Bulging like a half moon out into the Seto Inland Sea from Kyushu’s northeast corner, the Kunisaki Peninsula in Oita Prefecture may be remote and lack rail links to the rest of the country, but since time immemorial it has been a crossroads for travelers in both directions between Japan, the Korean Peninsula and China.
Some 30 km across, the area is said to be the first place where native Shinto folk beliefs coexisted peacefully with Buddhism from mainland Asia, and it still hosts countless temples, statues and other monuments.
In addition, in 1587 it was the birthplace of Petro Kasui Kibe, the first Japanese to visit Jerusalem. He went on to Rome, where he became a Jesuit priest before returning home and being killed by the authorities in 1639.
Hence, as isolated as it may be, this wild and hilly expanse north of the ancient city of Beppu has a colorful past — and it’s a tradition that lives on in the way it has now extended a welcome to outside artists who gathered there for the inaugural Kunisaki Art Festival held from Oct. 4 to Nov. 30.
With site-specific works by acclaimed figures including the English sculptor Antony Gormley, exhibition-style residence projects and three troupes creating performing-arts pieces, the event attracted around 60,000 visitors.
Among the latter works was “Entrance/Exit,” a sell-out project directed by the acclaimed multitalented Norimizu Ameya, 53, and written by Akutagawa Award-winning Mariko Asabuki, with sounds by house-music deejay zAk.
Involving a daylong bus tour of the peninsula, the production began at Oita Airport at 8:30 a.m., from where participants — including this writer — were taken to a ferry landing to meet local high-school seniors who told us about their life plans and feelings about their homeland.
Afterward, we walked through a bat-infested pitch-black tunnel the creators dubbed “entrance to another world,” emerging at a junkyard to gather wood from a demolished house and visit the nearby ruins of a settlement dating back 1,800 years where we ate a lunch of rice balls made with ancient grain varieties.
Suitably fortified, our next stop was at a stand of trees where once a settlement had been, before we scaled a hill boasting telephone poles made from cedar trees and curved-mirror artworks on bamboo staves. This brought us to a cluster of four houses from where 120 steps led up to a temple where a man was waiting who could tell everyone on which day of the week they were born.
Finally, the magical mystery tour arrived at the banqueting hall of an abandoned country house where we all dined on a selection of local fare.
After those seven ports of call, the last stop was Matama Beach, where we burned those ancient timbers and consigned them to the sea as a fine sunset brought the curtain down on “Entrance/Exit.”
Having touched on people’s lives lived across thousands of years in that area now beset by depopulation, those lucky enough to have been part of Ameya’s wonderful artwork experienced with all five senses the reality of Kunisaki in ways that auger well for the stature of this festival that has grown from 2012’s small-scale Kunisaki Art Project.
For more details, visit kunisaki.asia. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.