Underway

Our first workshop was great fun. We worked with a lovely group of students from the  Matsunoyama branch school of Tokamachi high school to produce the first collection of copper plates.

Now to etch them, print them and polish them. Eventually they will be tied with cord into the hut along with the other etched and un-etched copper shingles. The hut will be perched up on an old, disused rice terrace opposite Australia House. The path leading up to the artwork has been cut, the foundations are being laid - things are getting very exciting!

Following our workshop in Matsunoyama we spent a very inspiring afternoon with Yamamoto-san at the Isawa Washi paper studio, close to Matsudai. He demonstrated the process used to make the paper he has produced for the 2000 Waraji, 200 feet book. We are thrilled to be working with his beautiful paper.

In another land

Heidi Axelsen

The surface of the land is finally visible, meters below the surface we encountered in the winter and the summer. Obscured by heavy blanket of snow, or thick rushes of tall grasses, I can finally step out into the land & touch the actual ground. 

Spring…It is the perfect time for us to locate a site for the artwork, which is the main mission of this May trip. The impenetrable tall woody grasses have been flattened by the weight of four meters of snow and have become a thick bristly hair combed down the hillside. We can now scale the hills and understand what kind of soil we will be working with, how the footings of the artwork can tread on this earth and where we can find the bubbling little streams that will flow into our work. 

I hope the current shape of the land, clear and unobscured, is a metaphor for this phase of our work. In other words, I hope we are reaching a point in our project where we gain the clarity and permission to build on a site. 

It has been both a delight and a challenge working on a project within a different cultural landscape. We are constant process of decoding & navigating a silhouetted form trying to uncover the detail and texture. At times it feels like we are discovering the parameters & shape of this project by bumping into the obscured walls around us.

We have the unique opportunity to develop our work over an extended period with returning trips, along the way building ties with the people and the land here and discovering more about this way of life. This is the time of year when the coils of baby fern are collected, people are climbing the hillsides forage the fern quickly before it grows too big and you can longer eat the tender stems. The pace of life is governed by the rhythm of nature here. 


Exploring spring in Echigo Tsumari. Photo by Hugo Moline (left), photo by Heidi Axelsen (right)

Exploring spring in Echigo Tsumari. Photo by Hugo Moline (left), photo by Heidi Axelsen (right)

Karoke singing 'Stand by me at 'Ohanami' Urada Spring festival. Photo by Sakiko.

Karoke singing 'Stand by me at 'Ohanami' Urada Spring festival. Photo by Sakiko.

New buds.Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

New buds.Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

The trace of winter. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

The trace of winter. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Baby fern. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Baby fern. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

The trace of winter. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

The trace of winter. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

The trace of winter. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

The trace of winter. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Bear skin drying in the sun. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Bear skin drying in the sun. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Rice seedlings. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Rice seedlings. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Nathan in the window of Australia House. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Nathan in the window of Australia House. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Community Meeting

Heidi Axelsen

On Sunday night we presented our latest proposal to a group of 15 people including community leaders, NPO staff, Urada young people and the Urada Womens Group.

The feedback was generally positive and constructive. 

Concerns were raised around durability of the work, being able to withstand the impact of the heavy snow & strong winds. There were also concerns about the seasonal components of the work and if the work will be damaged in the transportation.

As we propose to direct a small natural stream into our artwork, the issue of water rights was raised. There was not enough time for us to fully understand this issue but the concern seemed to be about loss or wastage of water. We explained that the loss would be minimal as the water flows over the surface of the work and the majority of the water will return to the natural stream. There was also concern about the copper polluting the water. We explained that as far as we are aware, copper is safe and that in Australia the pipes for drinking water are made from copper.

We also discussed the local produce - ie. pickles component of the work. The Urada ladies generously offered to the serve the pickles throughout the period of the triennial perhaps on the weekends. We made arrangements to meet with them this week to discuss which kind of pickles will work best and the plan for production. 

The representative from the Urada young peoples group raised the opportunity for lighting the work, to maintain visibility at night.

Maruyama San welcomed the artwork as a means to generate interest in the Urada area and attract more people to visit. He suggested the work that could be shown every year and also potentially in the winter as well. 

Nathan Hawkes, Hugo Moline & Heidi Axelsen presenting to the Urada Community

Nathan Hawkes, Hugo Moline & Heidi Axelsen presenting to the Urada Community

Yugi San, Sekiguchi San, Director of NPO Echigo Tsumari Satoyama Collaborative Organisation, Osamu San

Yugi San, Sekiguchi San, Director of NPO Echigo Tsumari Satoyama Collaborative Organisation, Osamu San

Hugo Moline, Heidi Axelsen, Nathan Hawkes presenting and Arakawa San translating

Hugo Moline, Heidi Axelsen, Nathan Hawkes presenting and Arakawa San translating

Arakawa San, Nathan Hawkes, Heidi Axelsen, Hugo Moline with models

Arakawa San, Nathan Hawkes, Heidi Axelsen, Hugo Moline with models

Urada community looking at marquette

Urada community looking at marquette

Insects of the water & forest

Heidi Axelsen


Meeting with Dr. Tomoyuki Tsuru at Kyororo, the Echigo-Matsunoyama Museum of Natural Sciences we were able to learn about the insects unique to this area from the forest and aquatic systems.

As Tsuru-san explained the insects groups of the satoyama, a great sense of synergy with our project emerged. In the days prior to visiting Kyororo we were developing concepts for huts to observe and experience the water from mountain streams and rice fields and to sit within the beech or cedar forests. We were fascinated to learn how we may help create an environment where you can be immersed in the insect and plant life & contribute to the proliferation of this system.

Dr. Tomoyuki Tsuru, Hugo Moline, Heidi Axelsen and Nathan Hawkes at Kyororo. Photo by Diasuke Hatori

Dr. Tomoyuki Tsuru, Hugo Moline, Heidi Axelsen and Nathan Hawkes at Kyororo. Photo by Diasuke Hatori

We learnt about the insects supported by the beech, oak and cedar forests; such as the long horned; stag beetles and the larvae of rare moths which feed on the bark of the oak. The fireflies and tiny dragonflys we saw in the summer, are some of the most delicate and vulnerable species which rely on pure water ponds ‘tamike’ in the rice fields and rivers.

Rare moth larvae feeds on the oak bark.  Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Rare moth larvae feeds on the oak bark.  Photo by Heidi Axelsen

While most of the insects have laid their eggs and died once the snow begins to fall there are a few species which survive in the snow. Tsuru-san took us outside to show us the tiny black bugs bouncing on the surface of the snow.

Dr. Tomoyuki Tsuru showing us the insects in the snow. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Dr. Tomoyuki Tsuru showing us the insects in the snow. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Tiny bugs in the snow, this one reincarnates itself as a winged mosquito in the summer. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Tiny bugs in the snow, this one reincarnates itself as a winged mosquito in the summer. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

The snow is incredibly beautiful, each flake so light, soft and gentle yet over such a long winter it begins to weighs so heavy on this place and people. However like the bushfires in Australia it has such an important role in balancing systems.  

At the moment I am fascinated by the sense of latent, dormant water in the striated snow piles across the landscape. 

Layers of snow on the side of the road. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Layers of snow on the side of the road. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Heidi and Nathan by the main river running through Urada. Photo by Hugo Moline

Heidi and Nathan by the main river running through Urada. Photo by Hugo Moline

View of the snow caked mountains. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

View of the snow caked mountains. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Snow & weaving

Heidi Axelsen


Weaving with Gombei-san in the snow was a whole different experience to when we visited him in summer. Approaching their house we followed a compressed track so we didn’t fall thigh deep into the snow. In between weaving, we huddled around the kotatsu (sunken fire underneath the dining table) warming our toes, sipped green tea and ate potato; pumpkin dishes. Sumi-san gave us beautiful hand knitted slippers and gloves to keep us warm. Gombei-san took us outside to show us the tracks of the raccoon-dog, brown bear and Japanese hare in the snow. Although we have limited words to communicate with, Gombei-san is a wonderful teacher with his clear gestural demonstrations; big laugh. I am touched by the warmth; generosity of Gombei-san and Sumi-san and I am looking forward to returning and being with them and their big smiles.

Hugo and Gombei-san at the entrance to Sumie-san & Gombei-san's house

Hugo and Gombei-san at the entrance to Sumie-san & Gombei-san's house

Our finished hand-made waraji. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Our finished hand-made waraji. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Rice-straw Waraji in the making. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Rice-straw Waraji in the making. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Gombei-san showing us animal tracks in the snow. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Gombei-san showing us animal tracks in the snow. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Warming our frozen feet around the kotatsu. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Warming our frozen feet around the kotatsu. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

See you soon 'Ja mata' Gombei-san and Sumi-san. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

See you soon 'Ja mata' Gombei-san and Sumi-san. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Snow sports day

Nathan Hawkes


The snow sports day was such a full day it is difficult to write about it briefly. Young sumo wrestlers braved the icy day to compete, traditional  bound rice straw towers were carried by each team and then set alight, everyone danced the kanjiki dance, traditional echigo noragi farming clothes were strung like flags above the sports arena, 

It was inspiring to be part of an event where a genuine respect for tradition combined so comfortably with fun, hilarious and hectic team events. The food was also delicious!

The yellow team carrying the rice straw tower, team includes Nathan, Hugo and Daisuke. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

The yellow team carrying the rice straw tower, team includes Nathan, Hugo and Daisuke. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Ceremonial burning of towers Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Ceremonial burning of towers Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Local young boys sumo wrestling in the snow. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Local young boys sumo wrestling in the snow. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Dancing, forging, weaving

Heidi Axelsen


In preparation for our final week in Urada, we offered to accompany local people in their daily lives and to help with odd jobs. As it turned out people were quite happy to do their own odd jobs and we found ourselves being fed delicious delicacies instead!

Izuka-san and his grandson Koya-kun acompanied us to all the visits to introduce us & help us with interpreting. Koya-kun is 10 years old and was a great teacher for us in both Japanese and magic tricks! At Yuji-san’s house in the hills behind the village of Urada, he and his wife invited us their 200 year old house. Yuji-san showed us by drawing the way his house was originally built with giant river stones foundation pillars and treated us to many delicious home-made pickles and seaweed.

Sato-san and his wife live further up the valley quite close the Australia House where he showed us his small factory which houses his machine for drying rice and storing potatoes. He also took us on an adventure into the nearby bush to dig out some clay. Nothing seems to tire these strong people, he whipper-snipped a 100m path through thick bush for us to find the clay at the base of a large tree. We now have a bucket full of earth to return to in the winter!

The last visit we had was to Gombei-san's house who is the closest neighbour to Australia House. After a karoke concert in Gomberi-san's lounge room, he taught us to make hand weave straw sandals called 'warazi'.

Looking back at our time here the most precious experiences have been the opportunity to engage physically in the act of making. Doing and learning a choreography of movements, refined with practice and repetition, such as weaving slippers from rice straw, forging slender nails from metal rods, dancing at Obon. Creating by watching, imitating, making mistakes, perfecting and reaching an end to begin again.

On Saturday morning we joined the weekly gathering of local old ladies down at Izuka San's supermarket. With Daisuke's help we chatting with them about the old days over pickles and tea before dropping them all home on the mini bus. They told us about the past in this region, the hardship but also the closeness of people. It was a very special experience for all of us. One lady, more than 80 years old told us we were the first foreigners she had ever met.

In the final workshop we held at Australia House, we were interested in uncovering peoples sensory seasonal memories of Satoyama. We prepared a series of timber rods in three different length with a series of notches. On each face of a timber rod we asked people to write their sense memory, taste/smell, touch and sound of satoyama and then on the last face to write their hope for satoyama. Each person then painted their timber rod and set about to make a structure together, finding a place for their contribution to fit in a whole. The result was a collective spindly and intricate structure held together by strings and notches.

On our last days in Urada we visited several 'akiya', abandoned traditional farm house many of which are beautifully constructed with woven cedar rafters, yet are now shells with traces of the families that were there. We have been told de-population is a result of the rapid industrialisation in Japan and the decline in agriculture, though it is shocking to experience a place as beautiful as this being abandoned.

Living so close to a land with 40 degree days in summer and 4 meters of snow in winter, is a tough environment for anyone especially the elderly. Yet they are the most vital old people I have ever met. There are so few young people here, as they seem to be daunted by the isolation and the 'inconvenience' of country life,and of course the lack of work.

We have been told many times about the depth of the snow and can only imagine the weight and pressure this puts on the peoples lives and the physical infrastructure. We will get to experience when we return in winter next year for massive snowfall!

Chalk board calendar and Sato-san's lounge room. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Chalk board calendar and Sato-san's lounge room. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Sato-san's azuki beans and potatoes. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Sato-san's azuki beans and potatoes. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Yugi-san's drawing and stone pillars. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Yugi-san's drawing and stone pillars. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Master and apprentices: Hugo and Nathan forging nails. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Master and apprentices: Hugo and Nathan forging nails. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Weaving straw sandals with Gombei-san, one by master one by Heidi the 'apprentice'. Photo by Hugo Moline

Weaving straw sandals with Gombei-san, one by master one by Heidi the 'apprentice'. Photo by Hugo Moline

Morning tea and supermarket deliveries. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Morning tea and supermarket deliveries. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Writing satoyama sensory memories & hopes. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Writing satoyama sensory memories & hopes. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Satoyama sensory memories  hopes. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Satoyama sensory memories  hopes. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Final day in Urada. 

Final day in Urada. 

Stages of becoming a kettle

Hugo Moline


After my restful week of quarantine, Australia House feels now like a kind of ship I have taken a long voyage in.

Since disembarking we have spent the week days getting to know the amazing people, places and art of Echigo Tsumari.

We had a great afternoon tea with locals coming from Urada, Joetsu and Niigata City. The local ladies cooked up an incredible feast of local delacacies including pickled baby fern, seaweed jelly noodles and red basil cordial. Oishi nee!

We made pikelets with jam, not quite equal to our hosts' offering, but enjoyed by the kids!

Further afield Yoko-san organised a great visit to the industrial riverside city of Sanjo. There we were taught how to forge Japanese nails and saw how a single circle of copper can slowly be beaten into a full kettle.

We also met a man who runs an agricultural tool making factory. There are more than 10,000 types of hoe in Japan, varying by locality, terrain and soil type. Old farmers bring in their old hoes for repair and replication, adding to the factory's knowledge bank of hoe typologies.

In many of the towns of the artfield the schools have been closed down due to depopulation. Christian Boltanski's haunting The Last Class and the Hachi community with Seizo Tashima's wonderful Walk-In Picture Book both had very deep impression on us.

Afternoon tea prepared by the Urada local ladies. Photo by Hugo Moline

Afternoon tea prepared by the Urada local ladies. Photo by Hugo Moline

Stages of becoming a kettle. Copper beaten & moulded  from a flat disc to a teapot. Photo by Hugo Moline

Stages of becoming a kettle. Copper beaten & moulded  from a flat disc to a teapot. Photo by Hugo Moline

Glowing hot metal being forged into a hoe. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Glowing hot metal being forged into a hoe. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Heidi looking at the work of Seizo Tashima in one of the abandoned schools of Echigo Tsumari Art Field. Photo by Hugo Moline. 

Heidi looking at the work of Seizo Tashima in one of the abandoned schools of Echigo Tsumari Art Field. Photo by Hugo Moline. 

Unfolding the map

Nathan Hawkes


Having to remain here at Australia house the last 4 or 5 days has really helped us tune into the sensory aspects of nature here in the summer time. The insects whir and shimmer all around, and approach an almost deafening frenzy when you walk a little deeper into the forest. There is a kind of architecture to this sound, like thousands of cells vibrating, creating an audible structure. The cicada's and crickets are the most obvious but their endless sound is punctuated by the sudden loud calls of other insects. It reminds me quite a bit of the Australian bush in the summer - soaked in an extremely humid heat. The other benefit for us of Hugo's flu is we can work downstairs while Australia house is closed, and the view down here is a feast for the eyes, and it is wonderfully framed by the black pillars of Andrew Burns' architecture.

We were given a wonderful tour of traditional architecture today by Iizuka-san who owns a local construction company. This involved a visit to Gombe-san's 160 year house close to Australia House - what a treat to sit inside his and his wife, Sumie-san's beautiful home and have him sing for us - this man has an awesome voice! - he showed us up inside the roof of his house to see the way a traditional rice-straw thatch roof is constructed, and as we were leaving we were given a pair of rice straw thongs each made by Sumie-san - a perfect day!

Hugo has been asked to rest here a few more days, but Heidi and I have just begun to drive around and visit some of the works that are part of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field and feel completely blown away by the quality of what we have seen, the way the works engage so deeply with the local area.

In following the map of artworks one traces the landscape of this unique place, its people and their traditions; the way the works are located all over this region encourage you to fully engage with the space between them.

Needless to say, the opportunity to follow the trail around the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field is reason alone to visit Japan, but the chance to contribute is extremely exciting. Now we just can't wait to begin learning from and collaborating with the local people!

Wooden box full of Sumie-san's hand made rice straw slippers. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Wooden box full of Sumie-san's hand made rice straw slippers. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Gombei-san singing for us

Gombei-san singing for us

Inside the Shedding House - one of the many awesome works of the Echigo Tsumari Art Field. Photo by Nathan Hawkes.

Inside the Shedding House - one of the many awesome works of the Echigo Tsumari Art Field. Photo by Nathan Hawkes.

Shinto Shrine in Urada. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Shinto Shrine in Urada. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

The view from inside the workspace of Australia House. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

The view from inside the workspace of Australia House. Photo by Nathan Hawkes

Breakfast satoyama - half rice, half toast

Heidi Axelsen


This is now our third day waking up to the sounds of cicadas and many other buzzing bugs here at Australia House. Through the night there is a beautiful soft breeze that give sweet relief to the hotness of the days, it reached 36 degrees yesterday!

It has been rich and a bit of a bumpy start to our residency here. Coming from Sydney's winter Hugo carried with him an Australian flu that he is now riding through in a humid Japanese summer – poor thing!

We have been requested not to leave the house and to wear white Japanese masks until Hugo fully recovers in fear for passing on the flu to the locals! So we are now all in house arrest here at the beautiful Australia House in the hills of Urada, near Matsudai which is actually a marvellous place to be stuck! It is actually a relief that we have been forced to slow down and simplify our days as there is so much to absorb already. We were moving at quite a rapid pace in Tokyo and then to Tokamachi meeting so many wonderful and important people and taking in a whirlwind of newness.

We are blessed with the generosity of our hosts and local volunteers who tirelessly assist us with any need. Daisuke has also been a wonderful help translating for us and accompanying us to both the City Mayors office and the hospital! Yoko San is a local school art teacher from Niigata City who has volunteers her weekends to generously show us where we can buy this or that, how to navigate hardware stores and find other local treasures. She also has leant us a whole lot of interesting books about Japanese art and supplied us with art materials.

We are starting to grasp the scope of the word 'satoyama'. Coming from the characters for ‘cultivated field’ and 'mountain', it not only describes this place where human settlement meets the woods, it talks about how nature and humanity connect and co-exist across time and place.

Some of the local delights we have already been fortunate to sample is the delicious carrot juice which is more like a sweet nectar. The carrots become sweet and dense in the winter months while buried under snow. I have also been enjoying the local grown mild filter coffee infused with local chrysanthemum and the calm & steady energy it gives to work through the heat.

The attention to detail and precision in everything is astounding, from the traffic man in his LED flashing high-vis vest, elegantly waving red and white flags to the mosaic pattern of rice paddies terraced on the hills. We are also very excited by the local industries we are finding, there appears to be stone masons working with granite, paper making, specialist tool manufactures near by in Joetsu and large concreting companies and we are yet to find the wood workers.

This is beginning of a large and long-term project and we feel really very lucky to be having this experience and now we can't wait to really get started.

Heidi's breakfast: half rice and half toast. Photo by Nathan Hawkes. 

Heidi's breakfast: half rice and half toast. Photo by Nathan Hawkes. 

View from upstairs window of Australia House with all the business cards hanging in the window. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

View from upstairs window of Australia House with all the business cards hanging in the window. Photo by Heidi Axelsen.

Rice growing. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Rice growing. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Cedar trees bent by the weight of the snow. Photo by Heidi Axelsen

Cedar trees bent by the weight of the snow. Photo by Heidi Axelsen