--------------------------------------------------- "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。


Amateur Herbalist - Yusa Souichi-san

We had made a reservation for vegetarian dinner at the Radon Onsen. Doubly unexpected: vegetarian food in such a rural area AND at a onsen that intentionally introduces radioactivity into their bath!

With his sister busy, we first met with her younger brother who was nice enough to give us a tour.
He showed us a room, 40-45 degrees Celsius, heated entirely by pipes radiating the heat of onsen water. In that room he is drying fruit, many racks, the main things now are blueberries and pineapple, although he experiements widely with other fruits, oranges, watermelon, seaweed, all sorts of things. When we asked him what he was up to in the room, he told us that his grandmother used to dry fruits to make natural medicines. He has continued the tradition. He usually makes them into teas of various types. Many of them end up being very bitter, but there is a Japanese proverb that says “Bitter medicine is good medicine” so he doesn’t think that’s a problem.

He took us back to the lobby where he allowed us to sample his teas, and while they were very bitter, if what he says is to be believed, they were all very good for us.

The Radon Onsen has been in the family for 5 generations. It is the only onsen in all of Japan that intentionally adds radon to the water. There are some that have naturally occurring radon content, but this is the only one adding it. I asked him why that was, in America where we test for radon, it is unthinkable that you would add a hazardous substance to your natural hot spring. He said that his grandfather was friends with a physician who had an onsen in Aomori, and his friend was singing the praises of radon and at some point, he was sold on the health benefits. Radon is apparently good for rheumatoid arthritis, which is why they continue to add it. I asked him if they had a spike in guests after they started adding the radon, a wave of people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, but he said no, the same guests were already coming year after year, and there was little change.

It should be noted that compared to every other onsen we had visited thus far, the Radon Onsen was a hive of activity. There were at least 20 cars in the lot, people all around, and it was a very active place. We found that especially impressive, as Radon is in Nakayamadaira, the fathest out of the Naruko communities along the river. It was lively, especially for a Saturday night in the middle of nowhere.

Souichi has grown up on the property, so he has a long memory of the place. He sees that although business has slowed, he hasn’t seen too much change in his lifetime. They did used to host more toji customers, but they still do. The shocking thing was they have 5 guests that live in the toji wing of the ryokan, all of them over 60, some there as long as 5 years. The ryokan is their home now. I asked if any had chronic ailments and he said no, they were fairly healthy. It was therefore even more interesting that they would chose to retire to a ryokan instead of a nursing home.  Live a life of baths and nature, a pretty good place to retire…

If we asked if had a favorite spot, he told us of one bath that he considers his personal bath. He led us down the hill to the toji building, which has 40 rooms especially for toji residents, and then to an outdoor bath by the edge of the river. The outdoor bath is still a mixed gender bath. Traditionally, all baths were mixed, but as
Western concepts of morality took hold after WWII, the baths have mostly been segregated by gender. The bath is on a patio overlooking the river, and you can see the bridge over the Naruko Gorge.

We went inside to see the toji rooms, very small (4 tatami)… with a small TV and small kitchen, like monk’s quarters. Very clearly a place of meditation, of retreat… steps away from the bath on the riverside, a place of healing and of communing with nature. They do pipe the onsen water, it gets very cold there in the mountains, but the pipes are a cheap way to heat the rooms. While the rooms are geothermically heated, there was a cave outside the toji residence acting as a natural refrigerator.

As far as a place for true toji, this was pretty much as close as we have gotten of a place that matches the image we had of toji. Instead of overlooking a shabby main street, like in Higashi-Naruko, this place separates you from life, a true place of retreat. It was a great and unexpected discovery.

August 7, 2010

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