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


Fugitive and the Farmer - Kitaura-san and his son

Exactly one week after meeting him, we returned to talk to Kitaura-san. After meeting him purely by chance the first time, we made an appointment to meet him at his home. We were particularly interested in meeting his son, whom he had told us had been a teacher in Sendai before returning to Naruko to help his father on the farm. We wanted to hear the story of someone who had moved back, especially someone leaving education to be a farmer.

The home was quite large, and packed to the gills with stuff, piles and piles of it. We sat down with the farmer and caught up with him, recounting that we had met many people. He then brought out his son, who is in his 50s, and it was clear that his son was very negative about the prospects for Naruko’s future and negative about just about everything.

We quickly established that he was never a teacher. He had left Naruko in his early 20s, right around the time the hippies were flooding into Naruko he fled outwards. He spent a good number of years, 30 or so, bouncing from place to place. He had lived in Osaka and Tokyo, as well as some smaller cities, before landing in Sendai where he worked in Kokubuncho for a long time. At the height of Kokubuncho’s popularity, there were about 3000 bars in the district. Currently, there are about 1500. In the closures, he lost his job and returned to Naruko to farm with his father. Although in his 50s, he has never farmed before, so these last 3 years have been a rude awakening. Where his previous job involved talking to lots of people, hustling, he now spends his days in isolation, talking to almost no one and it is tough physical labor. He is not happy to be back in Naruko. Hetried to couch his situation that people these days don’t take care of their parents, trying to insinuate that he is the prodigal son, lured back by a sense of filial duty. Whereas it is clear he was unemployed, had few options in the city, and came back against his will. He did double check with us that in America, when the going gets rough, do people go back to the family farm? We let him know that most family farms in America are gone, and that option is simply not open to us.

As the two men sat there, it was Shakespearean. The 81 year old farmer is finely-tanned, and is covered in muscles like the Hulk (which he was more than happy to show off to us the last time), and is the picture of health. His son, in his 50s, has sallow skin, sat crouched in the corner smoking cigarettes and all-in-all, it was like the Lear-like King in his huge house with all his possessions and his machines, but alone and isolated with his son, who could never hope to match his father’s lofty standards, but instead opted out and ended up a vagabond.

When we asked to take photos this time, they both refused. The son, because he has many debts and was afraid of being recognized and tracked down, not only by people in Sendai, but even by people in Tokyo. He was unhappy with the thought of his photo hanging in public display in any Japanese gallery. The father, because when estimates were done to compute taxes on the property, it should have been about 3x higher than what he paid, because of the things he owns, he didn’t want the tax assessor to see everything he has squirreled away. No photos were taken inside the house.

During the course of our rambling discussion, the son pointed out the Takahashi household across the street, where we had just come from and where we had an appointment to return later in the day. He said with no son to take over the business, as they have two daughters and a son not interested in making kokeshi, that when the elderly Takahashi passes away, the business will close and overall, there is an exodus of people from the area. He was very pessimistic about the town’s prospects.

In his estimation, at the height of Naruko’s popularity, there were about 400 geisha working in the town. He did say about 50 remain, which seemed unbelievable. As we talked, it became clear that whenever we tried to bring up something positive, it would get dragged back to the negative: towards loss of work, loss of visitors, and dimming prospects. The one highlight for them was that when the government tried to widen the road in front of the house, the residents were able to cease that development, but not until after a number of houses were seized by the government and families relocated.

We did go outside and took some pictures of the King outside his castle. He tried to show us even more of his machines, in a garage attached to his house, but we were able to demure, as Masako-san was waiting to take us on a Basho tour.

August 7, 2010

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