2 days at the Nakanojo Biennale of Art

Welcome to a lovely corner of Gunma Prefecture for the Nakanojo Biennale (Nakabi). In its 3rd edition, the festival can be compared to the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, Japan’s oldest and largest countryside art festival, for it borrows the same recipe: find a seldom visited corner of Japan, reopen long closed primary schools, old breweries, former factory and empty houses to display a select group of artists (Japanese-only in the case of Nakabi) for a crowd of locals and day-trip visitors from other corners of Japan and bigger cities. I visited the festival on its closing weekend early October for reasons I will mention later in this post, and had a total blast.

I want to share some of the features that make the festival a great 1~3-day trip opportunity and some of the aspects that I hope will be improved before their next edition in 2013.

The Best
The area has luckily been spared the all too usual straight, endless national road bordered by chain stores treatment. The main reason is that it is tucked in a little corner of Gunma Prefecture that you cannot actually go through for the roads end at big damns up in the mountain. Additionally, it is onsen wonderland with Kuni Onsen, Sawatari Onsen and the famous Shima Onsen areas; all of which you go through and stop by to catch some of the 160 artists showing in the festival.

Fairly compact the festival can be covered in 2 packed days of driving the roughly 80km of roads linking the 2 extremities and stopping by the 43 art locations. Most of the roads are small mountain paths limited to 40km/h that offer great opportunities for sporty driving to the seasoned tourer taking out his Lotus Elise for a cultural spin in the soft end-of-summer weather.

I spent 2 days in the area, visiting the West half on the first day on my own and the East part on day 2 with Tomomi who was joining for the day from Tokyo. A third day would have been required to visit all the locations but a quick study of the very nice and detailed Biennale guidebook allowed me discard about a quarter of the artworks that looked less appealing.

The first day I progressed slowly West to arrive in the Kuni Onsen area in the evening for a good night in a tiny and lovely onsen ryokan lost in the mountains. On day 2 Tomomi and I went straight to the Shima Onsen area and slowly worked our way back to the Nakanojo station. The Festival is really well-paced, with only between 5~10km between 2 locations and often a few artists to view at once.

Maybe it was because the festival was in its last weekend but most of the staff at each location seemed to be a local grandpa/ma types that had been recruited for days at a time. What they seemed to lack in knowledge of the artwork or curiosity in its visitors, they made up in kindness, local knowledge and tips to reach the next artwork. It also gave the festival a true local feel, just as if they’d set up the festival on their own without the help of any curator from the big city. We could sense their personal pride in the festival, full awareness of its positive impact on the area and its people.

Having visited a couple of much bigger art festivals in Japan, I was originally suspicious of the quality of the artworks I would find here despite a few great pieces introduced by Spoon & Tamago. Shame on me for imagining that such a lovely area could attract lesser curation or talent. Not only did all our visits made me regret my original doubts, the location themselves were art pieces in their own rights and Tomomi and I found ourselves often staying far longer than we’d imagined, studying every corner of the old houses, factories, and closed school frozen in time, still full of original furnitures and items much echoed by Masahiko Kiyooka’s “The cycle of things” installation in the Former Gotanda School.

The Rest

Let me now mention some of challenges I think the festival faces in the run up to the next edition:

  • Promotion was nearly inexistent from what I’ve heard. The fact that no one involved in TAB had heard of the festival until about mid September is truly regrettable.
  • No English description of the event or artworks on their website, booklet, road signs.
  • Clearly, the East half of the festival showcased much better artworks (which I easily worked out just flipping through their booklet on the morning of the first day and confirmed on the second.) This was probably by design, for 1-day trippers but a few high profile artworks on the West would have encouraged more people to stay overnight.
  • Moreover, a few higher profile Japanese or international artists would have gone a long way in helping with the festival’s promotion.
  • The area is full of great photo spots. I was able to find a lot without going out of my way much, but the landscape is so stunning it would have been nice to see recommended scenery spots on the festival map.
  • Lastly, I feel like there were too few opportunities for me to spend money in the area. Save for a few gift stores. I fail to see how the festival can be a viable project.

In any case, I am truly looking forward to the next edition in 2013, and so probably are the organizers who’ve announced they’ve doubled the previous attendance to 300,000. And I hope to have the opportunity to visit a few more of these lovely and unique art festivals around Japan. Next on my list is probably the Beppu Contemporary Art Festival 2012.

[More photos on Flickr]


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  • Aka.me

    Based in Paris & Tokyo, Paul Baron is a senior product manager for hire. Ex-@AQworks. Co-founder of cultural platform Tokyo Art Beat.
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