures made from leftover rice straw, known as “wara.” The event took a hiatus in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has returned this year in time for its 13th anniversary.
There’s a whole new collection of handmade sculptures displayed at Uwasekigata Park, including a bear, walrus, eagle, and squid, to name a few.
The annual event started several years ago when the farmers of Nishikan Ward (formerly Iwamuro Village) were looking for ways to dispose of unused straw from their rice harvest.
Rice straw has been present in Japanese daily life since ancient times. It’s composted after being tilled from the earth and used as fodder for livestock. It’s also used to make traditional Japanese decorations and zori sandals.
During the winter in the past, farmers who were unable to do farm work relied on creating crafts from rice straw to make a living while they waited for the cold months to pass.
However, the rice straw culture gradually faded due to lifestyle changes and the modernization of agriculture. Today, only very few people know straw art processing techniques.
One of the traditional techniques that are slowly vanishing is Toba-Ami, which is used for processing rice straw for Wara Art. Rice straw in its natural loose state can’t be used to make art, so Niskihan Ward farmers weave them in a sheet shape (Toba-Ami).
As a new way of using rice straw, Niigata City and Musashino Art University (aka “Musabi” in Japan) teamed up to create “Wara Art” in 2006, at the suggestion of Shingo Miyajima, a professor at Musabi at the time.
Two years later, the Wara Art Festival was started as an event to exhibit the creations of Tokyo art students and farmers from Nishikan Ward.
At first, Musabi students struggled with handling rice straw, but with the help of the local craftspeople and farmers, they were able to adjust and learn to create art with it.
With the fusion of these young people’s artistic sensibilities and the locals’ traditional techniques, they were able to produce impressive art creations.
Another important aspect of the Wara Art project is the relationship built between urban young people and the agricultural community of Nishikan Ward.
Every year, Musabi students are invited to form Wara Art creation teams at the university. The students brainstorm motifs and designs for the art, and the craftspeople in Nishikan Ward make the artwork frames based on that.
They also harvest the rice straw required for the Wara Art Festival, which they hand over to the students.
While creating the sculptures, the students stay in Nishikan Ward to get advice from the craftspeople and farmers. They also eat the local cuisine they prepare. This way, the relationship between the two parties further deepens as they complete the artworks.
Their relationship continues even after the work is done and the students have returned to Tokyo. The farmers receive postcards from them each year, and others visit Nishikan Ward after they graduate.
This year’s Wara Art Festival theme is “Lucky things that bring vitality to those who see them.” According to the Niigata City website, the giant rice straw sculptures “will show you a completely alternate universe that explores the theme of what it would be “If” a things were different.”
The exhibit will run until October 31, 2021, at Uwasekigata Park.
Check out the gallery below to see the gigantic straw creatures displayed in the Wara Art Festival this year and in previous years.