When my friend, Akiko Ike of Niigata Gingka, a craft shop in Niigata City, invited me to her SozaiTen, Materiels Show, to be held in Tokaichi, Niigata, I couldn’t say no.  The Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale was being held at the same time, and what more could you have in one place?  Art and craft together in country Japan, my favorite locus – I cancelled everything else and got myself to Niigata hoping to take it all in.

Of course that was impossible.  There was much too much going on in too many places.  And will be until the 24th of December should anyone be in the area.  It is well worth a trip – a trip with wheels.  So much to see but the venues are spread out over a large area. And a car and car navi are essential.

I started with the materiels event happening at the Tokaichi Cross 10, Products Center.  Walking into the 2nd floor exhibit hall, a long line-up of  fantasmagorical masks / head coverings made of grasses of every seed and fiber welcomed visitors with wild surprise.  They made me laugh and cringe and cower with their energy and humor.   The staggering variety and imagination of Yamamoto Amayokasim  burst forth from her masks and their grassy sources.

Around the corner from the masks, she had wound twisted grass twines onto bamboo spindles with photos of their sources, and notes as to what grasses had been twisted to create the twine.

Grassism, Yamamoto san calls her craft:  principles:  Not buying materials.  Going on foot to gather grass materials.  Not using electric tools.  It is totally from the earth and using what the earth gives. . . using it with captivating resourcefulness and dexterity and an abiding sense of beauty and order and fun.


Upon entering the exhibition hall, we were greeted byTakasuka Katsura’s incredible soaring grass/weed/ root fashionsl.  He sees the earth and the sky as one continuum connected by fibers which he seizes from the earth as they grow and weaves and rearranges them into high fashion jackets and dressed and gowns to marry in.


Silks, grasses, hemps, cottons natural fibers of every origin were shown in all their glory and even I wanted to get my hopeless fingers moving to try to create something with these heavenly fibers.  The installation was inspiring and inviting.  Akiko Ike’s Chiku Chiku exhibit of simple sashiko stitching applied to every and any surface of cloth to strengthen and augment and embellish encouraged everyone, even me, to try to leave our mark / our needle print on any discarded fabric.  Nothing is wasted.  All odd scraps of cotton cloth are reinvented and reworked into fresh new creations from banners to bed covers, from dust rags to jackets.  Why didn’t I take pictures?

Between events at the SozaiTen / Materiels Exhibit, my photographer friend Sakurai Taishi took me and my friend Kawasaki Kei of Gallery Kei in Kyoto, out to outlying Echigo Tsumari Triennale installations.

Most primal of all the hollowed earth formation by local farmers who carved out a meandering series of subterranean chambers, earth spaces that were rooms without ceilings supported by beams and trusses and garnished with mosses and grasses that had volunteered to be part of the venue.   Walking through the corridors with rough earthen walls on either side, you became one with the earth.  It comforted and reassured.

We only had time for about 10 installations :  Kusama Yayoi,  several old minka that had been infused with art and Oribe and washi and LED’s in original ways that made you rethink art and architecture and their interconnectedness. Inspiration was everywhere.  Everyone found a place / way they could express themselves, artists and viewers alike.

Subterranean installation created by local people digging out spaces of  timeless beauty and peace, reinforced with beams and wooden timbers.  Natural moss and grasses add green adornment

Long walls of rusted iron wall and enclosed space between brilliant green rice fields and a bubbling river that has benches in one section as if for performances or meditation, and a space open to the river perhaps for singers to sing to.  Inspired architecture by a Finnish Architectural firm replaced a former garbage dump site.


Unexpected  surprise.  Just when we thought we had seen all we could, we happened upon the village of Ogijima with its 70 houses many of them thatched roofed minka, and sadly many unlived in.  As beautiful and provocative as the international art festival had been, these minka win all prizes.  They are are ancient peoples’ response to their place of living.  They are timeless monuments to man’s interacting with his environment with cooperation and resourcefulness. Using materials available, they were able to construct dwellings of consummate beautfy and grace, sliding silently into and emanating from the environment  – at one with it.  The sense of place, the spirit of peace and harmony that emanate from these buildings is something that remains engraved on my soul.

Flowers to dry for.  Pliable obaachan working in her garden in Ogijima.

Takayanagi Community Center, Ogijima,  Niigata


Kengo Kuma, architect, built in late 1990’s.  Kuma san has taken the essence of minka, the form, the shape, the thatched roof, the washi, the shoji, the light, the language, and reformulated it into a public space for the village to use and be inspired by.  He creates a modern minka, using the materials available in the village to provide a public space in the local vernacular – a language that all can understand and speak.  Washi produced by Kadoire Washi is pasted on glass windows on the left to infuse a luminous cloudy light that captures the mystery of washi while bringing light to the notoriously dark minka interior.

Time Remembered, Ogijima Shrine and ancient pine tree.

It was all about materials. The thatched roofs, sometimes clad like this sinewy shrine roof of galvanized steel to cover ageing thatch and follow its contour,  the brilliant green blades of rice whose straw is used extensively in crafts and architecture and tools for living, the windows covered with washi, the earth walls, the straw ropes, the wooden beams, the hemp kimono, the cotton sashiko.

The Japan country side produces these materials and uses them eloquently in daily life.  They are natural, native grasses and fibers, wood, bamboo, paper and local.  Clever country people have developed ways of using them in season to answer their needs for living and develop a lifestyle that is supremely practical and beyond that sublimely beautiful.

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19 Responses to TRAVELS TO TOHOKU

  1. Gogatsu Desu says:

    Wa sugoi! Joy to the Eyes, the Soul and the Heart.
    Thanks for being there to provide it.

  2. Diane Durston says:

    Amy, Once again you bring incredible insights into the art and the spirit of the Japanese countryside to us across the planet. This is amazing! I have seen images of Kengo Kuma’s fascinating Takayanagi Community Center before, but this puts it in a whole new context. I will forward the link to him. I know he will enjoy seeing it! Much love to you.

    • Oh Diane
      A comment from you is a burst of sunshine into our Karuizawa kitchen.
      I am honored by your response and idea to send this to Kuma san.
      He is showing us a new way for the future in Japan. The article on his use of materials in the Japan Times by Roger Pulvers is illuminating
      I hope that one day you can have an exhibit on the Sozaiten materiels that we were exhibited at Tokamachi in Niigata. They are exciting as is the way artisans have responded to the fibers.
      Your Portland Japanese Garden Exhibits were the talk of the town there. Kei Kawasaki was there and telling everyone about your Mottainai Exhibit last fall.
      You are the portal
      And your clever and patient husband, Steve Futscher, of JPS makes my blog reality. How grateful I am to you both.

  3. Lis says:

    What creativity and excitement there is in Japan. I adore those houses, minka, and the new community building in the traditional style is wonderful. Thank you for enlightening me about other aspects of rural Japan.

    • Liz
      Thank you for writing.
      I do believe that what is happening in country Japan is where change and hope and energy will come.
      Quietly, steadfastly there are good projects started and old traditions clung to and honored.
      The Echigo Tsumari Triennale is in its 4th event and the use of the buildings and fields and food and crafts is inspiring. It comes from the land and from the people.
      Your support is precious in helping to disseminate the good news.
      blue and white amy

  4. velma says:

    such a beautiful response to the landscape, your words and your photos. i wish i could travel in your wake, seeing the work, the place. thank you.

    • So happy it spoke to you, Velma. I really want the whole world to share some of this secret Japan that somehow doesn’t get seen.
      I will keep reporting what I find, happy to know there is a sensitive person like you to appreciate it.
      blue & white amy

  5. marinagp says:

    So beautiful!

    • I wish you could come and see it in person.
      It was wonderful – and soon it will be rice harvest time and yet another background of gold to replace the green that I saw.
      And so much I didn’t see.
      Thanks for writing
      Sorry to answer so slowly.
      blue & white amy

  6. Ibby Jenkins says:

    Gorgeous, Amy! Thanks for sharing your beautiful trip. xoxoIbby

  7. Wilma says:

    Thank you so much for posting this and sharing it with everyone. I think both the Tate (modern) and the V&A would be very interested in seeing this. It would be fabulous to bring some of these works to London/ Britain for an exhibition.

    • Tate Modern – What an exciting idea !
      But I fear most of the pieces are site married so impossible to move. That is what makes them so special and reaffirming.
      So honored that you even thought of such a thing.
      You are indeed open to the world !
      Thank you, wjsweeney!
      blue and white amy

      • Wilma says:

        I know it would be difficult but perhaps they could be part of an exhibition (photographically) in the future. So many people would love to see these!x

  8. nihonbi1844 says:

    Dear Amy- lovely post on the triennial! Niigata was the first place my feet landed in Japan, so special to me. I love the idea of the art that is rooted in place and time, in these rurual communities. I had the chance to go to the Setouchi International triennial in 2010 which left such a deep impression on me. I’ll be bringing my groups of lovely ladies by Blue and White very soon- hope to catch up with you then!

    • So sorry I didn’t see this before.
      I know no one who would respond so viscerally to the, as you say, “rooted art” in the Setouchi/Inland Sea Art festivals and the Echigo Tsumari/Niigata Triennale. The installations seep up from place and time, and I will never forget the tiny silver foil wrapped shrine in one of the most inaccessible places I have EVER been to, hung with wooden ema plaques painted with red circles and connecting red lines. That thread of destiny, no doubt, that led us both to Japan ! Always good to see you and be injected with your love of Japan.
      Setouchi Triennale 3 times next year. Let’s not miss it !

  9. Carol Ann Eades says:

    Please send me details of similar up coming events

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