--------------------------------------------------- "Vanishing Point" Exhibit Dates ---------------------------------------------------

None currently scheduled.

------------------------------------------------------- Upcoming Special Events -------------------------------------------------------

None currently scheduled.


About Us

Photoji Project is: photographer Elizabeth Barbush, writer Gabriel DellaVecchia, interviewer/coordinator Makie Sugawara, interviewer/community liaison Takaharu Saito, and photographer Maki Otomo. Although we come from various backgrounds and two different countries, the five of us share a commitment to cultural sustainability and to the power of art as a tool for education and social change.

In August 2010, we spent three weeks documenting, through photographs, interviews, and audio recordings, the historically important onsen hot spring town of Naruko in the Tohoku region of Japan. We centered our explorations on the concept of toji: the traditional ritual of staying in a hot spring town for an extended period for the purposes of rejuvenation.

The original intention of the project was to exhibit our findings in Sendai, the largest city in the region, to highlight for the people there a fading cultural treasure located in their own backyard.

Then came the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th, 2011. Over the course of one terrible, bitterly cold winter afternoon, everything in this region of the world changed.

In a strange twist of fate, fading Naruko, home to hundreds of usually empty hotel rooms, became a refuge for 1000 tsunami victims, relocated there by the prefectural government. The ritual of toji, staying in an onsen town for an extended period in order to heal, has taken on an entirely new meaning.

Photoji Project returned to Naruko in May and June 2011, nearly one year after our original visit, to document how a place that was written off has now become safe haven for hundreds of families.

We are currently planning to share our exhibit "Vanishing Point" at two locations in California: first at the Little Tokyo Koban and Visitors' Center in Los Angeles (August 2011) and then at Elsewhere Gallery in the Bay Area (September 2011), during which we hope to raise money for the struggling businesses and tsunami refugees in Naruko.

Please share this blog and help us spread the word about this overlooked corner of Japan.

Photoji Project(フォトージ・プロジェクト)は、写真担当のエリザベス・バーブッシュ、ライターのガブリエル・デラベキア、取材/コーディネーターの菅原牧枝、取材/コミュニティ・リエゾンの齋藤高晴、写真担当の大友眞妃からなるプロジェクトです。
2010年秋に、鳴子温泉駅での写真展「The Future of Tradition」を開催。
2011年夏には、ロサンゼルスとサンフランシスコで写真展「Vanishing Point」を開催予定です。


The Source

My name is Gabe and I’m an American living in Sendai, Japan. Unlike the teeming technological marvel of Tokyo, Sendai is more like a village that got really big. Sure, the main shopping arcade features an Apple Store and a Disney Store and certainly Starbucks has made its mark. But crouching in the shadows of those international behemoths are mom-and-pop shops that look like they have been in business longer than America has been a country. I am continually baffled as to how the little shops stay in business, especially since a glance inside them usually reveals an inventory comprising some faded boxes of laundry products and a clutch of wilted carrots.

While walking past these shops with my Japanese friend Taka, I express to him my confusion as to this seeming economic miracle. How is it possible that these tiny shops are still in operation? Who are their customers? What are their plans for the future? Don't they feel a need to sell something more desirable than sun-bleached bleach and flabby root vegetables?

Taka is amused that I think these small business owners have it bad. In his opinion, at least they have the benefit of foot traffic.

He then tells me about Naruko…

In the mountains of western Miyagi Prefecture, about an hour outside of Sendai, is a small town famous for its medicinal hot springs. Now, while that would be a big deal in America, where the only water coming out of the ground is coming up in pipes and whose only medicinal properties are trace amounts of OxyContin, hot springs are a common natural phenomenon in Japan.

But Naruko is special. Concentrated in one tiny mountain village are hot springs with nine different compositions. Some sources are high in iron, some sulfur, others bicarbonate of soda. Each different spring is useful in the treatment of a different malady. Not only that, but soaking in particular springs purportedly makes women more fertile. After years of disappointment, a descendant of Date Masamune, the feudal lord of Sendai, was able to conceive twins after a visit.

For over 1,200 years, people have made pilgrimages to Naruko to soak in the baths. For many, this would take the form of toji: a traditional method of recuperation by soaking in the baths many times a day over the course of weeks, perhaps even a month. This was the perfect solution in decades past, when most of the population of Japan was involved in farming or fishing. After the fall harvest, or after the season’s catch, these exhausted manual laborers would check into a ryokan (Japanese inn) and soak themselves back to health. In the same way that the earth had drained their bodies of strength, the earth would heal them again. The cycle of work and rest would mirror the cycle of the seasons.

By the 1970s, the Japanese economy was in overdrive. The constantly swelling armies of salarymen followed the cycle of the stock market, not of the seasons. The fortunes of Naruko fell. Even with the collapse of the bubble economy in 1991, the damage was done and visitors to Naruko were a fraction of what they had been. These days, a visit to the onsen is laughed off as a pursuit of the elderly or infirm. Younger people, if they take any time off at all, would rather go to Tokyo Disney...

Taka has been working in Naruko for more than a year with a collection of artists and business people trying to reignite interest in the town and in toji culture. Now, more than ever, with long hours and an urban lifestyle, Japanese people stand to benefit from slowing down and taking care of their health.

But the health of Naruko itself is in a bad way. Businesses are closing at an alarming rate. Most of the young people have moved away, looking for employment opportunities in the cities. Just like the trees found in the rain forest that contain cancer-fighting compounds but are threatened by clear-cutting, Naruko and its healing waters are a natural cure for what ails Japanese society, but which might be pushed out of existence. 

Taka and I decide that the small businesses in Sendai will have to wait, and we will research the story of Naruko.

Photoji Project is born.

February 2010

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