Teshikaga Extreme Cold Art Festival: “A place created by gods and artists”

Yoshiaki Imai was working in Kyoto as a television director when his job sent him to Kawayu Onsen for the first time.

It was the early 1990s and the city, located in Akan Mashu National Park in eastern Hokkaido, was to be the subject of a program focusing on the natural resources of the region. onsen (hot Springs).

Imai, originally from Shiga Prefecture, found himself deeply drawn to the raw nature of the area and later decided to build a second home near Lake Kussharo, where he began vacationing. He had briefly considered moving to Kyushu’s Yakushima Island, but realizing he needed a more permanent change, he ultimately opted to move to his Lake Kussharo home in 2000. In addition to the low cost of the life in the area, Imai was drawn to the artistic possibilities it offered. by its spectacular landscapes.

Kawayu Onsen is the coldest onsen town in Japan, with winter temperatures as low as -30 degrees Celsius. Unique natural phenomena occur when temperatures reach -15°C, including diamond dust that becomes visible as steam freezes after swirling from the onsen river; trees embedded in the ice; and eerie-looking frost flowers that shimmer on the frozen surface of Lake Kussharo, where Siberian whooper swans winter each year.

“The power of nature here to inspire artists is extraordinary,” says Imai. Despite the area’s natural beauty, however, he says its art scene was non-existent – 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 in his own ceramic kiln – “Japan’s first-ever ‘live kiln’,” he proudly declares. 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 after the Great East Japan Earthquake the previous year.

Inspired by the artistic possibilities amid the harsh but beautiful natural conditions of Hokkaido, Yoshiaki Imai, founder of the Teshikaga Extreme Cold Art Festival, moved to Kawayu Onsen, Japan’s coldest onsen town, in 2000. | KIMBERLY-HUGHES

Imai renamed its event Teshikaga Extreme Cold Art Festival in 2013 when it started drawing crowds in the hundreds. In addition to a disaster relief concert and an open-air museum called Mashu Art Road, he rented a hotel in nearby Teshikaga for a seven-day, seven-room art event featuring seven artists from all over Japan.

“While packing everything up afterwards, I realized that what we really needed was a permanent space to create art,” says Imai. “At that time, I heard about an inn closing in Kawayu Onsen, so my company in Kyoto decided to buy it.”

Drawing from its vast network of artists, Imai set out to create Art Inn, a space by and for artists that opened in 2018 as the festival’s official hotel and venue. Although the event initially lasted two to five weeks during the winter season, Imai adopted a fixed schedule in 2020 and now holds the festival every year from February 2 to March 3.

“When we first built the hostel, artistic perspective was a top priority; a carpenter would never have built something like this,” Imai says with a smile. Incorporate ideas from the elegant onsen ryokan (traditional-style Japanese inns) in which he had stayed during filming in Japan, Imai and his team of international artists designed guest rooms that incorporated individual art installations into the interior design.

The hostel also has several atmospheric pools for bathing in the local onsen waters, which Imai says are perfect for healing and relaxation as they flow directly from the source of Mount Iou, a volcano located 2.5 kilometers.

Artist Tsuneo Sekiguchi, who had built “rainbow huts” for the Setouchi Triennial and the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, also created a similar area for the hostel’s first floor, using water and a mirror reflecting sunlight to project a rainbow backdrop for a space to dance and connect. He further incorporated eco-earth plaster and jute coffee sacks into the walls, which he designed using a Michelangelo-style fresco technique; and created another rainbow hut outside, as well as a firehouse to host bonfires and nightly shows.

“Sekiguchi invited artist friends from Taiwan, who then started inviting their own friends from other countries as well,” Imai explains. “By word of mouth alone, more and more artists started coming to the festival every year, both from Japan and overseas. In this way, our network has continued to grow.

The hostel is bordered by the Yuno River to the north, the 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 place as “a collaboration of art, onsen, and intense cold…a place created by gods and artists.”

In the weeks leading up to the festival, artists arrive to prepare their works on site, and are free to use the “yukimori (snowy forest) open-air museum” in the form of a giant canvas. They are also encouraged to use any natural materials they find in the field and have access to an extensive collection of tools and machines.

Artist Tsuneo Sekiguchi has designed a version of his 'rainbow hut' art installation, which uses mirrors that reflect water and sunlight to project rainbow backgrounds, for the first floor of Yoshiaki Imai's hostel in Kawayu Onsen, Hokkaido.  |  SOLVEIG BOERGEN
Artist Tsuneo Sekiguchi has designed a version of his ‘rainbow hut’ art installation, which uses mirrors that reflect water and sunlight to project rainbow backgrounds, for the first floor of Yoshiaki Imai’s hostel in Kawayu Onsen, Hokkaido. | SOLVEIG BOERGEN

Naturally, the pandemic has had an impact on the festival, with the number of artists based in Japan dwindling due to virus-related issues, and foreign artists unable to attend at all due to border restrictions. Still, the festival persevered by instituting anti-virus measures and limiting the number of attendees. For those who can’t be there in person, Imai is also updating the event’s Facebook page with photos and videos showcasing installations and performances.

This year’s edition of the festival, which is currently underway, features more than 40 works by domestic and foreign artists. Among the pieces on display are “Celebration Forest” by Hiroshi Miyazaki, which depicts the koropokkuru the forest spirits of 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 made from wood and glass as a receptacle to contain the collective energy of the forest.

Recurring exhibitor Lua Rivera, a visual artist from Mexico, is quoted in the festival brochure as saying, “Staying at the Art Inn was a wonderful experience. … I dare say there are very few places like this in the world. One of his works, a simple but dramatically vibrant piece titled “Onibi”, features red ribbons hanging between the trees above the snow. Describing it as “a kinetic textile installation that represents an interdimensional portal suspended in time and space,” Rivera adds, “I experiment to know and I produce to survive. Art can erase the boundaries between disciplines, promote free interaction between them and allow the exhibition to transcend the walls of the gallery.

Another regular contributor is Jun Honma, a Tokyo native who delves deep into binaries such as history and memory; and presence and absence. It also explores the mutual interaction between nature and living beings.

“In this extreme and cold place, I want to create a landscape that evokes the superposition of temporal events that are now invisible,” reads its description. “It is a landscape where the fragments of the people who formed this place assimilate and disappear into the background. Falling snow will also make them invisible.

The high acidity levels of local onsen waters also feature in art installations, as the sulfuric vapor is able to dissolve metals and concrete. Imai notes that while this causes trouble for local innkeepers, he’s also created his own kind 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, revealing how colors change from volcanic vapor.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, Imai is confident that attendance will eventually return to pre-coronavirus levels which saw 1,500 visitors in 2019. Coincidentally, the official name of his hostel-museum combination is Art Inn Extreme Cold Art Contagion Machine. Asked about any COVID-19-related hints it might conjure up, Imai cryptically says he simply “anticipated the virus in advance.”

“I deliberately chose the word ‘contagion’ because art represents a feeling or an energy that is transmitted from one person to another,” he adds. “And I believe that only people who understand the deeper meaning of this feeling will come to the festival.”

The Teshikaga Extreme Cold Art Festival runs through March 3 in Kawayu Onsen, Hokkaido. For more information, visit http://acaf.teshikaga.asia.

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