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The Current Situation of Art in the Tohoku District - Featuring “Art + Touji 2009 in Hijiori”
Written by Satoshi KOGANEZAWA   
Published: December 28 2009

    These days we often hear of projects held with the aim of developing the economy of a certain area through art.  Both the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, held every three years in Tsunan, Tokamachi City, Niigata prefecture, and the smaller Nakanojo Biennale held for the second time this year in Nakanojo Town, Gunma prefecture, are the best-known examples of such projects. But these projects are held in towns suffering from depopulation rather than in larger cities.  Organizers of these two events hold them with the aim of stimulating activity in these towns.  Exhibitors’ creative imaginations are inspired and they have opportunities to improve their careers by presenting their works in places other than museums and galleries.  Exhibits are displayed in a form allowing viewers to understand and enjoy not only “art” but also the event venues.  These events can only be seen during the term of the exhibition and finish at the end of this period.  Can we really build a firm relationship between art and towns by means other than leaving artworks in one place by displaying it there permanently?  I wish there were some way to make our lives deeply connected with art without discussing “art” as a type of fashion or other related commercial issues.


    I visited Ohkura Village, Mogami County, Yamagata Prefecture on November 26, 2009.  Going up and down through mountains located at about a 100 minute drive from Yamagata City and feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of nature, I reached this hot spring village found isolated between mountains.  The atmosphere of the Hijiori Onsen, which opened in 807 and therefore with a history of over 1,200 years, seemed to be little bit different to that of other so-called sightseeing areas.  It is located at the foot of a mountain named Gassan, and known as one of the three mountains in Dewa. (the other two mountains are Yudono-san and Haguro-yama).  There has always been a deep relationship between Hijiori Onsen and mountain worship. Tourists who visit there often intend to heal their bodies and minds with the benefit of the hot spring rather than for pure “sightseeing”.  This would be the reason that most of the tourists whom I met there were elderly people.  There were many self-catering accommodations which made it possible for visitors to stay there for extended periods at reasonable prices.  This is also be the typical style at hot springs for toji (recuperation).
    The “Art + Touji 2009 in Hijiori” was held at Hijiori Onsen from the 4th of October until the 29th of November, 2009.  This project was realized with the full cooperation of the Tohoku University of Art and Design, located in Yamagata City, the only art university in the Tohoku District.  During the term of the event, exhibitions as well as artist-in-residence programmes and workshops were held.  It seemed to be difficult for viewers to see exhibits without driving since creations were found to be scattered all over the village, but the village itself was small enough to walk around to enjoy viewing exhibits.  There were only six artist exhibitors (including one group) as follows: Saburo Ota, Natsunosuke Mise, Shigeya Mori + Minamiyamaza, Kazuki Yamazaki, Jun Matsuyama and Rie Mochizuki.  Despite this, “Art + Touji 2009 in Hijiori” left a deep impression on me.  There may be no need to give examples of creations shown in artist-in-residence programmes, but all exhibits were created based on coverage in Hijiori.


fig. 1 Old post office, photo by the author

fig, 2 Natsunosuke Mise “Fantasy World of Hijiori” (2009); folding screen with ten panels, Japanese paper/ink/chalk, photo by Hiromi Seno, courtesy of the artist

fig. 3 Natsunosuke Mise “Fantasy World of Hijiori” (2009); photo by Hiromi Seno, courtesy of the artist

fig. 4 Natsunosuke Mise “Fantasy World of Hijiori” (2009); photo by Hiromi Seno, courtesy of the artist

fig. 5 Lantern by Natsunosuke Mise, photo by the authort

fig. 6 Rie Mochizuki “Hijiori Information Map: Snakes in Summer” (2009)

fig. 7 Mise's laboratory at Tohoku University of Art and Design, photo by the author

fig. 8 a shintai, Mise's laboratory at Tohoku University of Art and Design, photo by the author

fig. 9 in Mise's laboratory at Tohoku University of Art and Design, photo by the author

    The creation entitled “Morning Market Project” (2009) by Ota was composed of no less than 32 kinds of postcards. Ota is known for his works using stamps. In Hijiori, there is a morning bazaar in front of guest houses every morning.  Ota focused attention on many kinds of things bought and sold in the morning market, such as vegetables and fruits cultivated in Hijiori, Chinese medicine and a variety of foodstuffs.  He took pictures of these items passed around through the bazaar and used them to make picture cards.  He expressed feelings among people through his works in the form of “cards”.  He seemed to be thoroughly stick to the style of presenting his works in that the postcards were also reported to be on sale in front of the accommodations from 6:00 a. m. to 7:00 a. m. every morning along with the other goods sold in the morning market.  However, the cards could also be bought at the former post office during the exhibition period.

    Mise’s work was also displayed in the same post office [fig. 1].  The building, made in the Meiji Period, is no longer used and leaves one with a classical impression.  Mise’s work entitled “Fantasy World of Hijiori” (folding screen with ten panels, Japanese paper/ink/chalk, 2009) was made in the form of folding screens composed of ten panels [fig. 2 - 4].  Mise focused on the fact that Hijiori was formed by an active volcano through research which he had conducted before creating the work.  Hijiori Onsen village is located at the center of the volcano, known as Hijiori Caldera, We can view the sinkhole of a perfectly-rounded shape at the site.  Mise depicted the explosion of mountains in the “Fantasy World of Hijiori” and displayed the work around viewers to make them feel as if the exhibit was the epitome of this world.  I was able to find some realistic scenes of Hijiori in the creation.  Viewing landscapes from the train windows on the way to Hijiori from Yamagata City, I noticed that the mountains had gentle slopes, similar to those depicted in Mise’s work.  There were some trees which had been deformed by the weight of snow during winter.  Also, in Mise’s work, some trees were drawn in strange forms as if they stood against gravity.  In addition, it is said that a cave called “Jizo-gura” deemed a sacred spot by Hijiori residents is located in the area, though I did not have enough time to visit there this time.  The jizo statues which were depicted in Mise’s work were similar to those of “Jizo-gura”.  The creation leaves one with a festive image due to the vast number of large fireworks depicted throughout the picture planes, while the eruption of volcano made a tragic impression on me.  In the venue, a garden lantern which was said to have been created for the “ひじおりの灯” (13 July 2009 – 31 Aug 2009) [fig. 5] was also displayed.

    Unfortunately, I was not able to get a chance to view this. the “Minamiyamaza Street Performance” by the dance group Minamiyamaza, Composed of the choreographer, Shigeya Mori, and his family members, this was held twice, on October 25 and in November, 2009 - during the term of the event.  The phrase, “a dance performance in the Tohoku District”, makes me immediately imagine Tatsumi Hijikata, who was born in Akita Prefecture, and who is a choreographer and also a master of Mori.  The photo album entitled “Kamaitachi” (1969), which includes pictures taken by the photographer, Eiko Hosoe, is known as a legendary perfect album among photo books featuring Hijikata.  It’s notable that the photos found in the album were taken in Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture, and most of the erotic and animalistic pictures were extemporarily generated there.  Considering the magnetic field of the Tohoku District, “dance” also seems to have been faced with a significantly important problem.  I still regret that I was not able to see how Mori showed his performance as a person from Ohkura Village, Mogami County, Yamagata Prefecture.

    Jun Matsuyama and Rie Mochizuki, graduates from Tohoku University of Art and Design, created their works under the theme of local things in Hijiori while staying there on a long-term after having been elected as “Sojourning Artists in Hijiori Onsen 2009”.  In fact, I could not view Matsuyama’s exhibit entitled “Thought about Good paintings - Hiji” (2009), but I have heard that he conducted a project in which he created paintings at rooms of a number of accommodations and left them there.  Mochizuki, a professor at Tohoku University of Art and Design, created illustrations for the text named “Story of Hijiori” written by the folklorist, Norio Akasaka. Akasaka also serves as president of the Tohoku Culture Research Center at the Tohoku University of Art and Design.
    I was somewhat surprised, while walking around the village, to encounter a board composed of the texts and illustrations [fig. 6] named “Hijiori Information Map: Snakes in Summer” (2009). As described in the beginning part of the board, “For the Story of Hijiori”, it would have been clear that the text written on the board consists only the introductory part of the story.  Despite this, the sentences found in the board clearly told of the history and the folk culture in Hijiori, which were effectively colored by elaborate and exotic illustrations drawn by Mochizuki.


    While I was unfortunately unable to participate in the workshops held as part of the “Art + Toji 2009 in Hijiori”, I’d would still like to briefly refer to them. All the following information regarding four workshops associated with “Hijiori” was based on brochures and web sites.
    The dye artist, Kazuki Yamazaki, held an overnight workshop on natural dyeing entitled “Hijiori-zome” (10 – 11 October, 2009).  In the workshop, the participants dyed silk handkerchiefs using dye compounds extracted from plants growing naturally in the Hijiori area and dye plants which were said to have been used for dyestuffs.  In the “Paper-Making Artwork” workshop held on October 17 and 18, 2009, Ota and participants of the workshop created their own postcards and objects made of paper by using things which they had collected during their searches in Hijiori.  Another overnight workshop was Shigeya Mori’s “Dance Workshop” (7 – 8 November, 2009).  Mise held the workshop entitled “Drawing Landscape of Hijiori” (21 – 23 November, 2009) over three days and two nights.  In this workshop, Mise and the participants drew landscape paintings based on research conducted while trekking around Hijiori.

    As you may have already noticed, some workshops which were held as part of “Art + Touji 2009 in Hijiori” were conducted over day-time and night-time.  This is one of the notable features of these workshops, considering that common workshops held in other places, such as museums, always take only few hours.  According to the press release of the “Art + Touji 2009 in Hijiori”, the workshops are referred to as “Artist-in-Sojourn Programmes”, which seem to be similar to “artist-in-residence programmes”.  If we intend to “learn” about something thoroughly, it would take more than two nights.  Nonetheless, such fulfilling workshops as conducted this time must have been highly motivating for the participants to continue doing something in the future.  In addition, surprisingly, all the workshops were free of charge.

    As I have commented above, Hijiori has some different characteristics to those of other so-called sightseeing areas.   There are historic hot springs, where nature which still leaves an overwhelming impression, and some places which remind us of the history and the folk culture of Hijiori.  Soba (buckwheat noodles), the specialty of Hijiori, also taste good here.  Despite this, there are no well-known entertainments and access to the area is also difficult.  This must be the reason the area is facing a kind of crisis.  The free charge workshops seem to reflect the organizer’s*1 urgent and aggressive wish to attract people.
    On the other hand, I have heard that the Tohoku University of Art and Design plans to visit schools in Hijiori following requests from the local residents after the period of the “Art + Touji 2009 in Hijiori”.  It is unlikely that the residents wish to attend such classes with the aim of commercially or succeeding in the field of art.  This means that residents of Hijiori have a demand for creating something, despite the fact that there are no places to present such artworks, such as museums or galleries.  In other words, showing works is not the only way of representing the motivation for creating.  This is reflected in display forms in the “Art + Touji 2009 in Hijiori”.


    In this way, the “Art + Touji 2009 in Hijiori” proved successful as a highly concentrated event in spite of its small size.  As far as I could judge, there was no exciting impression of the events in the venue from the aspect of attracting customers.  This must be partly due to the fact that I went to the event on a weekday.  The atmosphere of the show would have been a little bit different if I had visited it on another day when workshops and projects had been held.  Nonetheless, the viewers could have enjoyed not only viewing works and performances, but also soaking in a hot spring and learning about the history and the climate of Hijiori.  What I would like to emphasize here is that the natural ambience of Hijiori still leaves us with an overwhelming impression and the local residents are living with this natural environment surrounding them.  We should not forget that nature and people’s living certainly exists with or without “art (or so-called ‘art’)”.  Rather, art projects, such as the “Art + Touji 2009 in Hijiori”, was able to be realised on the premise of the existence of nature and living of residents with nature.  Creating something based on the history of land - this is connected with utilising our living at another level of “economically developing the area with art”.


    By the way, the person who guided me from Yamagata city to Hijiori by car and provided me with information about the history, nature and folk culture of Yamagata Prefecture and Hijiori, was Natsunosuke Mise, who was one of the exhibitors of the the “Art + Touji 2009 in Hijiori”.  He was born and raised in Nara Prefecture and moved to Yamagata Prefecture this spring to serve as an Associate Professor of  theJapanese Painting Course, in the Fine Arts Department at Tohoku University of Art and Design.  He guided me around the university on the day before I visited Hijiori.  I learnt about many things concerning good creating conditions at the university.  Lastly, let me tell you about the contents of research under Mise’s guidance.

    The first topic is about his room at the university [fig. 7][fig. 8].  The ceiling with an attached window was no less than five metres high and natural light shone into the room through the window during the day.  On that day, in front of the entrance to his room I found Mise’s work, “Chitose” (Japanese paper/ink/chalk, 300.0 cm × 365.0 cm, 2009) displayed. This work was presented in his solo exhibition entitled “Mongetsu-dai” held at the C Square,  This display form gave me little or no constrained impression of the creation [fig. 9].*2  In fact, this was mostly because Mise’s works were made using only paper without any supports.  His room at the university seemed to be suitable for creating huge pieces.  The title, “Chitose”, is the name of a mountain in Yamagata prefecture.  I once wrote that this title would have come from the stereoscopic form of the work and the shape of its bottom part which is similar to that of crane, but let me apologize for this presumption, based on my misunderstanding.  I was able to view Chitose-yama on the way from Yamagata city to the university.  Seeing the mountain, I noticed that the shape of the mountain which was depicted in his creation was quite similar to that of Chitose-yama.  Just like the mountain found in his work, Chitose-yama gave me a gentle impression of its lines to the crest.  This kind of image was completely different to that of Mount Fuji, which usually gives us an angular-shaped impression.  Therefore, indeed, the first impression of Chitose-yama was cute, but its figure veiled in the morning haze was really mysterious.

    It would be valuable to refer to the project, “Can we establish the field of Tohoku Painting?”, in which Mise plays a leading role as a planner.  On November 9, 2009, Mise held a kick-off meeting of the project with students at the university, and afterwards, worked to realize an exhibition through many meetings.  Outside of his university room, there was a smoky household altar called a “ghost” by Mise.  It was humorous that not only fruits and sweets but flowers, which seemed to be used in sketching class, are offered before the altar.
    Incidentally, according to Mise, the word, “Tohoku painting”, represents his awareness of the issue concerning “Japanese painting”.*3  There is a longstanding relationship between the word/notion of “Japanese painting” which was established in the Meiji Period. Mise himself, majored in Japanese painting at Kyoto City University of Arts and has been often introduced as a “new artist in the field of Japanese painting”. He also currently serves as a teacher at a Japanese painting course.  Therefore, Mise, who moved to Yamagata, seems to define “Tohoku painting” as something like a rival against “Japanese painting”.  Nonetheless, we should not consider the word, “Tohoku painting”, as a term which is interpreted in a broad sense of “Japanese painting”.
    This is because students who are participated in this project include those majoring not only in Japanese painting, but also in western painting, print art and general art.  “Japanese painting” is also known as “kosai-ga (gouache painting)”.  Despite this, in contrast to “kosai-ga”, which was named focusing on painting materials used in “Japanese painting”, “Tohoku painting” represents an attempt to empirically establish the magnetic field of painting beyond genres of art which are divided depending on painting tools.  It would come to be easier to understand the concept of “Tohoku painting”, if you consider it as the field of “painting” in the “Tohoku District”.

    “Can we establish the field of Tohoku Painting?”  Indeed, nobody can answer this question, but it includes not only issues about the locality of “art” but also those not related to “art” as well.  We should not ignore the existence of Norio Akasaka (Tohoku University of Art and Design), who is known as an advocate of Tohoku studies.  The word Tohoku makes me imagine Taro Okamoto.  As described in the book, “The Tohoku District for Taro Okamoto” (The Mainichi Newspaper, 2002), issued after his death, the “Tohoku District” was an essential area for Okamoto to consider issues concerning “Japan”.  There was a meaningful exchange of words between Okamoto and Yoshio Murakami, an artist born in Yamagata prefecture, when Murakami hoped to come to Tokyo.  “You should fight there!”  This phrase would mean that “art” can also be found in places other than Tokyo.  How will Mise, born not in the Tohoku, but in the Kansai district, “fight a battle” in Yamagata under the slogan of “Tohoku”?  I would like to consider the theme of “Tohoku painting” as a problem for myself and be concerned with its future, not standing by doing nothing as an outsider living in Tokyo.  This is due to my expectation that “Tohoku painting” would be accompanied by our real “life”.
(Translated by Nozomi Nakayaka)

The Hijiori Area - the Regeneration Project: Regional and Tourism Activation Project in Cooperation with Tohoku University of Art and Design.
I took the picture without removing a tripod and roll paper ([fig. 9]), but the painting which can be found at the centre of the wall is “Chitose”.  Regarding the overall picture of this work, please refer to the article entitled “Natsunosuke Mise: Mongetsu-dai” included on Kolons Net (http://www.kalons.net/j/review/articles_1333.html).  This time I provided the image of “Chitose” to convey the atmosphere of Mise’s university room.
The whole text concerning the project, “Can we establish the field of Tohoku Painting?”, can be read at Mise’s web site (http://www.natsunosuke.com/iankaehaaikaah.html) or the “Library Report”, issued by Tohoku University of Art and Design Library on 1 October, 2009.
Last Updated on October 28 2015

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