An Art Lover's Paradise in Niigata, at the Echigo Tsumari Art Fields
While Niigata prefecture is most famous for its rice and ski slopes, it should be on any art lover’s travel list. Echigo Tsumari Triennale in the Tokamachi area of Niigata is one of the largest art festivals in the world, and the festival showcases contemporary art by artists from all over the world. Human’s relationship to nature is a large theme of the artworks displayed; many of the outdoor installations are intended to cause the viewer to reflect on nature and the environment, and much care is given to ensure that the art blends into the environment.
The festival and art projects are also an attempt to revive the community in an area where many towns are facing declining populations. Abandoned houses and schools have been repurposed to house exhibits, and local participation is highly valued; in fact, when entering the Matsudai Nobutai Museum, you will be greeted with a video of local Matsudai residents welcoming you. Visiting the Echigo Tsumari art fields is a great way to learn about and support rural Japan as well as, of course, enjoy some spectacular art.
The main festival is held once every three years, with the next one in 2018. Shorter and smaller art festivals are also held every summer and winter. However, even if you can’t come during the main festival, there are many permanent outdoor installations that can be visited year round. Additionally, there are three museums in the area that are always open and often host special exhibits regardless of the season.
The art is spread out over a wide area that is divided into six regions. Most of the highlights are clustered in the Tokamachi and Matsudai areas, and the former is the town center so it makes for a good base and place to stay the night. It’s possible to see all the highlights in two days, but as there are over 100 pieces in the region, a longer stay is better for those who want to see more.
A car is the best way to explore the area as many of the pieces are fairly remote. While there are shuttles during the festival, during the off season many of the pieces are only accessible by car. There are rental agencies in Tokamachi or you can drive from Niigata (1.5 hours or 2.5 without tolls) or Joetsu (1.5 hours), Nagaoka (1 hour) or Echigo-Yuzawa Station (45 minutes). For those without, it is possible to see two of the museums as they are near public transport, and bike rentals are available around Tokamachi Station.
Kawanishi: Nakago Green Park Area
If you've been to Naoshima or Kanazawa, you've likely encountered works by American artist James Turnell. House of Light is easily his most impressive in Japan, and it is one of the most famous pieces in the area. On the top of a hill sits a pretty wooden house that is lovely all on its own. When you enter you will be invited to sit or lay down on the tatami floor and watch as the ceiling moves away to reveal the sky. It certainly makes for a striking image, and you are allowed to stay for as long as you want. You can also explore the Japanese inspired house. For a more unique experience groups can even stay in the house overnight, and a light show is held every sunset. For day visitors, entrance is 500 yen, and it is open form 11:30-15:30.
Right down the hill is Homage to Rachel Carson by Japanese artist Yoshiko Fujiwara. The work consists of four metal sculptures entitled Shrine, Donkey, Rabbit, and Birdman. As the name implies, they were built to honor the legacy of Rachel Carson, the environmentalist who wrote the book Silent Spring.
For Lots of Lost Windows by Japanese artist Akiko Utsumi is essentially a window set up in the middle of nowhere. The location amongst mountains and fields is beautiful, and seeing it through a detached window frame is an unique experience. Her intention was to create something that highlights the beautiful scenery without disturbing it, and at this she succeeds; while a window is certainly not something you expect to find in the middle of a field, gazing at the landscape through it does make you consider it more thoroughly. It’s a striking sight, and the work creates a peaceful place to consider and appreciate Niigata’s rural landscapes.
One of my favorites is Fichte by German Tobias Rehberger. It is hidden in the woods and after a short walk, you will come across this library. There are benches, lights, and bookshelves filled with Japanese translations of German literature. You are free to sit and relax with one of the books in the quiet of the forest. Even if you can't read Japanese, finding the library feels like you've stumbled into a fairy tale, and this charming work was quite magical to behold. For those coming by car (or those willing to walk 25 minutes from Matsudai station), the car park and trail entrance is right by WD Spiral Part III Magic Theater by Hermann Maier Neustadt, another German. It is a set of three large tubes that are big enough to walk through. It's an interesting piece to explore as each tube, while interconnected, is still different from the others.
The area around the Matsudai Nobutai Museum is one of the most accessible parts as it is a short walk from Matsudai station. The museum costs 600 yen (which includes the nearby History Museum in a converted old house) and often has interesting special exhibits. The best pieces, however, are outdoors, located within walking distance of the museum. There are countless outdoor installations, and you can easily spend half a day wandering through the museum and the surrounding park. For me, there were four that particularly stood out. The first is Tsumari in Bloom by renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. As the name implies, it is a beautiful fantastical flower sculpture. It's huge, colorful, and joyous, and you will recognize her trademark dots. It's built into the grass as if it were really blooming, and it's surrounded by real flowers.
For Japanese literature fans, The Restaurant Gives Orders by another Japanese artist, Mio Shirai, is sure to stand out. The Restaurant Gives Orders is based off the Japanese story "The Restaurant of Many Orders" by Miyazawa Kenji. In the story, two men stumble across a restaurant where they proceed through a series of doors, each with an increasingly odd request written on them. The piece is a series of doors exactly as described in the story. The doors, while obviously not leading anywhere, are perfectly functional so you can walk through them, and even follow some of the orders if you’re feeling brave. It’s great fun to walk through if you're familiar with the story (and if you can read Japanese as there is no English). The story is easy to find online if you haven’t read it, and it is worth a read even if you don’t visit this piece.
Another highlight is Reverse City by Belgium/Cameroon artist Pascale Marthine Tayou. In this installation, numerous colored pencils are suspended upside down from about two meters above ground. On each pencil, a country name is written. You can walk both around and under the pencils. The result is a world that is very colorful, albeit slightly frightening when viewed from below. It reminded me of a quirkier version of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki. It's colorful and cheerful and sure to bring a smile to your face.
Lastly, one of the most famous pieces in the whole Tokamachi area is Rice Field from Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabokov. It is an unique combination of sculpture, nature, and poetry that honors Niigata’s rural culture while nodding to the sad reality of its declining population. Bright figures of people farming have been placed on a rice terrace. From a free viewing platform in the museum, you can see a poem about agriculture hanging down so the text blends seamlessly over the scene. You can also walk over to the rice field and get a closer look at the figures themselves.
These are just some of the options in the area. You can also find Space Slitar, a combination slide guitar and sitar that you can play, and the adorable Geronpa, frog shaped machines that eat weeds. When I visited, there was also a huge impressive cow made of hay, and you can also a find a small, pretty temple behind the rice fields. From the museum, you can get a map that shows all the art in the area.
Kinare is the main museum of contemporary art and at only 800 yen, it is quite affordable too. There are quite a few interesting pieces in the permanent collection. One of the first that you encounter is called Tunnel by Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich. It's a quirky, surreal bit of trick art that really does make you feel like you've been transported out of the museum. One of my favorites was Lost #6 by Ryota Kuwakubo. A model train with lights attached travels through a dark room. Old machinery parts and found objects are placed around the tracks so when the light hits them, the shadows cast on the wall resemble a rural landscape. It's fascinating and beautiful, and I found myself watching the train make its loop numerous times. There are other nice pieces here, and it is one of my favorite contemporary art museums in Japan. For those without a car, access is possible via a 10-15 minute walk from Tokamachi Station. The museum is located right across from the Tokamachi roadside stop, where you can buy all kinds of local products and souvenirs.
Restructure by Japanese artist Harumi Yukutake was the piece I was most looking forward to seeing, and it did not disappoint. This work consists of a small house covered in thousands of hand cut mirrors. The result is incredibly striking and surreal, and at times, the house blends in almost perfectly with its surroundings. During the off season, you unfortunately can't enter the the structure to see the interior that is also covered in mirrors. However walking around it is enough to delight, and it remains one of the most memorable pieces that I’ve seen in Japan.
Kiss and Goodbye are two works by Taiwanese artist Jimmy Liao that are adjacent to Echigo Mizusawa and Doichi Stations. Both are beautifully decorated warehouses inspired by his picture book. In the first, an orphaned boy travels by train with his dog; the warehouse is painted to look like the dog, with the boy riding on top. In the other, the warehouse becomes the train with animals peering out through the windows. While you can peek into the interiors, they are only open at select times of the year. It's still worth seeing both as these fantastical works are so fun and colorful that they are sure to put a smile on your face, even if the weather is terrible, as it was on my visit. Their location by the train station means it is possible to see them without a car, but the trains unfortunately only run once every two hours or so, and it is a 40 minute walk between the two.
Of the three museums in the area, Seizo Tashima's Picture Book Art museum is hands down the best. The museum is built into an abandoned elementary school, and the artist filled it with giant characters made from driftwood that he found near the school. It is an attempt to recreate life in the school, and the strange brightly colored creations fit into the setting beautifully; it feels like you stepped into the mind of a child. You will find students, of course, but also unique monsters that are more delightful than scary and vines weaving through the halls and classrooms. It is the perfect example of the festival goals as it revives and reclaims this abandoned spot in an amazingly creative and fitting way. I was charmed the moment I stepped into the museum via the old gym, and while I admittedly couldn’t figure out the story, I didn’t care. It’s easily the most creative museum I have ever seen, and it is worth visiting Tokamachi just to see it. Special exhibits and events are held throughout most of the year though it is closed during the winter. For those without a car, access is possible by bus from Tokamachi, getting off at Hachi (鉢) Station, but times are infrequent. You can check the timetable here (PDF).
Bijinbayashi is the perfect palate cleanser, and it's just as beautiful as any of the works of art. The name of this forest translates to "beautiful woman" and the beech trees are indeed stunning. There are numerous walking paths through the 3 hectares of forest, and it's a serene place to wander through no matter the season. It’s a lush green in the warmer months, but the red leaves or snow covered trees are just as stunning. If you are in the area, it's worth a stop to try shinrin-yoku or forest bathing-relaxing and rejuvenating via a walk in the forest. The forest is also close to Kyororo, the area’s science museum. The museum is especially striking in winter when it is buried in snow, and you can see the accumulated snow through large windows in the museum.
While Niigata is rather out of the way and certainly off the beaten path, it is well worth the trek. As someone who doesn’t always get modern art, I was still delighted, awed, and intrigued by the amazing pieces on display here. The art is all the more striking due to Niigata’s stunning rural location, and the festival is a lovely tribute to the resilience and spirit of the local population. The pieces introduced here is just a taste of what the area has to offer, and there are many more things to see. You can check the website here to see all of the events and openings.