--------------------------------------------------- "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 Last Honest Politician - Gotou-san

On Sunday, we started our day with Gotou-san whom I first met as part of Naruko no Kome. It is his rice fields used for the planting. As it was explained to me, in the mountains of Onikoube, it is too cold to grow rice. For years, the rice from there was considered no good and was tough to sell. After years of struggle, a group of farmers got together, and although the type of rice you plant is dictated by the agricultural board, they took matters into their own hands,. They visited a rice research facility, checked out the varieties, and chose one more suitable for their climate. They brought it back to Onikoube, they planted it, and it grew wonderful rice.

The problem is that the average bowl of rice earns a farmer 8 yen. But to have a sustainable life, a farmer needs to earn about 20 yen. So, how do you almost quadruple the price you can charge for rice, especially in an economic climate where the price of rice is depressed? Very difficult to charge a higher price. Once they realized they were now growing a premium grain, they knew they could charge about double, but far short of the target income. However, if consumers (especially from the city) were brought into the process earlier, not just at the retail level but actually take part in the production, they would perhaps feel a sense of ownership, a connection with the farmer, and they would be more likely to buy that brand, to share it with family, perhaps they would enjoy it and purchase it as well. Sort of like farm ambassadors.

So, Taka and I, in late May, had travelled to Onikoube to help with the rice planting. About 40 people attended. It’s a way for the farm to raise additional funds, as the experience of planting was 1000yen for the day. (although that did include lunch and a shuttle bus to Onikoube). Interestingly enough, everyone was asked their reasons for participating. One woman stood up with her 10 year old daughter and said that the girl, living in Sendai her whole life, had never seen a field. She doesn’t want her daughter to think comes from a box, that it comes out of the ground, and she wants her to know that connection. A number of students from Tohoku University agricultural department… they do research on rice, but many of them have never been in a field. Fascinatingly enough, the scientist who developed the strain of rice we were growing had joined us: even he had never actually planted rice in a field before!

The field is so famous that it has featured in documentaries and a screenwriter wrote about it for a movie soon to be shown on NHK.

The field belongs to Gotou-san.  His 85-year-old father was also there and helping.  Knew when I met them that they would be an excellent connection both to Naruko’s past and its future.

Gotou-san was kind enough to pick us up in Higashi-Naruko and drove us the 30 minutes to his house in Onikoube. We started to speak informally during the car ride…

In addition to being a rice farmer, Gotou-san has served in the local government for about 20 years. He is currently in the department overseeing the Board of Education and is also charged with finding funds for the BoE. He was involved in the decision to close the former JHS that is now Yamagakko Community Center. The schools in Onikoube have become very small. The elementary school, grades 1~6, has only 40 students total and only about half that number of JHS students. Those 20 students now must commute daily to the JHS in Kawatabi, 30 km down at the base of the mountain.

In addition to that, he is in a traditional dance group at Yamagakko. There are 9 of them, and at 59-years-old, Gotou-san is one of the younger members. Although they are trying to preserve this tradition, they are not attracting younger members, and the dance form may disappear.

We arrived at his house, quite large and quite beautiful, overlooking his rice fields and with spectacular views of the mountains all around. When we sat down to interview Gotou-san and his father, they both indicated that for many years, Onikoube was a very hidden place, cut off even from Naruko. To get to the base of the mountain would take a full day’s walk there and a full day’s walk back. When we asked about the origins of the name of the village, he did talk about the myth of the oni, with its head popping off and landing in the town.  He is also convinced that the name was given because it is a beautiful, hidden spot, closed to the outside world, and the name is like a scarecrow, to keep people from coming in. (Sort of like the myth of the princess in Katanuma Lake that we had heard, maybe all the things in this area have been given names to scare off outsiders).

In those days before the dam, there was no road to get from the Naruko river communities to Onikoube. Although geographically close to Naruko, because of the river and mountain barrier, it was actually easier to get to Yamagata and Akita to the north rather than make the journey the few kilometers down the mountain. Maybe even culturally, Onikoube is tied more closely to the areas to the north.

The elder Gotou-san told us that when he was a young man, he went to Naruko only 3 or 4 times a year, always to go drinking, not for toji.

Gotou-san himself seems to be of the opinion that although things are declining, it is going to be difficult to increase the population of Onikoube. Part of the purpose of Naruko no Kome is to maintain what already exists , many farms have already been lost, so how to make sure no more are lost. Same with the children, with so few children left in the area, and so many elderly people, it is hard to imagine the area growing.
30% of Onikoube residents over 80-years-old are living alone, all of their family having left, because there’s no work for younger people.

He himself had wanted to leave, but in those days, it was very difficult to go to high school. There wasn’t one in the area and so it was expensive to attend one in the city. He graduated JHS, was self taught at the high school level and received a high school equivalency diploma, so to have someone in government with only a JHS degree is very impressive. A real testament to his love of the place that he has risen so far.

Although he wanted to leave Onikoube, as the first born son, he had to remain behind. It is a very common experience in the rural areas: both Ohnuma-san and Seiyu-san are first born sons, Miyamoto-san at the coffee shop, we continue to find first born sons feeling the obligation to take over the family business.

All these 1st born sons recognize that that tradition is almost gone now, and they don’t seem overly concerned with their own children leaving. They recognize that there are no jobs in the rural areas. That being said, Gotou-san said it has taken him 50 years to come to terms with the fact that he loves Onikoube more than anywhere else, and his home truly is his castle.

We did ask about geisha, they think the numbers we heard were high. They estimate there were never more than 200 geisha and that about 20 remain. They think the estimate of 50 is that some live in nearby areas and come to Naruko to perform. The youngest are in their 30s or 40s, but they are fairly sure there is at least one geisha in her 80s (!) We are interested in finding that woman….

Overall, Gotou-san stated that life, in Naruko or elsewhere, is all about perspective and thinking positively. He himself, like Masako-san, said although the area has many problems, but good things are going on and wonderful people are still living there.

Gotou-san did joke that when the road was finally put in, connecting Onikoube to the base of the mountain, as soon as the road was built, rather than bringing in the flood of people that was feared by the locals, it facilitated a mass exodus!

August 8, 2010

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