Sapporo is Hokkaido’s gateway, its administrative capital and by far its largest city, with a population fast approaching 2 million. It sprawls across a huge plain just inland from the mouth of the Ishikari River, and from it a highway network extends outward looking on a map like disconnected and rather deranged spaghetti.

One loop and curl of note pursues a circuitous route that sees it heading both southwest toward Hokkaido’s historic port city of Hakodate and northwest to the storied former fishing and cargo port of Otaru. Another strand snakes its way roughly eastward from Sapporo and crosses the Hidaka Mountains on course for the wilder delights of eastern Hokkaido. Meanwhile, the road system’s final major strand meanders from Sapporo through the wheat- and rice-growing region of the great Ishikari River floodplain en route for the zoo-famed city of Asahikawa. Beyond that the toll-road divides, one arm extending northward toward, but not yet to, the tip of northern Hokkaido — the other roving in graceful sweeps toward Monbetsu on the Sea of Okhotsk coast.

However, to see Hokkaido from this still incomplete highway network is to pass through entrancing landscapes while missing the wonderful details — to see the forests there in abundance, but to miss the trees. The thrill of high speed tends to suck us along the highway conduit, and the complete absence of traffic lights encourages non-stop travel, but the big question is where should one break this headlong rush? Where should one slow down? And which of the many exit ramps deserves taking?

One “must-take” exit proves, surprisingly, to be that for an old coal-mining town called Bibai. Approximately an hour from Sapporo following signs for Asahikawa, this exit debouches travelers from their headlong highway rush onto quiet country backroads in the blink of an eye; it is a jolting contrast, but much more is to come.

After paying your toll to escape the highway and turning east, you will find that narrow Route 135 winds gently into forested hills by way of a lush valley. The rice fields of the Ishikari plain are now but a memory, while ahead the valley seems to narrow toward nowhere in particular. Then suddenly, on the right of the road a modest sign announces “Arte Piazza Bibai.”

It seems an odd setting for a sign in Italian, but beyond it a delightfully old-fashioned and well-maintained wooden school building appears in beautifully kept park-like grounds — just begging for picnickers to descend on its grass lawns and benches, for lovers to stroll around distractedly, and for families to play and romp.

That this attraction is free is astonishing, because this perfect picnic venue is just the first layer of the onion; that it is open 24-hours a day and year-round is nothing short of amazing. This is truly accessible arte.

Park your car, take out your picnic basket, enter the park and peel back the next layer of the cipolla, for this is a site with surprises. Climb the little grassy knoll to your right and you will find hidden and nestling in its top a sunken outdoor auditorium with at its center a great marble shape, smoothly surfaced and sensually rounded as if begging to be stroked, or even caressed.

This is just the first of some 40 astonishing artwork pieces scattered intriguingly around these 17-acre grounds just about plumb in the center of Hokkaido. As you will in due course find with each of the other pieces that slowly reveal themselves as you wander the park and its woodland trails, this one is not labeled. No matter, because it namelessly invites silent contemplation.

Viewing these grand sculptures in an outdoor setting I find myself thinking not so much of the artist, or what his creations might represent to him, but of the delightful juxtaposition of created art and the surrounding, evolving natural beauty.

That some of the works resemble the heavy wave-washed granite boulders I was tempted to carry home from the beaches of Okushiri Island off southwestern Hokkaido, or water-polished rocks in the headwater streams of the Ishikari River, may merely be coincidental — but like them they are intensely tactile, inviting touch, encouraging one to sit on them, to pause and reflect on life and the natural surroundings — or to recline on them and sky-gaze.

What is more, there is a wonderfully harmonious relationship between the unchanging solidity of the sculptures and the ephemeral, seasonal essence of their natural surroundings.

Separate studies in white marble and black bronze are the trademark of Bibai-born artist/sculpture Kan Yasuda, but though his origins are rural, his monumental sculptures appear on display internationally as far afield as Australia, the United States, Spain’s Canary Islands, Italy and Britain, and regularly in exhibitions.

In Japan, he is of course well represented in Hokkaido — and nowhere better than in the Bibai collection, which opened in July 1992 and displays just works by him. As well, however, tantalizing individual pieces are also on display across the country in a long list of places including Tokyo, Yokohama, Hitachi, Kawaguchi, Sakata, Shirakawa, Niigata, Karuizawa, Okazaki, Naoshima and Miyazaki.

Works by him with the same name also crop up repeatedly in catalogs, though their forms differ from location to location — and actually they seem named as if to entice reflection and focus on the scene and the setting more than to describe the sculpted entity. Thus “Shape of Mind,” “Key to a Dream,” “The Echoes,” “Interspace,” “Dragon” and “Secret of the Sky” are ciphers — but with no set key to unlock their codes. They alternate; some are massive, modern, geometric and powerful in form, while others seem essentially feminine, gentle and curving.

Strolling through the Arte Piazza Bibai, one encounters pathways leading to sculptures within woodland, in open spaces of green sward, in the sports gymnasium of the school where children love to climb on them and explore them by touch — while dark bronze shapes placed out in the open become warm in the sunshine, inviting visitors to lie back on them and sky gaze, reveling by day in the warmth while imagining shapes in the clouds — or contemplating the mysteries of the star-studded heavens at night.

Antonio Paolucci, a former head of Italy’s national Artistic and Cultural Endowments Office, and now Director of the Vatican Museums, wrote of Yasuda that only two words are necessary to define his artistic aesthetic: minimalism, and animism. I agree and further feel that in experiencing his pieces in the “flesh” (so-to-speak), the philosophical and religious aspects of Yasuda’s work speak loudly. They appear as if some minimalist haiku had been transcribed in marble or bronze. Their presence seems to create sacred space around them, just as a revered rock or a totemic tree in the vast pantheon of Shinto sacred sites may be honored by ringing it with a shimenawa (plaited-straw rope), or as the indigenous Ainu of Hokkaido mark their sacred animistic sites and send offerings and messages to the gods with sacred carved inau sticks.

Yasuda’s art somehow draws in the landscape, and entices in people, so that it is natural to explore the view through his structures and keyholes, to sit awhile atop a sculpture or to pose within their frames.

Born in rural Hokkaido in 1945, Yasuda received a master’s degree in sculpture from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1969. Following a visit to Italy on a fellowship in 1970, he made his studio-home at Pietrasanta in northern Tuscany close to Carrera, the source of arguably the finest of all marble. Yet, the culmination of his life’s work is to be in Bibai.

In his 2008 book, “Kan Yasuda: Touching the Time,” art critic Tomoo Shibahashi describes Arte Piazza Bibai as “a place to find inner peace,” saying “this art square, which the sculptor Kan Yasuda is determined to make the consummation of his life’s work, does not belong to the city of Bibai alone, but reaches beyond all national boundaries to transmit its message to the world.”

Yasuda’s works here inspire the modern visitor, but hint at the region’s past and its dependence on coal. With the closure of the two main mines, in 1963 and 1973, decline and depression beset the once-booming town, its mining community drained away to other areas of Japan. But even before the closures, as the population haemorrhaged, children faded from the Bibai landscape and their erstwhile schools closed.

Sakae Elementary School was one of those scheduled for demolition, but its nostalgia-inducing brown wooden structure and its gymnasium were saved and new life was breathed into them with the placement of Yasuda’s abstract sculptures within and around them.

In his dark bronzes I see echoes of the past, mourning for lost miners, for the town’s lost children, indications of the pall of coal dust that must have pervaded the area. But in the whiteness of his works in Italian marble, I see the beautiful pristine draping of winter snows bringing beauty to an industrial landscape. The setting here is so surrounded by nature that seasonal colors make repeated visits enticing, to see the pieces offset against a blue summer sky, against the vibrant oranges and reds of autumn, the fresh greens of spring and their contours further softened by a fresh coating of powder snow.

While many pieces invite tactile perception, which engenders joy in children and tears sometimes in adults, others suggest immersion or call out for long-range viewing.

The water aspects of the Arte Piazza are, in my limited experience, unique. Here there are no showy symmetrical fountains suggestive of engineering and artifice that one might find in a grand European-style garden; there are no Zen-induced representations of natural pond and stream perfection, as one might find in a small temple garden or grand strolling garden in Japan. Instead there are invitations.

A shallow pool, floored with white marble rocks, invites splashing and paddling. Or, when calm-surfaced, it invites absorption in the reflection of the school, and the sky. The nearby stream, picked out in white marble and well-seen through the frame on the hillside, is so designed as to present as you walk along it a soundscape that changes from the rushing, riffling of a mountain beck to the gentle chuckles of a lowland brook and the quiet murmurs of a pond.

Like the three great strolling gardens of Japan — Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Kairaku-en in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture and Koraku-en in Okayama — Arte Piazza Bibai invites strolling. However, unlike the controlled and formalized nature of those strolling environments, Yasuda’s legacy in Bibai invites unfettered wanderings, literally and imaginatively.

Getting there: The JR Hakodate Main Line takes 40 min. from Sapporo to Bibai, from where Arte Piazza is 15 min. by bus or taxi. By car, take the Hokkaido Expressway to Bibai Interchange, from where it is 5-min. to Arte Piazza. The site is mostly outdoors, but has two indoor areas (in the school and the gymnasium), a small shop and a coffee shop. Opening times of the indoor facilities are limited, so check ahead. Admission, and parking, are free. For more details, visit www.artepiazza.jp or call (0126) 63-3137. For more on Kan Yasuda, go to www.kan-yasuda.co.jp/english. Mark Brazil is a British travel and natural history writer, photographer and eco-tour consultant based in Hokkaido. He has been a JT contributor since 1982. For more on him, visit www.japannatureguides.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.