Japan: The Nakanojo Biennale 2019

Farms, houses, and mountains in Nakanojo, Japan

Nakanojo is the kind of sleepy little town that, for one reason or another, we usually end up staying in. By now, we’ve gotten used to the slow pace of rural life, the idiosyncrasies of small town interpersonal relationships, and that mild inconvenience of being stuck without a vehicle in a place where stores are closed just about half the time. After staying in two gigantic metropolises in China for a couple months, it was such a joy to be in this tiny region of onsen (Japanese hot spring) towns scattered through foggy mountains and forests.

Every two years though, Nakanojo completely transforms into a hub for contemporary art in the form of a sprawling biennale featuring over a hundred artists and dozens of venues. The premise behind the biennale is mainly the repurposing of abandoned or otherwise unused spaces, something that leads artists a long way away from the clean white walls of galleries, and has produced some really stunning results!

We felt, and feel, so lucky to have been part of this amazing celebration of art and culture, and enjoyed the hell out of our two weeks in Japan.

We arrived first in Tokyo, spending the night at a special place called Local Life, a sanctuary of cultural exchange. Our host and new friend, Masako, showed us around the part of the city called Kawasaki. It also turned out to be the home town of Chris’s old friend from college, Shimon, who met us there for some sake. They took us to not one, but two, sushi restaurants that we’re sure will remain one of the more memorable dining experiences of our life.

Just one day later, we were off to Gunma prefecture, where we’d be staying for two weeks. Jun Itoi, a local resident and photographer who we met last year in Finland, drove us all the way from the capital. It was a trip that gave us a look at the countryside and as well our first bowl of real Japanese ramen.

Our time in Nakanojo was mainly spent hustling to finish our installation in the short time allotted. We got to know many other artists all just as excited as us to live and work in this small corner of the world. Two locals who together form a performance group called DamaDamTal managed to help us explore a little, taking us to the famous Shima Onsen, often cited as the inspiration for Miyazaki’s films (a reference totally lost on us), and the river’s waterfall that’s rich with minerals that turn it a beautiful turquoise. We all stayed for dinner at Jun Itoi’s small traditional house for some spectacular Nabemono.

long exposure of the fireflies in Nakanojo

long exposure of the fireflies in Nakanojo

Sharing ramen on a rainy day with our new friend and collaborator Hiromi Hoshino

Sharing ramen on a rainy day with our new friend and collaborator Hiromi Hoshino

Our project hit a turning point when we found a local collaborator, Hiromi Hoshino, with whom we could work together on our Sound Envelopes. She’s about as generous as they come, and we had a fantastic time both working together and just hanging out. She took us on a late night drive to see the fireflies, and for another bowl of delicious miso ramen on one of our last and rainy days in town.

The forests in the region are also home to a constellation of Shinto shrines, each narrowly approached by their own set of steep and precarious stairs up mountains. So on another day, some perhaps unadvised off-road driving took us and Jun Itoi deeper into the forests to one such shrine, complete with cliffside, waterfall, and a few dozen moss covered steps. Then we continued on the way to Kuni Village, a small heritage town with old mud wall buildings. On another weekend, we had the opportunity to go on another outing with the residents, visiting the Hara Museum ARC in Shibukawa.

After a whirlwind of hard work, pushing toward our departure from Nakanojo, we finally finished our installation, a presentation of our small works called Sound Envelopes that are locally inspired and travel like postcards. The venue used is called Yamase, an old family home previously owned by workers in the silk industry. It was complete with all of those things you might associate with Japanese tradition: tatami floors, washi paper walls, all evenly compartmentalized into small organized spaces. More information about our project is available here.

Visiting Japan for the Nakanojo Biennale was an amazing experience for us, and made possible only by the hands of a lot of extremely generous people and organizations. The staff of the Biennale itself were inundated with questions and requests from a dozen or so artists each day, and they were always so helpful whenever we needed them. Jun Itoi was a super gracious host, starting all the way back from when we met in Fiskars over a year ago now. Our travels were funded by the Asia-Europe Foundation as part of their Mobility First program, and without the support of the residency RaumArs in Finland, we wouldn’t have been able to complete the artwork that we installed. Finally, Hiromi Hoshino made beautiful prints for our project, and we can’t thank her enough!

We’ll be back in Japan in May 2020, and cannot wait for new adventures (next time will be around Fukuoka!)