The owner of a hikers' lodge in the Northern Alps in central Japan has been offering up-and-coming artists extended free stays in the hope that the works they create there will help build conversations around the importance of preserving the region's natural resources.
Jiro Ito, 41, says the only condition he imposes on artists staying at Kumonodaira Mountain Hut, located in a remote mountainous area stretching across Nagano, Gifu and Toyama prefectures, is that they agree to display their works at exhibitions he organizes and on other occasions.
Upkeep of the area's mountain trails and natural surroundings is usually "thrown in the lap" of hut owners, who receive little help from national or local governments despite the area belonging to a national park, he says.
In late September, a select number of artists gathered from various parts of Japan at the lodge, which sits on a plateau at an altitude of 2,600 meters in the deepest part of the Northern Alps.
Photographer Shigeta Kobayashi, 37, came from Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo, and took pictures of a natural pond formed in the peat layer of a marsh for about two weeks.
He said that while looking at the unique topography created by the stark landscape, he felt connected to what he called an "order born out of chaos."
Keiko Hata, 41, an animation creator from Hiroshima Prefecture, made a film using dolls that she maneuvered against a rocky background.
"The Northern Alps is attractive because it has many unknown places," she said.
Ito, who calls Kumonodaira Japan's "last undiscovered region," started the program two years ago, prompted by his concern that the concept of environmental protection has yet to take hold in Japanese society.
Although ostensibly responsible for protecting national parks, the government has long neglected management of the area due to chronic budget and manpower shortages, leaving it up to the volunteer work of lodge operators.
With no improvement in the situation, Ito decided that instead of expecting the government to act, he would make an appeal through art after seeing the experience of Europe and the United States, where he says grassroots movements against ecological destruction have sometimes been born from art.
Ito held an exhibition in Tokyo in April to display works done at Kumonodaira Mountain Hut in the last two years. Some 1,000 people visited the exhibit during its 17-day run.
One commented on "the absolute beauty of the images of nature," while another said, "I'd like to go to the lodge even if it takes 10 hours" to get there.
Earlier this year, Ito also began offering free lodging to scholars to "make use of all perspectives to understand the value of nature more deeply."
Fukachi Furukawa, 40, a graduate school lecturer at Kyushu University, stayed at the lodge for about three weeks to observe work by artists from the viewpoint of cultural anthropology.
"Artists see wetland as a stage, while I see it merely as a wetland. It was an exciting discovery," he said.
Now in the third year of his project, Ito remains focused on creating "a social movement" in which his Kumonodaira Mountain Hut sits on the "frontline."