ART RETREAT IN TOCHIGI

Cleansing your mind with a little creativity

by Mark Thompson

Nasu Kogen is proudly promoted as a vacation spot of the Imperial family. Judging by the numerous pamphlets at the station’s welcome center, the area, about an hour and a half north of Tokyo, certainly wants to offer something for the whole family — but not necessarily the royals.

Nasu Kogen (Nasu highlands), deep in Tochigi Prefecture, boasts a proper theme park full of white-knuckle rides, a teddy-bear museum and something called American Stars Museum, which features “Gothic World” as its main attraction. Or how about a safari park, a fishing park and the particularly intriguing World Monkey Park, which, incidentally, presents a flamingo and wild-boar show?

It’s all for the taking, but those looking for a slightly less hectic getaway would be advised to ignore the attraction-packed tourist map and head straight to the shuttle bus bound for Art Biotop.

Art Biotop is a recent addition to Niki Club & Spa, a quietly posh enclave located on the fringes of Nikko National Park. Niki’s drawing card is its extensive relaxation facilities, designed specifically to remove those layers of stress and tension that can build up in the city.

Even without indulging the aromatherapy treatments, the full-body massages and the top-notch onsen (hot spring), the Niki’s grounds themselves, encompassing 14 hectares of woods and fields, are a natural elixir. You can feel your shoulders loosen as soon as you enter the complex’s gates.

Art Biotop, which opened in March of this year, is a natural extension of the Niki concept. While the accommodations here are slightly more affordable than the Niki’s, the refined sense of style and attentive service is much the same.

Modern stone sculptures dot the grounds, and the guest-room buildings buttress a grassy courtyard where, in the warmer months, guests can take their lunch and dinner. The rooms are chicly minimalist with subtle designer touches: essential oils, organic toiletries and personal zori (Japanese sandals) for perambulating about.

Of course, you are free to use Art Biotop as a home base for treks to the aforementioned parks and museums, but then you’d be passing up the main attraction here: making and appreciating art.

The glass-art studio is overseen by Tetsuya Araoka, a young man of boundless patience and impressive English. First-time students can choose from several projects, be it making colorful glass beads in the old Edo style of tonbodama (named after the eyes of a dragonfly) or fashioning a swizzler stick.

After you select your colors from a rainbow of soda glass, the sensei (teacher) sits you down in front of a small but powerful Bunsen burner. The trick, I learn, is to forget about the 1,000 C flame or trying to make the rapidly melting glass to do exactly what you want it to do. Once you relax and accept the laws of thermodynamics, there is something fundamentally satisfying about playing with fire and spinning the molten glass into a whirl of accidental art.

While you could probably fit in two art activities in one day, why rush? You are here to take it easy. If you decide to roam, bicycles are provided by Art Biotop for exploring the resort’s wooded domain. Behind the main complex lie a picturesque rice paddy, a burbling stream and a hidden rotenburo (an outdoor hot spring), which stays open till midnight.

Art Biotop’s other studio focuses on pottery and ceramics. On the second day, I attempted a seemingly simple cup. I rolled chunks of moist clay as evenly as possible into coils, which I built up and smoothed together on a small manually operated potter’s wheel — under a teacher’s instructions, of course. It seemed easy enough, but predicting how much pressure to apply to the spinning clay wasn’t, and my cup ended up looking more like a stout bowl, or a handleless pitcher. But I still cherish it.

Unfortunately, you aren’t able to take your clay creation home the day you make it. After you complete your kneading, the workshop staff will do the glazing (with a color of your choice) and firing for you, and a few weeks later a memento of your trip will arrive in the mail.

Dinner at Art Biotop was an outdoor grill-it-yourself barbecue affair featuring fresh fish and garden vegetables, all laid out in straw-woven baskets. Lunch, however, truly summed up the Art Biotop aesthetic. The centerpiece is handmade zaru soba (cold buckwheat noodles on a bamboo tray). The meal’s creator, Hideto Yamanaka, is a noodle purist and he stopped by each table to explain the zen of soba. His noodles, a rustic blend of two parts mugi (mugwort) and eight parts soba, naturally have that much-desired al dente firmness desired by soba fetishists.

Yamanaka is particularly proud of his naki soba, made from a pure buckwheat mix of flours from five regions of Japan. He says he must be inspired and completely focused to pull it off. “If something breaks my concentration, like a dog barking or anything,” he says very solemnly, “I just throw it in the trash.” Consider yourself blessed if you ever get to sample this pinnacle of slow food.

Yamanaka says he spends a good bit of time looking after the complex’s kitchen garden, which supplies the ingredients for the organically inclined menus in Niki’s two restaurants. And if guests have some free time he’ll gladly guide them through the nearby woods for bird-watching or food foraging.

I only found out later that Yamanaka, who was wearing faded jeans and a bandanna wrapped around his head, is the director of Art Biotop. In his modest manner, he never made mention of his title.

It’s this unassuming humbleness and natural calm that sets him and Art Biotop apart from the madding crowd.

Access: 75 minutes by shinkansen (Tohoku Line) to Nasu Kogen Station; 30 minutes by shuttle bus to Niki Club & Spa/Art Biotop. If you really want to take in all the museums, parks and scenery that Nasu Kogen has to offer, go by car. Rooms, some of which offer a mini-kitchen, range from ¥13,000 (per head for two people) to ¥16,000 (per head for a double). Workshops range from ¥6,300-¥8,600, which includes materials (shipping is extra). Art Biotop regularly offers special workshops led by visiting artists. For more information, see its Web site (www.artbiotop.jp) or call 0287-78-7833. Art Biotop guests are welcome to use the Niki’s spa facilities for treatments, which have various fees, but be sure to book in advance.

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