From ground level, it didn’t look like much. In fact, the scene looked 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. Bucolic, surely, but nothing unusual.

But as I ascended the viewing platform and took the longer view, something started to emerge. What had been patches of pale green and reddish brown started to take shape into a detailed tableau of Godzilla mid-attack, in a scene so sprawling it wouldn’t fit into my camera’s normal frame. It was so impressive it almost looked as though the monster would rise up out of the field and start crushing the little houses in the distance under his feet, perhaps crunching a few humans in his well-defined teeth.

This astonishing art form is something that hundreds of thousands of people are flocking to the village of Inakadate, in Japan’s northern Aomori Prefecture, to see.

Tanbo Art, which translates to ‘Rice Paddy Art’, consists of thousands of strategically planted rice shoots grown in concert to produce field-sized, living, 3D paintings. The imaginative undertaking started back 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’s tourism and planning division explained that “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.”

When I asked my guide Hiroki Fukushi, “Why rice?”, he replied: “This is a village with nothing but rice fields. So we thought, let’s do with what we have.”

In this remote village of just more than 8,000 people, rice agriculture is a cornerstone of life. Rice has been cultivated in the area for around 2,000 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 to plant the rice there. 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 that 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.

“My aunt worked at the village hall. In the year of Heisei 15 [2003], there was a plan to make a rice-paddy artwork of Mona Lisa, but it was complicated,” he explained. Unsure of how to create the more ambitious picture compared to the simple Mt Iwaki that they had been doing for 10 years, the village council came to seek his expertise.

Yamamoto drew the Mona Lisa plans, with mixed success. The perspective was off, and some said that 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 certainly come a long way since Mt Iwaki and Mona Lisa. The annual Tanbo Art now has a planning process, which starts in autumn after rice harvest and is wrapped up in April, a month or so before planting commences, explained the village mayor, Koyu Suzuki.

“The theme is decided at the Village Revitalization Promotion Council. 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 design (CAD) blueprint, which helps ensure that the perspective of the artwork will look right when viewed from the observation points.

The planting occurs in late spring, and the paddies, in two locations in the village, 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 section 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 the humble numbers of the 1990s, a total of 340,000 visitors came to the two viewing sites in 2016. The town has even built a train station, Tanbo Art Station, and a special viewing tower to accommodate all the people.

The themes over the years have included scenes from Star Wars and Gone with the Wind, but increasingly, the villagers are tending toward Japanese motifs. In 2016, the year I visited, the main pictures were of Godzilla and actors from the TV drama Sanada Maru, a historical samurai show that was popular last year.

Suzuki was coy when I asked for a hint of this year’s artwork, but did say that “it will be a Japanese style design. Like something out of the Kojiki [Japan’s oldest extant text, dating from the 8th Century].”

The Kojiki and rice: what could be more quintessential Japan?

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