Day 1, Ashiya (Hyogo Prefecture)
A shuttle coach took me from the Kansai Airport (Osaka) to the location of my residency. Here I will be exploring Japanese art and aesthetics with the assistance of Tsukiyo to Syonen, a small private art gallery in Ashiya, which aims at cultural exchange between Japanese and European artists. With their help, I will be looking at imagery and its relationship with the everyday. I will be asking questions about how? and why? and who? and what?
But before all that, I arrived at Osaka Bay. Greys, blues and haze rolled outside the shuttle car windows and I was mesmerised; or maybe just sleepy after the whole flight adventure. Osaka Bay was subtly monochromatic. Mr Whistler would love this.
Ashiya is a small but irresistible city. Perfectly trimmed, leaning on the Rokko Mountains on one side and attached to Osaka Bay on the other, it is a heaven for those who wish to unwind, walk in a blissful silence or just look at everyday life passing by. No one is rushing here, there are more bikes than cars (what is a car?)
and there are more walkers than bikers. If any…
Arriving in the middle of the week and almost at the dawn helps to experience the everyday of this small city (approx. 100 000 inhabitants). The hidden sign posts are peeking out from the bushes; discreet reminders that ‘You are politely asked not to park here’. Lotus root is in season and so I grab a truly informative leaflet with recipes from a local CO OP (convenience store). Ume mochi (plum mochi) are on sale, as ume season is over. Do not despair though, as there is always a season for something. Eat lotus. It will be gone sooner than you think.
Ashiya’s quietude is basking in the sun and cherry blossoms developed hastily this year. Apparently, I have just about missed the sakura watching craze which culminated last Sunday. There are still some ‘pikunikku’ goers (traditional way of celebrating the event) around and they are catching the last glimpse of the falling petals. The everyday of this city is unhurried but amusing. And are small things of value here? Of course they are.
Fact-of-the-day: Ashiya is the only city in Japan that has banned gambling and gaming centres.
It might be then pretty difficult to believe that Ashiya is a place where the experimental vigour of the Gutai Art Collective gathered in the 1950’s. Artists revolted against the conventions, stagnation, sleepiness and the sky*. Instead, they used force, movement and industrial materials to express the uncertainty and fuzziness of their surroundings. They went out onto the streets to perform art. They held an exhibition in the local Ashiya Park (just round the corner) and became one of the most important contemporary Japanese art movements. All of us, who know Gutai would recognise some of the most iconic images taken in the Ashiya Park. One could say that Gutai woke Ashiya up!
There are more surprises to Ashiya City and its surrounding (Kobe):
Haruki Murakami was raised here.
One of Junichiro Tanizaki’s (who was inspired by Kansai region) books Makikoka Sisters is based in Ashiya … and his memorial is here.
Tadao Ando designed a plethora of beautiful buildings around here: Shibata House (Ashiya), Takanata House (Ashiya), Koshino House, 4 x 4 House (Kobe), Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Kobe), Rokko Housing (Kobe) and plenty more.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s (a collector of Japanese art who inspired Tadao Ando) design Yamamura House is here.
Yoko Ogawa (contemporary writer) simply lives here.
*A loose paraphrase from Alexandra Munroe.