How modern art revitalised the city of Towada, Japan

Towada Art Centre
Towada Art Centre | © JNTO
Rebecca Hallett

Freelance writer and editor

Japan’s far north is unfairly overlooked by most overseas visitors, despite its rich history, delicious cuisine, and wild, beautiful landscapes. It’s also a growing art destination, with one of the country’s best contemporary art museums drawing more and more people to the unassuming provincial city of Towada.

Find out more about Japan, one of Culture Trip’s favourite destinations, now fully open to visitors.

When you think of Aomori, the first things to come to mind are probably its cold winters, fresh seafood and raucous traditional festivals. The most northerly prefecture on Japan’s main island, its historical reputation as a remote, slightly wild place still lingers.

So when I heard it’s one of the best modern art destinations in Japan, I was sceptical. Beyond Tokyo, surely you’d think of Kagawa first, with the art islands of the Seto Inland Sea? Or Niigata, where the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale is held?

But as it turns out, this northern province really is now a major modern art destination. The prefecture has five museums dedicated to modern art: Aomori Museum of Art, Hirosaki Museum of Contemporary Art, Aomori Contemporary Art Centre, the Hachinohe Art Museum, and Towada Art Center.

It’s this last one we decided to explore, keen on a day of culture after hiking around the eerie, otherworldly volcanic landscapes of Osorezan. Watching the countryside fade into the city through the bus windows, my scepticism remained. Towada hardly gave the impression of being a cutting-edge art destination. It looked like any other Japanese city, the buildings a typical mix of squat concrete and weathered wood. We passed roofs tiled in red, green and blue; residential streets punctuated with shrine gates and low temple eaves; bustling covered shopping arcades.

Finally, we turned onto a wide avenue lined with cherry trees, lush and green now but surely awash with delicate pink flowers each spring. Then suddenly, we came to an open space filled with sculptures, several covered with the unmistakable dotted patterns of Yayoi Kusama.

Families were relaxing in the square, children clambering on the structures while their parents kept an eye on them.

Stepping off the bus, we looked across the road from the sculptures to a sleek white building: Towada Art Center. The museum has been open since 2008, the Art Square since 2010, the official ‘finish’ of the Arts Towada Project. But the project lives on with events, cultural programmes, community involvement, and public art installations.

Sae Otani, who manages public relations for Towada Art Center, explains that the project began “in response to increasing empty lots in the kanchogai (administrative quarter) due to rearrangement of governmental agency structures. It turns the whole 1.1km kanchogai into an art museum, and at its base is a city revitalisation project through the medium of art.”

The gallery is the centrepiece, an unpretentious, engaging and interactive display of the best of Japanese and international modern artists. Even the entrance is a work of art, the floor covered in multicoloured vinyl tape in Jim Lambie’s Zobop.

“Zobop is my personal favourite”, says Otani-san. “As soon as you take that initial step into the museum, the first thing you’re greeted with is the colourful and rhythmic creativity of the piece.”

Wandering through the museum, every room brings you to something completely different, usually immersive or interactive. Art spills out into the grounds, the corridors, the stairs, the roof. It feels as though it’s escaping its confines at every turn, encouraging you to stay open to spotting something beautiful everywhere you look.

Each piece we came across became our new favourite. In one room, we marvelled at a huge set piece of dramatically lit trees, Mariele Neudecker’s This Thing Called Darkness. In another, we entered a neon-lit tunnel suffused with calming sounds – Bridge of Light by Ana Laura Aláez. In playful Sumpf Land by Takashi Kuribayashi, you clamber on top of a table to poke your head through a hole in the ceiling and enter an ethereal new world of… well, I won’t spoil it, but I re-emerged grinning like a kid.

The museum is a genuine, joyful surprise, something we would never have expected to find in a small provincial city. As curator Sayaka Mitome observes, “even though Towada only has a population of about 60,000, the people of the city actively participate and volunteer during our exhibits and art projects. Part of what makes our museum so great is that we come together with the people of the community to think and work together.”

Sometimes that involvement plays an active part in the creation of exhibitions, as with Jun Kitazawa’s Stranger than Fiction. Through projects like this, locals are encouraged to take ownership of the city’s growing art culture. Otani-san fondly remembers one high school girl who took part in the exhibition:

“At first she was reserved and not very confident, but after some time in an atmosphere of warmth and freedom rather than what she had experienced in her school, slowly she began to speak more and actively pursue things that she found she was good at. When the project was finished, she said ‘This has expanded my world so much.’ I was so glad that we held this exhibit because of how it was able to broaden this girl’s horizons and have her experience emotional growth. That memory still sticks with me today.”

Through projects like this, Arts Towada has become enmeshed in the life of the city far beyond the walls of the museum. Not only has it brought artists, writers and architects to work in the city, but the increase in visitors has led to new businesses and community spaces opening. It’s also allowed existing businesses to develop what they offer.

In the town centre, Matsumoto Tea Stall is known as the Second Art Center. The tiny, unassuming shop shows works by artists exhibited at the museum alongside the everyday items on sale. Shortly after we walked in, the friendly owner began explaining the pieces on display, discussing art with us, and showing us photos of previous exhibitions. His passion and excitement gave way to a sly grin as he gestured to a ladder leading into the small cellar, offering no explanation beyond the fact I should climb down. Slightly nervously, I did – and was met with a Hiroshi Fuji installation, Godzilla made of pink plastic toys and advancing on the islands of Japan.

Arts Towada has created many of these surprising, playful moments around the city, and has contributed a lot to its revitalisation. Opposite Matsumoto Tea Stall is the Civic Exchange Plaza, designed by world-renowned architect Kengo Kuma. Just down the road are artist-owned Fukuda Confectionery Store and the Takamura Grocery Store, which shows art related to the museum’s current exhibition. Of course, there’s also the museum itself, from architect Ryue Nishizawa, and the nearby Tadao Ando-designed City Library.

Many people expect views like this in Aomori, but the modern art scene is also worth exploring

In Towada art is not something roped off, to observe from a distance, which only art world people can understand. It’s something for the enjoyment of the people who live in and visit the city, which you can interact with and enjoy as you go about your day. As we walked back towards the Art Square, we saw several pieces of street furniture. You’re invited to sit on and interact with these sculptures, ranging from the airy wire structure of cloud by Erika Hidaka to the deceptively solid ceramic pillows of Jianhua Liu’s Mark in the Space.

The afternoon was waning as we reached the bus stop, families calling their kids back from the Art Square to head home. We were heading for our next hotel, Oirase Keiryuu, in the famous beauty spot of Oirase Gorge. Along with the serene Lake Towada, this gorge just a short way out of the city is one of the most popular attractions in the area, but art really is the rising star here.

In a 2016 survey, Towada’s elementary and middle school children and their guardians were asked where they’d take someone visiting the city. While the adults put the out-of-town attractions top of the list, the children wanted to first take their guests to the museum and Art Square. Art has become a part of local life that people are proud of, and want to share.

First-time visitors to Japan should definitely make time for the big sights – all covered on Culture Trip’s Japan by Train Grand Tour – while return visitors or those looking to get away from the crowds might want to venture off the beaten track.

Only two percent of international travellers spend time in Tohoku (northern Honshu), making it an ideal choice, but with its natural sights and growing number of exciting cultural attractions like the Towada Art Center, that number will only go up. For now, though, it still feels like a wonderful, colourful secret just waiting for you to discover it.

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