Yoshiaki Imai was working in Kyoto as a director for TV when his job sent him to Kawayu Onsen for the first time.
It was the early 1990s and the town, located in eastern Hokkaido’s Akan Mashu National Park, was to be the subject of a program focusing on the area’s natural onsen (hot spring).
Imai, a native of Shiga Prefecture, found himself deeply attracted to the region’s raw nature and subsequently decided to build a second home nearby Lake Kussharo, where he began spending his holidays. He had briefly considered relocating to Kyushu’s Yakushima Island, but realizing he needed a more permanent change, he finally opted to move to his Lake Kussharo home in 2000. In addition to the region’s low cost of living, Imai was attracted to the artistic possibilities offered by its dramatic scenery.
Kawayu Onsen is Japan’s coldest onsen town, with winter temperatures plunging as low as -30 degrees Celsius. Unique natural phenomena arise when temperatures reach -15 C, including diamond dust that becomes visible when steam freezes after swirling up from the onsen river; trees that become encrusted in ice; and otherworldly-looking frost flowers that glint off the frozen surface of Lake Kussharo, where whooper swans from Siberia winter each year.
“The power of nature here to inspire artists is extraordinary,” Imai explains. Despite the area’s natural beauty, however, he says that its art scene was nonexistent — until Kawayu Onsen’s first art gallery opened in 2011. He celebrated its opening by inviting several jazz musician friends from Tokyo to perform a live show inside his own ceramic kiln — “Japan’s very first ‘kiln live,’” he says proudly. The following year he organized On Art, a festival that fused onsen and art while raising funds to support the ongoing reconstruction of the Tohoku region following the previous year’s Great East Japan Earthquake.
Imai renamed his event the Teshikaga Extreme Cold Art Festival in 2013, when he began drawing crowds in the hundreds. In addition to a disaster relief concert and an outdoor museum called the Mashu Art Road, he rented out a hotel in the nearby town of Teshikaga for a seven-day, seven-room art event featuring seven artists from across Japan.
“While packing everything up afterward, I realized that what we really needed was a permanent space to create art,” Imai says. “Just then, I heard of an inn closing in Kawayu Onsen, so my company in Kyoto decided to buy it.”
Tapping into his extensive network of artists, Imai set about creating Art Inn, a space by and for artists that opened in 2018 as both a hotel and official festival venue. Although the event at first spanned anywhere from two to five weeks during the winter season, Imai adopted a fixed schedule in 2020, and now holds the festival every year from Feb. 2 through March 3.
“When we were first building the inn, the artistic perspective took absolute priority; a carpenter would have never built anything like this,” Imai says, grinning. Incorporating ideas from the stylish onsen ryokan (traditional-style Japanese inns) he had stayed in while filming around Japan, Imai and his team of international artists fashioned guest rooms that integrated individual art installations into the interior design.
The inn also features several atmospheric pools for bathing in the local onsen waters, which Imai notes are perfect for healing and relaxation since they flow directly from the source of Mount Iou, a volcano located 2.5 kilometers away.
Artist Tsuneo Sekiguchi, who had built “rainbow huts” for the Setouchi Triennale and Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, also created a similar area for the first floor of the inn, using water and a sunlight-reflecting mirror to project a rainbow backdrop for a space of dancing and connection. He additionally incorporated ecologically friendly earthen plaster and jute coffee sacks into the walls, which he designed using a Michelangelo-style al fresco technique; and created another rainbow hut outdoors, along with a fire hut to host nightly bonfires and performances.
“Sekiguchi invited some artist friends from Taiwan, who then started inviting their own friends from other countries, too,” Imai says. “Just by word of mouth, more artists started coming to the festival each year, both from Japan and overseas. In this way, our network just kept growing.”
The inn is bordered by the Yuno River to the north, Kawayu Shrine to the south, and a nearly 5,000-square-meter red pine forest to the west that is home to a population of ezo deer. Imai describes the location as “a collaboration of art, onsen and severe cold … a place created by gods and artists.”
In the weeks leading up to the festival, artists arrive to prepare their works onsite, and are free to use the “yukimori (snow forest) outdoor museum” as a giant canvas. They are also encouraged to use whatever natural materials they find on the grounds, and have access to an extensive collection of tools and machinery.
Naturally, the pandemic has impacted the festival, with the number of Japan-based artists decreasing due to virus-related concerns, and overseas artists unable to attend at all due to border restrictions. Still, the festival has persevered by instituting antivirus measures and limiting the number of attendees. For those unable to be there in person, Imai is also updating the event Facebook page with photos and videos featuring installations and performances.
This year’s edition of the festival, which is currently underway, features more than 40 works from both domestic and overseas artists. Pieces on display include Hiroshi Miyazaki’s “Celebration Forest,” which depicts the koropokkuru forest spirits from indigenous Ainu legends, and Taiwanese artist Kuei-Chih Lee’s “Snow Words,” which represents an effort to transcend barriers by listening to the “voice” of falling snow. One of Imai’s own contributions is “Collection of Forest Power,” an installation crafted from wood and glass as a receptacle to hold the collective energy of the forest.
Repeat exhibitor Lua Rivera, a visual artist from Mexico, is quoted in the festival pamphlet as saying, “Staying at Art Inn has been a wonderful experience. … I dare say that there are very few places like this in the world.” One of her works, a simple and yet dramatically vibrant piece titled “Onibi,” features red ribbons suspended between trees above the snow. Describing it as “a textile kinetic installation that represents an interdimensional portal suspended in time and space,” Rivera adds, “I experiment to know, and produce to survive. Art can erase the boundaries between disciplines, promoting a free interaction between them and allowing the exhibition to transcend the walls of the gallery.”
Another regular contributor is Jun Honma, a Tokyo native who deeply probes binaries such as history and memory; and presence and absence. He also explores the mutual interaction between nature and living beings.
“In this extreme, cold place, I want to create a landscape that evokes the overlapping of time events that are now invisible,” his description reads. “It is a landscape where the fragments of the people who have formed this place assimilate and disappear in the background. Falling snow will also make them invisible.”
The high acidity levels of the local onsen waters feature additionally in the art installations, as the sulfuric steam is capable of dissolving metals and concrete. Imai notes that while this causes problems for local innkeepers, it has also created its own genre of “corrosion art.” Tokyo-based artist Daigo Kobayashi’s “Sulphur Piano” highlights this phenomenon with an installation in which he wraps a piano in 400 sheets of pure silver foil, thereby revealing how colors shift from the volcanic steam.
Despite the continuing pandemic, Imai is confident that attendance will eventually return to pre-coronavirus levels that saw 1,500 visitors in 2019. Coincidentally, the official name of his combination inn-museum is the Art Inn Extreme Cold Art Contagion Machine. When asked about any COVID-19-related allusions this could conjure, Imai says cryptically that he simply “anticipated the virus in advance.”
“I deliberately chose the word ‘contagion’ because art represents a feeling or an energy that spreads from person to person,” he adds. “And I believe that only people who understand the deeper meaning of this sentiment will come to the festival.”
The Teshikaga Extreme Cold Art Festival runs through March 3 at Kawayu Onsen, Hokkaido. For more information, visit http://acaf.teshikaga.asia.
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Teshikaga Extreme Cold Art Festival, Yoshiaki Imai