A Quick Introduction to Echigo-Tsumari, Where Seasonal and Artisan Beauty Abound (Part 1)
One of Japan’s largest international modern art festivals, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, was held in late March of this year in Niigata Prefecture. Many of you may not have heard of it, or perhaps you did but didn’t manage to make it. Regardless, there’s no need to feel like you’ve missed out, because there are artworks installed in the area all throughout the year! Visiting outside the event period gives you a chance to avoid the crowds and focus on the artworks and nature. Keep reading to learn more about Echigo-Tsumari!
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*If you want to skip straight to part 2 (accommodations, recommended artworks, events), click here.
About the Echigo-Tsumari Region
Echigo-Tsumari is the name for the southern region of Niigata Prefecture. It is split up into six areas: Tokamachi, Kawanishi, Nakazato, Matsudai, Matsunoyama, and Tsunan. This region is incredibly well known for its rice fields on mountains and snow-filled scenery.
In Japan, there is a trend of people moving away from rural areas to cities, and this has had a significant effect on the region. It has been experiencing a steady downturn, with depopulation, population aging, and an increase in empty homes and the demolishment of buildings becoming grave issues in the past few years. To combat this, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale was born in 2000. Occuring once every three years, it is an art festival meant to showcase how humans are a part of nature, and in doing so it is working on bringing the region back to life.
How to Get to Echigo-Tsumari
Stopping inside the tunnel of Echigo-Yuzawa might remind you of the beginning of Yasunari Kawabata's famous novel, Snow Country. It starts off with, "The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop." (Translation from Edward G. Seidensticker)
There are two main locations for this event: Tokamachi and Matsudai, both of which have their own train stations. To get to either of these spots from Tokyo, take the JR Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno Station to Echigo Yuzawa Station (approx. 80 minutes). From there, transfer onto the Hokuhoku Line until you reach either destination (approx. 40 minutes).
If you wish to visit other locations that are covered by this festival, go by car or join one of the event's official tours.
Main Spots to Visit in Echigo-Tsumari
1. Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, KINARE
This art museum houses a corridor that is partially exposed to the outdoors - a rarity for regions with heavy snow - as well as a pool of water within its enormous courtyard. Both of these features were designed by Hiroshi Hara, a Japanese architect known for creating the designs of Kyoto Station and the Sapporo Dome. It is designed in one of the simplest geometric shapes, a square, and made unique with unfinished concrete and glass used in numerous ways. The result is a dignified, profound space that matches beautifully with its surroundings.
The large lake surrounded by the museum's corridor looks like it reflects the sky, clouds, and buildings, but if you take a look at it from the second floor, you will unearth its secret: there is a gigantic mirror within the pool of water! It's incredibly interesting to look at it from various angles. If you explore it from one particular angle, you will notice the reflection of the mirror within perfectly matching the natural reflection of the water! The title of this piece is Palimpsest, which refers to manuscripts in the olden days that had the text washed off them so they could be reused for other documents. Fitting, wouldn't you say?
This stunning piece of artwork was crafted by Argentenian Leandro Erlich, who also created the famous Swimming Pool stored at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Most of his artworks are excpetionally unique in the sense that they're three-dimensional, make use of optical illusions, and are made for all to enjoy in their own way.
It only takes 10 minutes to reach the museum from Tokamachi Station. Apart from being one of the main spots of the festival, it also happens to have an exhibition space, onsen (hot spring), cafe, souvenir shop, and more, so visiting this facility is a great way to enjoy the area and its unique features in all sorts of ways.
- Echigo Shinanogawa Bar
On the second floor of the museum, you will find Echigo Shinanogawa Bar. It is actually an art piece created by Massimo Bartolini ft. Lorenzo Bini, designed by making thorough use of circles. The title is "○ in □" because inside the hard, square-shaped museum, there is a space with gentle, round circles.
Bookshelves are pressed flush against the gently curved walls, giving them a zig-zag river design. The ceiling is covered with innumerable round mobiles that glitter like the surface of the sea. From the ceiling hangs lights that look like rocks that have been significantly eroded over time. When the tables are connected together, they show off the shape of the Shinano River. This is a great space to lean back, relax, and sip on drinks like coffee made with beans fermented in snow caverns, Hakkaisan beer, and tea made using local Niigata tea leaves.
- Akashi no Yu
This public hot spring facility is located right next to the museum. Though the building is not very big, its baths have a modern design while being both well-lit and spacious compared to most public baths. One particular hot spring bath that has been garnering a lot of attention is the Kawari-yu, which changes its contents with the seasons. Spring brings about a rosemary bath, summer is when you'll get iris petals floating on the water, and winter is a yuzu citrus bath. Sometimes they even have a rubber duck bath!
There are two baths and each gender takes turns using each of them depending on the day (odd or even). Both baths have a courtyard filled with greenery, so patrons are easily able to refresh themselves while breathing in clean, fresh air. Once done with their baths, they can take a breather at the break room or grab something to eat.
2. NOHBUTAI Snow-Land Agrarian Culture Center, Matsudai
This white structure that looks like a space station is called NOHBUTAI, and it is another main spot of the art festival. You can find it close to Matsudai Station. It is constructed in a very unusual way, and one can get to it from the stairs installed in various directions.
Matsudai is a town hidden deep in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture. Its summers are hot and humid, while winter brings heavy snow. MVRDV, a Netherlands-based architecture firm, designed this structure to float in the air, allowing visitors to enjoy a pleasant time regardless of the winter snow or summer heat below. As one might be able to tell, it holds significant importance in the area.
Here, visitors can enjoy art that combines the traditional with nature. Some of them are even interactive, providing fun for the whole family. It's a great place to gain a deep understanding of the area through the exhibitions, events, local foods, and so on.
The inside of the structure looks like a classroom with a pulpit, desks, chairs, and even a globe sitting on a shelf. All of the pieces installed in this space were crafted with blackboard material, so if you wish, you can take white chalk and scribble on them! If you haven't already figured it out, this space is yet another art piece, this time created by artist Tatsuo Kawaguchi. It is titled "Relation - Blackboard Classroom," and shows how a classroom can be completely transformed into an art space. Entering this space will give you an opportunity to think about how art, education, and space can be related.
The culture center is surrounded by art on all sides - including the washroom! When you turn to leave after washing your hands, you'll notice the exit missing... until you realize that the door design looks the exact same as the door to each stall! Give it a gentle tap and you'll finally be able to leave. It's an art piece that'll certainly make you snicker.
- Echigo-Matsudai Satoyama Shokudo
Located inside the NOHBUTAI culture center, this dining hall completely painted in a pale blue is both an eating space and art piece. The reflective tables show the seasonal scenery of Matsudai that covers the ceiling, and from the glass windows come rays of sunshine, giving the whole space a refreshing feeling.
Not only do the staff provide excellent service, but the dining hall itself acts as an information exchange location for fellow travelers that have interest in art. It's an excellent place to experience parts of Matsudai that one normally wouldn't be able to, such as trying dishes made with plenty of local ingredients while gazing out at the scenery that changes from rice field terraces in the summer to snowy views in the winter.
3. Forest School: Kyororo
This is the main festival spot for the Matsunoyama area, and is actually a museum for natural sciences. The name "Kyororo" comes from the cry of the ruddy kingfisher, a migratory bird that also happens to represent the area. If you come in early summer, keep your ears open for them! Their cry of "Kyororororo~" means that they're nest-building in that area.
Both the name and the actual museum building itself are connected to nature. If you closely observe the brown structure from the sky, it will look like a weaving snake. A fun fact is that the length of this welded iron snake can change by as much as 20 cm during the summer and winter due to wildly changing temperatures!
The museum has an observatory that's roughly 10 floors high (34 m) and to get up it, you'll have to carefully climb up a spiral staircase set into its dark interior. Once you finally get to the top and look down, you can see the fan-shaped car park and the rustic landscape ahead. It's an extraordinary scene that'll blow all your tiredness away and get rid of any stresses or worries from the big city life. Refresh yourself by giving it a try!
If you visit in the winter, this is the scenery you'll meet. The museum will be completely covered in snow, so only the tall observatory tower will be visible, looking much like a small submarine wading in a pool of snow. This tough "submarine" is made out of incredibly strong iron so that it can withstand heavy snow. Even 5m (1.5t in weight) of packed snow won't stop it from standing!
The museum holds a variety of events throughout the year, including permanent and temporary exhibitions. Two particular events to check out are Usuke Shiga's Butterfly Collection, a space filled with displays of butterflies, and the summer-only Beetle Room, where visitors can observe living rhinoceros and stag beetles. All the insects are allowed to roam freely, so you may occasionally see them not in their cages. By seeing the beetles up close, one can learn about their behaviors and get closer to nature.
After learning all about nature inside this treasure chest of nature, grab a bite to eat at Satoyama Kitchen, which happens to also be a workshop area where one can get in touch with the local region's food culture. (Opening times will differ throughout the year, but it is open every day during the Obon period.) You can also go for a walk through the Beech Forest, which is famous in the Matsunoyama area.
Discover Echigo Tsumari for Yourself!
Now that you know about the three main spots of Echigo Tsumari, check out part 2 of the series, which features accommodations in the surrounding area, events where you can thoroughly experience art, and more!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.