All aboard the art train to Ichihara

by James Jack

Special To The Japan Times

Just after the train departs, a passenger falls to the floor. Further down the small train carriage another person follows suit. “Ma’am, are you sane?” questions a female announcer over the loudspeaker. The diesel train chugs forward. A young man asks, “Mom where did you go?” The mother responds, “The next town over.” He answers, “Everyone there is sad.” A young girl joins in, “It looks like that, but they aren’t.” The man wonders, “Really?” She replies, “Yes really.” Entering Satomi Station a saxophonist, accordionist and guitar player prance onto the train playing wildly — it’s all part of the act, in a new performance by Yubiwa Hotel taking place on a picturesque railway ride through the countryside of Chiba Prefecture.

This eccentric journey filled with music, people dancing in the farmlands outside and frequent stops along the way, is the backbone of an arts festival currently running in the remote rural areas of Ichihara City on the Boso Peninsula, just one hour from Tokyo. Life in this region has a certain rustic charm, as Kominato Railway president Shinpei Ishikawa explains, “Satoyama is half nature and half people; in this area life is very close to nature, or it might even be at one with it.” But with school closures, depopulation and industrial decline, local leaders realized that they needed to find a creative way to revive the region. After observing the synergy between locals and non-locals revitalizing the countryside of Niigata Prefecture, they invited the curator of that region’s Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, Fram Kitagawa, to Chiba and together they came up with the idea for the “Naka-boso International Art Festival: Ichihara Art×Mix.”

Kitagawa soon became sensitive to the social issues facing the central Boso Peninsula region and chose to include more than just art. In his view eating, sports and other activities help support the “fragile existence” of artworks, so eight cafes and countless events became part of the festival. As he explains, “food is a strong part of people’s identity, it protects the land from deteriorating and also fosters self-sufficiency.” Locally-grown produce, such as nanohana (rape blossom), is used in the cafes as well as in artworks such as Kana Yoshida’s colorful installation work “Mole.”

One of the first artists to start working in the community, Satoshi Iwama, began activities in a school that closed about eight years ago in the town of Tsukide. He explains that “each person had talents and experience but had become accustomed to doing things alone,” so he began to form close bonds with residents before commencing art production. He then invited seven artists to make new artworks in the school to connect local culture and history. Together they created a shared base for creative activities including music, dance and food, making Iwama optimistic about the future. “There are system management and fiscal tasks the size of mountains ahead, but I feel the end of the festival is just the beginning,” he says.

In contrast, architect Masashi Sogabe of the architectural design office Mikan, worked with a school that had just recently closed, adapting the space for many artists to use. One small but crucial shift was to redirect a fence built in front of a centennial stone near the school’s entrance.

“Changing the simplest of things, such as one fence line to include the history of the town is so meaningful to acknowledge what is already there,” says Sogabe. Working with existing materials to create a cafe, area for games and studios for artists, he retained what he calls “memory devices,” such as the memorial stone, so the complex would become “a school not just for children, but for the whole community.”

The meandering Yoro River stretches throughout this region. Contemporary artists Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan felt this winding river, “was a sign of the changing landscape,” becoming a vehicle for them to engage with migration and settlement in Ichihara. During a visit last fall they began working with residents to make miniature houses out of cardboard boxes, which they then positioned under small boats that can be found in Takataki Lake nearby. Isabel explains why they chose these colorful boats: “When the first settler arrived at an island they inverted a boat, that became the first roof and the dawn of architecture.” The two artists’ focus on mobility is both personal and political, as their own story of migration from the Philippines to Australia is linked to the ambulatory realities of others across the globe today.

Other artists participating in the festival include Shinji Ohmaki, who has taken over a historic residence, fusing his subtle flower works with the unique conditions of each room. Handling light and darkness intimately, his stunning work “A Large House” begs one to slow down, contemplate, and appreciate the finest details. Conceptual artist Misha Kuball, meanwhile, has installed his work in a former school computer laboratory — where mirror balls spin letters philosophically into the dark room. “To bring things, people, artists and community members here to develop the unknown,” Kuball explains, “is not just about the art, it’s about communication and exchange.”

Uncertainties remain regarding the future of the Boso Peninsula, but activities in the region will continue throughout the year, and the “Ichihara Art×Mix” festival is scheduled to return once every three years.

“Naka-boso International Art Festival: Ichihara Art×Mix” runs till May 11; Admission varies for each artwork, (Passport ¥3,800) Yubiwa Hotel performance “Heavenly Love II” Every Saturday on the Kominato Train line (¥2,000) ichihara-artmix.jp