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

None currently scheduled.

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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。


Reflections at the midway point

When we came to Naruko, the idea was that the town is a faded place, a place of former glory, past its prime and overlooked even by Japanese who don’t live very far away, completely unknown to the outside world. I had seen sparks of life…  Kimura-san and her baking, Gotou-san and Naruko no Kome project, Ohnuma-san and his constant schemes for increasing toji… all of these small ideas, working at trying to refocus energy and attention on this place important to Japanese tradition and culture.

What has been clear, after a week of interviews, as wonderfrul as these projects may be, they are not cohering into an overall plan and are not making headway in attracting new guests,tThe interest is not there and the place feels fading.

We have discussed calling the exhibit “Vanishing Point”: perspective, how perspective changes how you look at something. I f you look at a long road, it looks like it is disappearing, but you simply can’t see that far. The future is too difficult to see from your current vantage point, if you walk along you can see more, but never to the end of the line. As for vanishing, businesses are closing very rapidly, even in the past few years, it is amazing to see what has closed, and how more will close in the next 5. Takahashi-san is 70, Masako-san is 65. Gotou-san is a relatively youthful 59, but his father is 85. Kitaura-san is 81, his son is in his 50s, these people are elderly and the next generation has not stuck around to replace them.

Takahashi-san’s children have all moved away, no one is coming to learn kokeshi-making from him, When he passes, his business will disappear. Same with Gotou-san, his children live far away. Miyamoto-san’s son is in Seattle and may not return.

As Kitaura-san’s son pointed out, and part of what drew me to the area, is a major difference between American and Japanese culture: there used to be an emphasis on continuing the family business, especially as the 1st born son. It was an obligation in the past, which is no longer the case, possibly to the detriment of the culture as a whole. For myself, as an outsider from America, in my country in the 1920s, people were expected to give up their culture when they immigrated to the US. There was no such thing as an Italian-American or a Welsh-American, only American. The faster you could give up you language, customs, clothes, the better. The better to meld into the melting pot, long before the concept of an ethnic quilt. For myself, I feel a great amputation from my own history, my family has retained very little of their own cultural traditions, very few stories and memories, I know nothing before my great-grandparents generation. Even then, I was lucky enough that my great-grandparents lived long enough to tell me directly the few snippets I do know.

Here in Japan, the elderly always lived with the family. Your education as a Japanese person, both in cultural traditions, expectations, mores, happened all day long, not just in school. You probably learned as much from your grandparents as you did from your teachers. Now, with the elderly being left behind in these rural villages, as the kids move to the city, that continuing education is disappearing.  It is being replaced with a creeping homogenization, that is affecting so much of the world. Having been to 20 countries, it is shocking to me, how displosable, empty, quick-fix American culture is replacing so much of the world’s culture. Even at Radon, everything is traditional except for the giant Coca-Cola vending machine out front.

It’s quite frustrating and it feels as if Japan, having one of the longest unbroken histories in the world, other than the American occupation post-WWII (when the Japanese emperor still retained the throne), Japan has been its own entity with no foreign leader for centuries. Such an unbroken tradition… but at this point it is fading, not from a turning of the back, but of a drifiting away, fading through neglect, a lack of focus on those old things.  So you look at something like Gotou-san’s dance group, 9 men in the group, trying to preserve the dances, and at 59, Gotou-san is one of the youngest members. When they pass away, those dances will be lost forever.  It seems like at some point in the future, the Japanese, like the Americans, might look around and notice all they have lost, with not much to replace it, replaced with plastic, temporary, not fulfilling, and not ours… the same as so many other countries. It is frustrating to see the lack of traditional dress here. Japan has such distinctive indigenous styles, but if you see a salaryman marching down the street, he’s got on black pants and a white shirt, imported lie the west. It’s not Japan, it’sthe business world.

While searching for overall meaning for the project, we keep circling back to community development. What does the place need? What is missing? What is happening? People have been coming to Naruko for 1200 years. The boom years, roughly 1965~1985, are a blip in that length of history. Although it is within the memory of the people alive here now, THAT was the aberration. People remember the money and the floods of guests…  that was a blink of an eye. Especially in the natural history of this place. That’s not going to come back. The fact that kokeshi were a fad was a fluke. A random bit of chaos that focused attention here, in an unnatural way. The town got too big, too many rooms, too many businesses, too many kokeshi. Along with it came lots of unsavory things attracted by the scent of money: prostitution, pachinko halls, strip clubs, all the seedy businesses feeding on easy money.

Looking at the boarded up pachinko parlors and the closed strip club feels good. Who wants those things? Those aren’t things to be preserved or cherished. In some ways, the boom passing is a blessing. It allows the town the time and space to find a new equilibrium, closer to the ways things were. To bring this place back to being a place of healing.

It’s not possible to make this place grow again. 3 million guests per year are never going to come again. The novelty of having a hot bath is not going to draw people like it did in the 1940s. It’s too easy, sitting in your mansion in Sendai to turn a tap, why would you travel to Naruko to sit in a bath in a dingy 60 year old ryokan when you can stay at home? Those days are not coming back.

But there is no need to strive for greed. The town doesn’t need to be super-successful. They don’t need 3 million visitors. What is needed is enough business to maintain what is here. Gotou-san may have had the best statement so far, when he said the point of Naruko no Kome is not to build more rice farms. There are already enough rice farms and the price of rice is already depressed. The point is to maintain what is already there, to toe the line and not lose any more family farms.

When we met the young couple at Chuubachi Ryokan and Restaurant, trying so hard to find a business model to keep afloat a business that has been in the family for 3 generations, they had some great ideas. They are doing everything right, it would be heartbreaking to see that business go under. They have a young child, they are trying to keep the business in the family, she has been here her whole life, to watch that business fail for lack of interest is a shame. They don’t need a million visitors, they need enough to pay the bills and keep the place going, and I don’t think it is out of the reach of what this place has to offer.

It has some stunning natural attractions: Naruko Gorge is beautiful even in the summer when it is all green, apparently it is heart-stopping in the fall when the leaves change color. The hidden paths, like the ones revealed to us by Masako-san. Onikoube is a hidden gem, with a campground that is barely used. Radon with its bath by the river, just gorgeous places. Big Star with local organic produce, the community center… these places are here. They don’t need millions of people, they just need people to stop leaving. But when you have 40 students in ES and 20 in the JHS, how do you maintain a community with no children? In microcosm, this is the situation facing all of Japan, the most rapidly aging country in the world, with one of the lowest birthrates.  In the next 20 years, these dilemmas will be facing all of Japan, not just the rural areas but the cities as well. When you have a mass amount of people over 60 and a tiny population of laborers to support them all. So, really, what we discuss here in Naruko is going to affect all of Japan, sooner or later.
What are the solutions? We’re artists, storytellers and photographers. We’re not sociologists, demographers, or city planners. We can offer suggestions, like placing a larger emphasis on the natural aspects of the town. In Japan, there is an increasing awareness of LOHAS: lifestyle of health and sustainability. They are bringing in a consultant to Onikoube to talk about that in a few months, and it sounds like a step in the right direction. The town is close to nature… Japan is an incredibly urbanized country, so the desire to get “back to nature” is strong. There is an emphasis on health… toji has always been about health, so bring in more ideas about ways to deal with health and healing. Yoga, acupuncture, herbalists, so people staying can feel they are being rejuvenated in whatever is their preferred method.

Masako-san had a great suggestion, when she mentioned a PR campaign about Basho and his travels there. I don’t think Basho is a big enough draw for Naruko, as he passed through all of Tohoku, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the town to be considered a National Landmark or even a World Heritage Site. There is a long tradition of hot spring use here, which reflects on Japanese culture as a whole. When this project was explained to some Japanese friends, they described a toji vacation as the “Japanese Dream” to be able to take a long soak, so to point that out to the world as a WHS would be great. Packaging in kokeshi, Basho, all of it…

We have not heard much love of the hot springs. Is that true at onsen throughout Japan? It is a case of people being too close to something and taking it for granted? Lip service to something they think is important (sort of like how people get mad if the opera closes in their city, but no one ever actually goes to a performance? When it closes they complain, but when it was open, they never went to support it.)  Particularly in Onikoube, separated as it is, if the town of Naruko were to tumble into the river, it seems like it would make very little difference in their lives. They have been self-sustaining for the entire life of the village. As Kimura-san pointed out, they have always been local and sustainable, those aren’t buzzwords there, that’s just the culture.
Along the river, Takahashi-san? He’s a kokeshi-maker. If the ryokan all closed, he would still make kokeshi. Kitaura-san? Rice is needed everywhere. It’s simply a coincidence that the hot springs are nearby. It wouldn’t affect him at all if they closed. The ryokan owners themselves are the ones that will be hurt the most if tourism continues its long decline. But if the ryokan were all to close, would it really be a blow to Japanes culture?
To us, as outsiders, it really seems like a loss. But to the people of Japan, if Naruko were to close, would they notice? If Gotou-san’s dances are all forgotten, would it make a difference? Would it only become obvious when they realize that all they have left is game shows and J-Pop? What of this culture is important to people and what deserves to be preserved? Can some of it be lost, what should be saved?

Where do you draw the line? Does it have to be hundreds of people working to save something? Doezens? One? If Takahashi-san becomes the last living kokeshi-maker, is it important for him to teach someone else? It seems to be what we are looking here at the vanishing point. If everyone keeps their backs turned, very soon all of this will be gone and that seems like a waste.

Is it our role to highlight this culture to people who  live in Japan? Even those very close, like in Sendai? “Hey look, right here, a day trip away from the city, there is a piece of old Japan, where some of your parents or grandparents came from. Wouldn’t it be terrible if it all disappeared?”

Or will it?

We keep coming back to positive and negative. It is easy to see the closed storefronts, but look at Masako-san who loves it here. Or Gotou-san, who said it took him 50 years to realize it, but he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It’s a great place, but what do you do going forward.

Miyamoto-san might have had the most insightful comment of them all.  His family business has been around for 140 years, but it has changed faces many times. The important part is that the family maintained that business. It reflects the needs of the community at that point in time… so if his son returns to take over the coffee shop, it doesn’t have to remain a coffee shop. If it becomes something else, something more appropriate, that’s what he feels it should do. That sort of flexibility, of passing down the history and family ties is important, but the shape can change. How do you keep the bones while allowing the shape to change?

August 9, 2010

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