Echigo Tsumari Art Field
Photo: Osamu Nakamura, Niigata Prefecture Tourism AssociationYayoi Kusama, 'Tsumari in Bloom'

Japan's largest open-air art festival Echigo-Tsumari Art Field is back this year

Here’s why the triennial outdoor art festival is worth a special pilgrimage to rural Niigata

Emma Steen
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Emma Steen
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Held every three years in rural Niigata, Echigo-Tsumari Art Field is touted as the world’s largest outdoor art exhibition. Since its inaugural event in 2000, the large-scale art festival has since accumulated 200 permanent installations – all scattered across the prefecture – by local and international artists the likes of Yayoi Kusama, Leandro Erlich, Kohei Nawa and James Turrell, to name a few. 

Following a series of Covid-19 related setbacks, the eighth edition of the art festival is now being held this year. As it now celebrates 22 years since its establishment, this year’s Echigo-Tsumari Art Field is bigger than ever, with events and exhibitions set to run from now through November 13 2022

Echigo Tsumari Art Field
Photo: Niigata Prefecture Tourism AssociationLeandro Erlich, 'Palimpsest: pond of sky'

Stunning pieces from the world’s leading artist against a backdrop of breathtaking natural landscapes

With an emphasis on harnessing the nature and surrounding landscapes of the Echigo-Tsumari region, most of the installations and artworks for the festival are exhibited outdoors. Examples include Leandro Erlich's 'Palimpsest: pond of sky' piece found in the inner courtyard of the MonET (Museum on Echigo-Tsumari), as well as the 2018 piece ‘Tunnel of Light’, where MAD Architects transformed the old Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel into an iconic contemporary landmark. 

The festival also features a number of indoor exhibits that reclaim forgotten spaces like abandoned schools and houses to give old buildings new life, like Chihiro Kabata’s 2022 installation 'House of Stream'. This piece uses furniture taken from an abandoned house for a meditative installation that communicates the history of Ichinosawa village, where the installation will be on show through November 13. 

The most famous project that sprang from the initiative, however, is James Turrell’s ‘House of Light’, which was purpose built for the inaugural edition of the triennale in 2000. Specifically designed for the Echigo Tsumari region by the artist, this house fuses traditional Japanese architecture and tatami mat rooms with Turrell’s signature use of light and colour. It is one of the precious few exhibition spaces in Japan that also serves as a guest house that visitors can spend a night in.

Echigo Tsumari Art Field
Photo: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association

You can visit for a day trip but you’ll want to stay longer

In theory, some of the installations can be visited on a day trip from Tokyo. The Echigo Tsumari Art Field website outlines a suggested itinerary that involves taking a train from Tokyo to Niigata just before 8am and returning at 8.30pm, after touring some of the region’s most revered projects including the Matsudai Nohbutai art field. 

In practice, however, anyone visiting the area should plan to spend several days in the region if they can afford to go for longer than a weekend. The installations belonging to the initiative are scattered across several districts within the prefecture: Tokamachi, Tsunan, Nakasato, Kawanishi, Matsudai and Matsunoyama. 

For perspective, it takes about two hours to drive from the southern region of Tsunan to the northern area of Kawanishi. This is all part of the festival’s design: conceptualised as a way to bring more attention to little known pastoral corners of Niigata, visitors are encouraged to immerse themselves in the natural beauty and unique landscapes of the region that range from terraced rice paddies to picturesque gorges. 

Kiyotsu gorge tunnel of light
Photo: ikeda_a /PIXTAMAD Architects, 'Tunnel of Light'

Book your passport before end-July for the early bird discount 

Aside from the region’s seasonal showcases and permanent exhibits, this year’s art festival – as always – boasts an eclectic programme of limited-time workshops, events and performances spread out over the coming months. These range from an ethereal contemporary dance presented by Tanaka Min, to origami workshops by Tomoko Fuse

Early bird passports – which grant multi-access to a list of pre-determined venues – are now available for purchase online until July 29. They cost ¥3,500 (normal price ¥4,500) for adults and ¥2,500 (normally ¥3,500) for university and high school students. Passports are free for junior high school students or younger. Alternatively, you can opt to pay a separate admission fee for each site you visit.

Note that in order to tour the various artworks in the region, you’ll need to undergo a brief health screening at the beginning of the day and wear a paper wristband distributed at temperature check points. 

The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale is now running until November 13 2022. For more information, visit the art festival’s website

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