After the Town Lost Its Train

Schools are closing. Populations are shrinking. Towns are fading away. Rural Japan is turning to art festivals for a fresh start.

Mitsukejima and Jianhua Liu’s “Drifting Landscape” in Suzu. All photos by A. D. McCormick unless otherwise noted.

Last September, I traveled to a little town on the edge of nowhere in Japan to look at art. Nearly a hundred miles from the nearest urban center, Suzu City is alive with art: large-scale indoor installations and outdoor sculptures, freshly built and breathlessly promoted on a slick new website and in the pages of a substantial guidebook. It’s all so new that when the guidebook went to press a scant few months before my arrival, nothing was ready, so the artworks were represented rather lamely by conceptual drawings and computer renderings. But I had reason to believe it was worth the trip.

Suzu is on the tip of the Noto Peninsula in Japan. Map by Google.

Suzu City is really a loose cluster of coastal villages ringing mountains and farmland in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture. It’s on the very tip of the Noto Peninsula, a spit of land that juts out of the middle of Honshu, the biggest and most populous island in the Japanese archipelago, and reaches toward Russia, China, and Korea.

Suzu’s present-day remoteness belies its historic significance as a gateway of trade, connected to ports up and down the western coast of Japan and across to mainland nations. These days it’s a quiet place, a quintessentially rural-Japan jumble of tidy roads and newish cars set against weathered houses, factories, shrines, rice paddies, and dense forest. The residents one encounters are friendly and, just like in every other small Japanese town, often elderly. Suzu is running out of young people, fast.

Suzunari Road Station.

After a one-hour flight from Tokyo to Noto Airport, and a half-hour van ride from the airport to Suzu, my companion and I arrived at the Suzunari Road Station, the visitor center and gift shop in center of the main town. Trains used to stop at the adjacent platform, which was near the end of the Noto Line, but the Noto Line closed for good in 2005. The big timber-framed building felt out of scale, greeting the occasional busload of tourists with a display of rental bikes and the country’s ubiquitous vending machines.

This southern, more developed side of Suzu is flat, with dense clusters of old shops mixed with looser configurations of newer commercial buildings. Visitors are never far from the ocean, and the rivers and streams that flow down from the mountain cut the sinuous line of the town into sections. Some of the best views to be had are from the town’s many low bridges.

Preparing for the summer festivals in Suzu.

The long avenue nearest the ocean is dotted with grand, elegant Shinto shrines, their iconic torii gates facing the water. We occasionally encountered an incongruously tall garage building; these house the kiriko floats, tall wooden festival floats laden with many paper lanterns and carried by the townspeople during summer festivals. The art festival was timed to coincide with the kiriko ceremonies, making our visit there a blend of the historic and the contemporary. Our first significant encounter with the festival’s artwork was one of many evocations of this theme. Yoshitaka Nanjo’s “Theater Sumer” is installed at a former theater in Iida.

At the front entrance, an attendant stamped our festival passports on the appropriate square and then ushered us up a flight of creaking stairs and onto a balcony illuminated by a single dim bulb. We stood with a few other visitors at the balcony railing, peering vainly into an expanse of black below. In the hushed, dark room, I breathed the smell of the old wooden building, musty and sharp. The air was cool, in skin-prickling contrast to the late summer warmth outside.

A buzzer went off and we were plunged into darkness. Out from the silence, music began to play, and a sequence of lights slowly, successively illuminated features in the abyss below: a chair, a desk, a bicycle. An old electric fan whirred to life in a spotlight’s glow. At first one light would fade before the next went on and I strained to make sense of what I was seeing. As the music began to swell, the play of lights became more complex, and slowly the scene emerged — a jumble of abandoned, very old junk strewn across the theater floor and stage beyond. The lights brought the static scene to life, a choreographed sequence set to the time of the music.

After several minutes, the dance of lights concluded and the scene below returned to darkness. The music faded away and the little overhead bulb went back on, and we were led out into the afternoon glare. No one spoke for a while.

“Theater Sumer” was a simple arrangement and enhancement of things that were apparently just sitting there, waiting to be activated. Out of context it might have been forgettable. In the abandoned theater in Suzu it felt layered with meaning, calling forth memories that hung thick and invisible in the room. Thus the tone was set for what was to come during my stay in Suzu.

•••

Suzu’s art festival, dubbed the Oku-Noto Triennale, is the most recent creation of director Fram Kitagawa, who has become famous in his country for orchestrating large-scale art festivals set across stretches of Japan’s rural countryside. Amid an increasingly crowded and mostly urban art festival scene in Japan, Kitagawa’s festivals have received considerable attention for their quality, size, and success in drawing domestic and international visitors to economically depressed and depopulated areas.

Kitagawa’s original rural festival, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (now Art Field), is set in a vast inland region of Niigata Prefecture, encompassing roughly 200 villages. By his own account, it was a bumpy start. In Art Place Japan, his 2014 monograph on the Echigo-Tsumari festival, Kitagawa wrote, “[When we began working with the community,] we tried organizing study sessions hosted by prominent members of each municipality but could never get beyond deciding on a nickname for the project before a dispute would break out.”

Ultimately his persistence was rewarded, and the triennial debuted in the summer of 2000. Every third summer, the festival attracts over a hundred thousand tourists to the region, drawn by the unique mix of idyllic mountain villages and a growing number of works of art.

Kitagawa commissioned works created in response to the land, structures, and inhabitants of the region. He drew from earlier experiences in city-based art projects. “A major emphasis,” he wrote, “which I felt very strongly about, was that the art should serve some function for the people living in the place. The art should be integrated into the fabric of the [area], as opposed to having some sort of autonomous assertion of its own separate existence.” Site-based artworks became the rule, the driver, the essence.

The Inland Sea of Japan in 2016.

His next festival project took him to Japan’s Inland Sea, which Donald Richie famously described in English in his 1971 memoir. Called Seto Naikai or more broadly Setouchi by the Japanese, the Inland Sea’s border is defined by the surrounding Japanese islands of Honshu to the north, Shikoku to the southeast, and Kyushu to the southwest. It’s dotted with nearly 3,000 islands and features prominently in Japanese history, where it served as a major maritime corridor and a source of the nation’s fish.

Today fish stocks are depleted and the complex system of small ferries and commercial boats that Richie described have largely given way to vehicle traffic on the massive bridges that now connect the main islands, bypassing the small ones. The spectacular beauty of the region remains.

Approaching Naoshima by ferry during the 2016 Setouchi Art Triennale.

I visited the Inland Sea in July 2016 during the third Setouchi Triennale. The festival’s debut was in 2010, but the roots of the arts experiment in Setouchi go back 30 years, when Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake bought a stretch of land on the island of Naoshima to build a home for his growing collection of mostly Western modern art. Favoring the slow pace of Setouchi life over Tokyo’s frenetic sprawl, he commissioned the design of what would become a series of museums by renowned architect Tadao Ando, including one, Chichu Art Museum, that sits entirely below ground. When Fram Kitagawa signed on, he worked with Fukutake and the island communities to extend the project beyond Naoshima, creating a network of installations and seasonal performances on over a dozen islands and nearby ports.

I crisscrossed Naoshima many times during my short stay, visiting and revisiting points of interest in the near-tropical heat. Aside from the Chichu Art Museum, highlights included the Art House Project, which is a group of converted houses and other buildings in the village of Honmura containing a diverse array of highly refined and perfectly executed permanent installations; and a day trip to neighboring Teshima, where the island’s “museum” is an enormous, column-free, undulating concrete structure housing a single (and singularly mesmerizing) water feature by sculptor Rei Naito.

About a million people visited the Setouchi Triennale in 2016, which for a difficult-to-access stretch of rural Japan is almost inconceivable. Together, the festivals at Setouchi and Echigo-Tsumari set the bar formidably high for little Suzu.

•••

Of the dozens of artworks now dotting the tip of the Noto peninsula, a number are outdoor sculptures and installations that directly interact with the surrounding natural environment. These include Takafumi Fukasawa’s “Continuation of Myth,” a sizable Shinto torii gate on the beach constructed out of white plastic garbage salvaged from the waves; “Go Ashore,” a human figure with large antlers by Tomoko Konoike that lurks on a forested cliff facing the water; anthropologist Daisuke Takekawa’s domed wooden structures in the middle of the forest (“Of the sea; about the mountain”); and Masayoshi Koyama’s weird, fascinating installation, “Drift Spirit At the Back of Beyond.

“Drift Spirit At the Back of Beyond” by Masayoshi Koyama. Photo by Nohagi Naka, from the Oku-Noto Triennale website.

“Drift Spirit” is a boat-skeleton hybrid reminiscent of a filleted fish — the head intact but otherwise just bones. It sits on the beach, boat-end facing the town and bony spine pointing toward the surf. Its upturned ribs are curved pieces of driftwood. Higher tides submerge the sculpture partway, and presumably it will eventually disintegrate or be covered in sand. Again and again, the art at Suzu turns to the ephemeral.

One of the area’s most famous landmarks sits in the water at the southwest end of town. Called Mitsukejima, it’s a tall rocky island that from the shore looks like the sharply angled bow of a stone ship, crowned with trees. On the shore nearby rests Chinese artist Jianhua Liu’s “Drifting Landscape.” Liu, a sculptor and ceramicist, mounded large chunks of smashed porcelain and stoneware in a long strip that traces the upper shoreline northeast of the jetty. The sheer amount of broken objects is disturbing, but set as it is against the scenic beauty of the location, it invites contemplation.

As we arrived at Mitsukejima on our rented bicycles, we encountered a local elder. We greeted him and chatted for a few minutes. He was astonished that we had come all the way out from Tokyo and California to look at broken pottery. He was friendly during our conversation, but I quickly gathered that when he looked upon Liu’s creation, his thoughts did not turn to the tension between nature and artifice, or the fragile quality of even our sturdiest creations. He seemed caught somewhere between irritation and befuddlement. I could imagine the challenges raised by him or others like him in town meetings when the festival idea was first proposed.

Kitagawa wrote:

As we began to realize the [Echigo-Tsumari] triennial, we were faced by a number of problems. We hosted informative presentations for neighborhood residents, community settlements, associations for the promotion of localities, school officials, hospitality businesses, agricultural cooperatives, the media, and local assemblymen, and their responses were extremely skeptical: “There’s no way that you can do community building with art!” or “There’s no sense in spending money on something as unintelligible and inscrutable as contemporary art.”

Even for the initiated, and even in the wake of popular festivals elsewhere, it’s hard to discount these arguments. It’s a conversation that follows Kitagawa wherever he goes, reaching to the heart of local identity, dignity, and history.

•••

Japan is a train culture. Its first train, a scaled-down steam engine and car and a length of track, was a gift — and boast — from the Americans when they pried open the country’s doors in 1853. But while the American rail industry was sidelined in favor of personal automobiles, Japan continues to invest prodigiously in its train network, with over 27,000 km (16,777 miles) of track transporting seven billion passengers a year. Real estate listings in Japan prominently advertise the distance to the nearest station. Its famously efficient bullet trains are the envy of the world.

Tobias Rehberger’s installation, “Something Else Is Possible,” along the abandoned Noto Line in Suzu.

The loss of Suzu’s rail service due to low ridership must have been a psychic blow to the city’s residents. The Noto Line only reached Takojima, its terminus, in 1963, and there are many in Suzu today who remember a time before the train. The tracks tunneled through mountains, traced the contours of the coast, and whisked past homes and over fields, rivers, and roads. Now they are mostly dismantled, but the raised berms and concrete structures that supported them are still there, along with the odd bridge or barricaded tunnel entrance.

Today, several of the former Suzu train stations have been transformed into works of art. In Tobias Rehberger’s “Something Else Is Possible,” the German artist sets the work’s title phrase on a tall sign of jarringly theme-park design, and invites the viewer to gaze at it through a telescope from within a spiraling structure of red-to-yellow-painted square metal frames.

The sign from Tobias Rehberger’s installation, “Something Else Is Possible.”

The sign itself sprouts from just beyond the dilapidated Takojima Station, and from the viewing structure you can walk a few hundred yards along the rails to examine the sign up close. While vague enough to allow interpretation, Rehberger’s message sums up the transformational sentiment embodied in the triennial.

Tatsuo Kawaguchi’s “Small Lost Article Museum” covers the walls inside the former Iida Station ticket office with various unclaimed personal effects, all spray painted a uniform yellow; outside, abandoned umbrellas emerge from the pavement along the platform like weeds.

“Utsushimi” by the Raqs Media Collective, viewed by day.
“Utsushimi” by the Raqs Media Collective, viewed by night. Photo by Nohagi Naka, from the Oku-Noto Triennale website.

At Uedo station, the Indian group Raqs Media Collective duplicated the old platform’s solitary waiting room in a lovingly detailed structure of lights mounted at an angle above the original. In the daytime it’s a bit busy looking. At night, when the spirit of the little building appears to be emerging from its darkened earthbound form, it’s magical.

“MA-MO-NAKU” by Adel Abdessmed.

My favorite station artwork was “MA-MO-NAKU,” Algerian-French artist Adel Abdessemed’s reappropriation of Ukai Station and its decommissioned single train car. A long neon tube pierces the car diagonally lengthwise, emerging from each end. At night its glow basks the interior in ghostly light. By day it’s still quite provocative, as the visitor can stand on the decaying platform and peek inside, while a train-crossing bell chimes eerily at regular intervals. Its effect is violent but calm, melancholic and bittersweet, a gesture to a way of life that is lost forever in Suzu.

•••

To understand any place outside of the major cities in present-day Japan, one must confront the country’s mounting social crisis. The birth rate is stubbornly low, and the age of the average citizen is increasing (a third of the population is over age 65). Between 2010 and 2015, Japan’s official census recorded a loss of almost a million people nationwide. According to a United Nations study released in 2015, Japan is on track to lose a third of its population by the end of the century. Should this prediction bear out, it would be a stunning and potentially disastrous turn for the world’s third-largest economy.

The crisis is more acutely felt in rural areas. Though the population figures in Tokyo and Osaka have remained flat so far, this is due to a steady influx of young people from the country’s heartland seeking degrees and jobs. Once settled, they rarely return to their hometowns, where jobs are scarce and pay is low.

A residential building in Suzu.

With few local young couples staying to start families, rural classrooms grow emptier, forcing schools to close and consolidate. Family businesses operate until the older generation retires, and then they too close for good. In Japan, the phrase “shutter town” was coined to describe once-lively streets now adorned with roll-down metal shutters, permanently closed, like so much bleached coral. Shutters have become synonymous with small-town Japan.

•••

Many of Suzu’s empty buildings have been transformed into art installations; they are the essence of the festival. Beyond the theater and station buildings, there is a wealth of abandoned space to work with. In “JUEN: Time Flies,” Ohji Yoshino converted an old two-story bar into an aquatic-themed museum of his wooden sea creatures.

As I navigated the narrow back hallways and stairs, every turn yielded a new surprise. Schools of suspended fish wove in and out of tatami-floored private rooms. A gigantic wooden crab filled another room, complete with intricately articulated claws. The slightly tacky midcentury decor paired seamlessly with the slightly corny but exceedingly well-crafted sculptures.

A scene from “JUEN: Time Flies” by Ohji Yoshino.

A few blocks away, the students of Kanazawa College of Art (a team called SUZUPRO) transformed a sprawling former home into a multifaceted exploration of the theme “around calm ocean currents.” To this rather tepid phrase, the students responded with big, bold strokes.

The house extended in several directions; down one hallway, we entered a tall room where the walls did not quite touch the ground, letting in a peculiar quality of daylight from below. Suspended in the space was a massive form containing, we were told, virtually everything that had been left behind in the house. Plates, books, furniture, all bound together in tenuous, open netting that stretched up to and across the ceiling above like a big, creepy cocoon.

A scene from SUZUPRO’s group installation in Suzu.

In another room, parts of the wood floor had been carved away, revealing clay roof tiles stored in the space underneath. The surrounding walls had been pasted with thin paper, upon which the students painted a mural filled with historic local scenes; it was marvelous. We milled around with a few others, the wide-planked floor squealing loudly under our feet, and examined the intricately detailed narrative that surrounded us.

A scene from SUZUPRO’s group installation in Suzu.

Elsewhere, photographer and anthropologist Naoki Ishikawa’s curation of the large, vacant ryokan (traditional inn) at Houryu, titled “Mixed Bathing Universe,” offered room after room of historical Suzu artifacts. The space was beautiful and many of the photographs were intriguing, but the exhibition was somehow both rambling and overly precious, neither resonating with nor reacting against the space.

Nobuyuki Tanaka’s contribution (“Tactile Memory — The Primitive World — ”) was the complete opposite: two lacquered sculptures in a tiny, ancient storehouse. The work and the space were in perfect dialogue, understated but captivating, as if the little old building had braved centuries of wear and termites in anticipation of this moment.

Of all the art sites at the Oku-Noto Triennale, I spent the most time at a little bathhouse in Shouin. Before closing just a few years ago it was the venue of choice for the area’s bathers. Split into the men’s side on the right and the women’s side on the left, wood-paneled locker rooms open to tiled bathing rooms with spigots low on the walls, communal soaking tubs at the rear, and idyllic frescoes above.

Each side was given to a different artist. On the women’s side, Yui Inoue stretched thin decorated fabric into interesting peaked forms, softening the space in a pleasant way, but not really mastering it.

Shoko Aso’s contribution on the men’s side was weirder and I couldn’t stop watching it. Aso erected an asymmetrical, organic structure at the rear of the space that reached to the ceiling. This was entirely obscured by soap suds, which flowed down its face and onto and across the entire floor of the bathing room at five-minute intervals. That was it — soap suds. And what could be more obvious in a bathhouse?

Shoko Aso’s installation, “Shape of Faith,” in a former bathhouse.

I couldn’t leave. We stayed for maybe three quarters of an hour, watching the bubbles. One of the two attendants, a bright young woman from Saitama named Momoka, spoke to us at length about the artwork and the artist. I listened, but I was fixated on the bubbles. They coursed down and towards us, coating the entire floor, but seemed to magically stop at the threshold — until suddenly they didn’t, and the other attendant flapped at them with a laminated sheet of paper, trying to drive them back. We all laughed. Still we stayed.

I still don’t know what it was about that room. I wish I could go back.

•••

The Suzu bus is as punctual and efficient as any in Japan but if you miss it, you have a long time to wait until the next one comes along. Once aboard, you are typically treated to the company of a few of the town’s elders, who politely ignore tourists as they chat happily in Suzu dialect on the winding route between villages.

We chose lodging well outside of town, at a minshuku, or traditional business hotel, nestled among a small cluster of houses and old commercial buildings on the northern coast. The rooms had tatami floors and thin futon mattresses, and looked out over clay tile roofs. On the second night I found a truly gigantic mantis on the staircase wall and escorted it outside. We were apparently the only guests.

Summer was winding down, and while the season’s cicadas were still making their peculiar racket in the trees, the breeze was cool. We walked along the road in a drizzle for a while, appreciating the size of the place. On this end of Suzu, a vehicle was definitely required to travel the distance between art sites, and we had none.

We walked along a valley at the edge of a long chain of rice paddies, which were guarded at regular intervals by a motley crew of riotously decorated scarecrows. They were so creatively fabricated and adorned that it was impossible to imagine them as separate from the official triennial program, though they were not in the guide book.

“The boat which carries time” by Chiharu Shiota. Photo by Nohagi Naka, from the Oku-Noto Triennale website.

We did not see Chiharu Shiota’s installation of red threads erupting like a fountain of blood from an old rowboat in an abandoned preschool. (It references time.) Nor did we see Takahiro Iwasaki’s ocean of salt filling an old house in Misaki. The former was too far afield and the latter just beyond our route.

In fact, despite exploring Suzu for over two days on bicycle, foot, and bus, we barely filled our festival passport stamp collection halfway. We frequently saw domestic tourists flitting between destinations by car; they tended to stay for the amount of time needed to take selfies before speeding away to the next map pin. I did not envy them.

After the scarecrows, we turned around and found a small restaurant near our hotel. We were the only diners, and the elderly proprietors were clearly delighted to have us. We ordered Japanese curry and very large beers and sat for a time, savoring the food and the quiet.

•••

International art festivals are of course neither new nor unique to Japan. Even the regional development concept behind Kitagawa’s projects is not without precedent. But something different is happening in Japan, fermented in the country’s history of and experience with contemporary art and activated by its current economic and social climate.

A cabaret restaurant wall in Suzu. Inside, Eat&Art Taro’s “‘Cabaret in preparation’ at world’s end” offers an interactive art and food experience.

Sumiko Kumakura and Yuichirou Nagatsu of Tokyo University of the Arts are leading experts on Japan’s “art projects.” In An Overview of Art Projects In Japan, their 2015 guide, they defined art projects as “art-related initiatives held outside traditional museum and gallery spaces,” specifically “taking place at a whole range of sites that emphasize the process of engaging with a wide range of people.”

Japan’s economic boom period during the late 20th century created the image of a decadent, futurist mega-metropolis that endures to this day, but the era was challenging for Japanese artists. Prevailing social attitudes and government priorities favored the imported work of celebrity western artists over emerging local ones, and a culture of media consumption rapidly displaced the arts in popular consciousness. As Kumakura and Nagatsu wrote, “With economic growth, more emphasis came to be placed on ease of understanding and enjoyment of beauty while more challenging things became less tolerated.”

It took until close to the end of the century for the tide to turn in favor of local artists, with the establishment of grants for individual artists and national arts organizations paving the way for greater support and exposure. Alternative spaces for the arts became more common, with the increased availability of empty commercial spaces following the so-called burst of the economic bubble providing venues for exhibition and experimentation. As domestic artists gained a surer position in the social conversation, more innovative and socially driven art projects began to emerge, activating communities in the major cities and even taking root in the more conservative countryside.

Kumakura and Natagsu wrote:

Similar kinds of endeavor can be seen in many countries worldwide, but what is likely the most unique feature of Japan’s art projects is the large number of art festivals held in smaller villages, towns, and across large rural areas. These activities form and intersect with varying art scenes, ranging from community-based projects organized by local amateurs, to exhibitions held by local professional artists showcasing their work, to projects that invite international contemporary artists to take part.

Despite the many favorable signs, there is no clear consensus yet on the effectiveness of Japan’s rural art festivals in driving economic change. The success of the Setouchi Triennale, having hit a million visitors during its last two iterations, would seem to validate the concept. But the philanthropy of Soichiro Fukutake and his Benesse Foundation remains a powerful driver behind the project, and it’s too early to know if the “art island” of Naoshima has experienced a truly sustainable economic shift. And even if it has, it may be an outlier.

During the 2012 Setouchi festival, Carolin Funck and Nan Chang of Hiroshima University asked visitors on Naoshima to name the “most impressive place” they had encountered. Thirty-six percent of respondents selected the unique, expensive Chichu Art Museum, which, while indeed impressive, is essentially an underground altar to the work of three western artists (Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria). In second place, with only 15% of the vote, was the Art House Project, which is more typical of the rural Japanese festivals.

“Silhouette Factory” by Bunpei Kado at the Suzu festival.

Suzu City has no billionaire investor to kickstart a tourism boom with prestige architecture and a collection of paintings by celebrity impressionists. Then again, the Japanese government has attracted criticism in recent decades for its tendency to spend big money on rural infrastructure projects with little apparent return on investment. For Kitagawa and Japan’s art project producers, museums are not the answer, no matter how grand and well appointed. If the problem is the survival of rural communities, they seem to say, then empty schoolhouses and train stations become the ideal venues, and art’s storied role as a vehicle for social change — not just a cultural commodity — becomes the primary consideration.

“It is necessary to change the circumstances and bring in new elements,” Kitagawa wrote. “It is important to involve and accept others. Art is a medium that can move and transform people.”

•••

After a marathon bike ride across town, we made it to the Ongoing Collective’s “Oku-Noto Oral Tradition Museum” with not nearly enough time to do it justice. The Ongoing Collective is an extension of the Art Center Ongoing in Kichijōji, a hip neighborhood in suburban Tokyo. Brainchild of Nozomu Ogawa, the center provides an essential meeting, engagement, and exhibition space for forward-thinking Tokyo artists. I had visited the tiny center for the first time the day before I left for Suzu and was pleasantly baffled by the chaotic scattering of work on display in the cramped gallery upstairs.

Entering the Kodomari Preschool in Suzu, which the Ongoing Collective had occupied, I wedged my feet into the too-small slippers provided and shuffled between rooms, experiencing a familiar sense of vertigo. The collective’s installations related to oral histories that the artists had collected during their research in Suzu. These stories were heavily manipulated, densely layered with meaning, requiring time to unpack. Most incorporated projected video and sound, but the two did not always seem to agree with each other. Some of the imagery was provocative, depicting sex and murder. In other works the imagery was so abstract or metaphorical that the meaning was elusive. At times I wondered if I was even standing in the right place. In a festival of approachable (if often nuanced) artworks, here was an experience overtly intended to challenge the viewer.

I was satisfied to see work like this accommodated in the festival. But I also thought of the old man at Mitsukejima, and even the more open-minded locals we had met during our trip, the ones who stamped our passports along the route and expressed a deep commitment to the festival. Without the context one gets through significant, lifelong exposure to contemporary art, would work like this reach them? Outside of the clash of ideas and the race to the future embodied in cities, is it really possible to build a sustainable community around contemporary art?

Art festival banners in Suzu.

At the bathhouse full of soap suds in Shouin, despite my complete and near-inexplicable absorption with the work, I made sure to exchange contact information with the attendant, Momoka, who had so enthusiastically explained the piece to us. She had come to Suzu from Saitama, near Tokyo, to work on the triennial. Kitagawa’s army of young mostly volunteer supporters are the driving force behind his projects. They lay the groundwork, connect with the locals, help the artists build their installations, greet visitors, interpret the work, clean up, and all of the other countless details that go into these huge productions.

A passionate advocate of the arts, Momoka moved to Suzu not only to work on the festival for the summer, but with plans to stay for the following three years to prepare for the second triennial in 2020.

Her long-term personal investment in the community is a rare exception among the many staff who join the festivals during the busy season, only to leave with the last of the tourists. It’s an important sign of the sort that sociologists and economists and many others in Japan are closely following.

Suzu will never again be what it once was. But what could it become? If small places like Suzu can attract even a small number of energetic community-builders like Momoka, then maybe — just maybe — it could signal a positive shift.

I asked her what the response from the local community was to the art festival. She was upfront: “Many of the older people here think, ‘Art? No thanks!’” Suzu City had decided to make the festival a reality, but that didn’t mean everyone was happy about it.

She didn’t seem discouraged by these reactions. Momoka struck me as the sort of person who worked hard for what she believed in, and met obstacles with patience and diplomacy.

Back in the States, I connected with her on Instagram, where she posts photos and videos of life in her adopted home. A group of staff cheering each other at the conclusion of the festival in November. A local elder hanging persimmons in his yard. He notices her recording him and smiles sheepishly. Sunrise from atop a sea cliff, someone silhouetted against the sky; no art in sight, but art is everywhere in Suzu.

•••

The next Echigo-Tsumari festival will take place in the summer of 2018. In 2019, the Setouchi Art Triennale will host its fourth festival, with acts in the spring, summer, and fall. The Oku-Noto Art Triennale in Suzu will next occur in September 2020. Not mentioned in this article, the Japan Alps Art Festival, another rural festival by Kitagawa, debuted in the spring of 2017.