The southern Niigata town of Tokamachi is little more than two hours on the Shinkansen from Tokyo’s Ueno Station, but it feels like a world away. Hidden in terraced green valleys and guarded by rugged mountain rivers, here the booming chaos of Tokyo’s garish neons and heavy human traffic seem almost absurd by comparison.
The patterns of life in Tokamachi are shaped by snow. Lots of it. This corner of Japan receives some of the heaviest snowfalls anywhere in the world. It’s this snow that fuels the rivers, giving them energy to carve out the dramatic landscape, and instilling into the people who live here the kind of resilience and ingenuity required to settle and work such terrain for such a long time. As with many other rural communities in Japan, however, the city is never as far away as it seems. Tokamachi’s population is in decline, with the young people increasingly drawn to the attractions of city life.
In recent years, progressive Tokamachi locals have been calling upon the same resilience and ingenuity to redress this balance, using the region’s amazing landscapes to showcase a world-class arts scene, forward-thinking social projects, and a history of human settlement that is among the oldest in Japan.
Tokamachi City Museum
Those who like a rumour may enjoy the one about our ancestors on the hunt being lead from the Korean Peninsula to northern and southern Japan before meeting somewhere around present day Tokamachi. Before rising waters isolated Japan from mainland Asia. A rumour, maybe, but what remains true is that Tokamachi and its surrounds lend themselves to excavation and preservation. Rivers in these parts have turned up all manner of archeological finds preserved for millennia by the snow.
Exhibits at the Tokamachi City Museum center on themes of the Shinano River, snow, and textiles. The proudest of the museum’s collections is its displays of Kaen pottery; earthenware vessels dating back 5000 years to the middle Jōmon period. The vessels, with their dramatic flame-like flourishes, have been designated National Treasures of Japan. In fact, so proud are locals of these stunning pieces, the museum sent a delegate to the 2016 Rio Olympics to propose their Kaen pottery be the basis for Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch designs.
Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale
As the decorative nature of Kaen pottery shows, the people of Tokamachi have something of the artist in them. Today, they are using this sense of creativity in efforts to regenerate the region, against a background of population decline, lack of public funding, and consolidation of rural administrations. 500 homes here are empty and over 20 of the region’s school subject to closure. In an area encompassing 200 villages, more than 30% of the population is over 65 years of age. Undeterred by such social change, and in a spirited effort to reenergize and reunite disparate communities, the people here organized the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, one of the largest arts festivals in the world.
The last Triennial, in 2015, brought to the region 375 pieces of art, and welcomed half a million visitors from across Japan and around the world. Initial impressions upon visiting the region make such scale hard to believe. After closer consideration of the landscape and people however, things begin to make sense. The landscapes here lend themselves as a canvas for art and are home to a people that know how to combine the two. The evidence is in abundance; from the intricate flames on an otherwise practical Kaen vessel, to the precision layers of a mountainside terrace.
Some 200 artworks and installations remain in the area after 2015’s Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale. The majority are outdoors, embodying the festival’s efforts to reveal relationships between nature and civilization, society and humans. One of the pleasures of a visit here is picking them out from the surrounding fields, forests and mountain slopes.
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