Creative nature … mirror house by Harumi Yukutake at Japan’s Echigo-Tsumari outdoor art festival. Photograph: Keita Yasukawa

The scene is pure postcard Japan. Layered mountain peaks shrouded in forests capped with smoky wisps of clouds and tiered rice paddies, a dazzling shade of green. So far, so haiku-inspiringly perfect – apart from one unexpected intrusion on the landscape. Centre stage in the tableau of pastoral perfection is a square frame the size of a small house from which are suspended dozens of giant wooden pencils in a rainbow of colours.

Contemporary art may be a surprise find in a remote corner of the mountainous Niigata prefecture in central Japan, but the isolated rural region – famous for its heavy snowfall, rice paddies and declining elderly population – is the unlikely setting for the most innovative of art projects, the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial.

It is the world’s biggest open-air art festival and the fourth Triennial opened last weekend with more than 350 artworks by artists from 38 countries. Sculptures, paintings and installations pepper the landscape and are set amid rice fields, forests, in abandoned schools and vacant wooden houses.

Visitors will stumble across trees with staring blue eyes in the heart of a forest and life-sized red figures dotting the rice fields, a postmodern zen garden fashioned from rusted steel refuse and a sea of psychedelic canvases in a school gymnasium.

The festival’s geographical dimensions are as vast as its creative ambitions: the 760 sq km site spans a larger area than the 23 wards of central Tokyo, making an exploration of the region a giant art treasure hunt.


Danielle Demetriou