In some regions of Japan, this time of year marks the peak of the annual rice harvest season. Traditionally, Japanese farmers have reused leftover rice straw (“wara” in Japanese), a byproduct of the harvest, to feed livestock and better the soil. Artisans have used it for making tatami mats and other household objects. But over time, technology has replaced these traditions with the utilization of industrial materials, leaving farmers with enormous amounts of dry rice straw for which they have no use.
In the coastal region of Niigata Prefecture, a major rice-growing area, the Wara Art Festival brings a creative solution to this problem: enchanting, oversized sculptures of animals and mythical creatures made exclusively of rice straw. The straw sculptures are designed by students from Tokyo’s Musashino Art University and installed in collaboration with local residents in Niigata. After a year of hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival is now back for its 13th edition, welcoming visitors at the local Uwasekigata Park through October 31.
Founded in 2007, the Wara Art Festival is organized jointly by Niigata City’s local tourism council and the Musashino Art University. It is the brainchild of Shingo Miyajima, a professor at the Department of Science and Design at Musashino, who in 2006 was asked by Niigata’s farming community to think of a solution to the problem of unused rice straw. The professor came up with a creative idea: monumental animal sculptures supported by wooden frames. Since then, the festival has become a major tourist attraction in the region.
Rising from the fields, the mammoth artworks can climb to the height of 30 feet. The exhibition features menacing, sharp-toothed beasts and dragons alongside endearing apes and elephants. This year’s displays also include a representation of an Amabie, a beaked mermaid or merman from Japanese mythology.
Ideal for a family trip, the festival’s Facebook page shows visitors of all ages posing for pictures inside the open jaws of a crocodile or in the lap of a giant gorilla. The festival has only one request from visitors to ensure the safety of the displays: Please don’t fly drones in the park!
In longitudes where long johns are all but compulsory and rugged alpine regions where the snow tumbles down sideways, creative grizzled folk brave the cold to cut and chisel and craft chunks of frozen water into sparkling ice hotels, uplit overnight igloos and snow-covered villages for mere non-mountain mortals to sleep over.
Iglu Dorf – Gstaad, Switzerland
Built using traditional igloo techniques, but with tunnels connecting each of the 11 rooms, it takes around 3000 hours to create the Iglu Dorf hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland each winter. With breathtaking views out across the crucible of the vast Bernese Alps and its crown of fir trees, this slice of wonderful isolation can be enjoyed by up to six guests in a room overnight.
With a sauna and swimming pool just outside as well as homemade mulled wine and a traditional hot cheese fondue, this is Switzerland in its purest mountain mode. Iglu Dorf also builds overnight igloos in Davos-Klosters, Stockhorn and Zermatt in Switzerland as well as on Zugspitze in Germany, and the Kühtai ski area in Austria.
Icehotel – Jukkasjärvi, Sweden
First built in 1989 in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, this is the original Icehotel. It’s crafted annually from 2500 two-ton blocks of snice (snow and ice) plucked from the vast meandering Torne River. At the end of the season it simply melts and the water returns to the river. But whilst it’s up, its shimmering catenary arches and individually-designed rooms with snow statues and ice artwork make it a startling imaginative triumph.
Located in northern lights territory, high up into the Arctic Circle, guests can also try husky sledding, snowmobiling and snowshoeing. For the artistic, there’s ice sculpting as well. Can’t wait for winter? The Icehotel 365 offers 20 suites, an ice bar and an art gallery all year round. Plus it’s run entirely on renewable energy.
Arctic SnowHotel – Rovaniemi, Finland
Rovaniemi‘s Arctic SnowHotel is in Lapland, where Santa Claus kicks back for 364 days each year. Standing on the toes of the Arctic Circle, this part of Finland cycles through eight seasons, but it’s the sparkling magic of winter that’s most alluring: a calming white-scape of thick, crunchy snow; the swirling purples and greens of the northern lights; the excitable yap of huskies waiting to pull their sledges.
But hidden amongst these miles and miles of white wilderness is Arctic SnowHotel, a fully-functioning 30-room igloo that’s built afresh each winter using ice from the nearby Lake Lehtojärvi. The bedrooms are built of snow and ice, as is the bar, the restaurant and the chapel. Snow saunas and outdoor hot tubs also help make the most of this winter wonderland.
Arctic SnowHotel is open December 15–March 31.
Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel – Alta, Norway
Sculpted deep beneath the magnetic gaze of the aurora borealis, the world’s northernmost ice hotel in Alta, Norway, is also one of the biggest. Some 250 tons of ice and 7000cu meters of snow are used each year to freshly carve its 20 double rooms, three family rooms and five suites.
Located on the banks of the Alta River, a short snow sled from the Cathedral of the Northern Lights, the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel also has uplit ice sculptures, an ice bar and even its own ice chapel for couples hoping to melt hearts. The beds have reindeer leather as a natural sleeping mat and sleeping bags capable of withstanding temperatures of -22°F (-30°C), but the sauna (no, not located inside the ice hotel) opens at 7am each morning. Just in case.
Sorrisniva is open December 20–April 7.
SnowVillage – Kittilä, Finland
Created from 350 tons of crystal clear natural ice and 20,000 tons of snow, this extravagant SnowVillage in Kittilä, some 125 miles (200km) into the Arctic Circle, is crafted with the care and precision of a medieval church. Decorated with ornate ice sculptures that change year-on-year, each work is lit up in the swirling colors of the aurora borealis.
As its name suggests, this isn’t just an ice hotel. There’s a restaurant made from glacier-clear ice, a chiseled ice bar that gleams like a diamond, and a beautiful ice chapel too. Each snow suite has been individually designed and brought to life and, yes, there are saunas nearby as well.
SnowVillage is open from December 21–April 4.
Schneedorf Igloo – Hochötz, Austria
The Ötztal in Tyrol is one of those striking Austrian gram-oramas: a sweeping valley of glittering chalets dwarfed by the brooding dark hulks of snow-covered schist and gneiss striding starward. But up here, nestled some 2670ft up the mountainside in the ski region of Hochötz, you’ll find Schneedorf Igloo. Beneath what looks like a fresh dump of plump white snow is actually a hotel with enough room for 44 people to survive a blizzard overnight.
The silence is rejuvenating at night as the temperatures drop and the constellations start to twinkle against winter’s blueberry-dark sky. Dinner is gooey cheese fondue and the on-site snow bar has enough potent liqueurs to keep guests warm until sunrise. Thankfully, the igloo toilets here are heated.
Schneedorf is open Wed–Sun from December 26–April 4.
Ice Village Tomamu – Hokkaidō, Japan
Japan’s only ice hotel is a shades-down dazzler. Surrounded by uplit birch trees, the exclusive genetically-domed igloo sleeps just two people a night on its stylish ice beds, with an outdoor arctic bath and a heated dressing room to keep their lucky bones warm.
Located at Tomamu in Hokkaidō, near the smooth wide runs of Tomamu ski area, the temperatures regularly tumble to -22°F (-30°C). That may sound like visitors are consciously choosing to be cryogenically frozen, but it also means that Ice Village Tomamu guests have access to an ice rink, an ice slide, an ice instrument room, an ice chapel, an ice bar, an ice sweetshop, an ice bakery and – you’ve guessed it – an atelier that only uses ice.
Ice Village Tomamu is open December 10–March 14.
Hôtel de Glace – Saint-Gabriel-de-Valcartier, Canada
North America’s only ice hotel is in Saint-Gabriel-de-Valcartier, Canada, and will be cutting back on the poutine this winter to present a slimmed and trimmed version of its typical regal self because of COVID-19. However, that doesn’t mean the ice chandeliers and hand-chiseled snow sculptures will come crashing down – if anything, this luxurious igloo, which comes complete with an ice chapel for weddings, becomes even more exclusive.
Hosted on the outskirts of Quebec City, master craftspeople detail the igloo’s fine frozen furniture, gleaming ice entranceways and curved snow roofs each year. With hot tubs and a sauna under the stars as well as real fires in each room, no guests should go to bed cold. There are even real mattresses and an isolating bed sheet to ensure a great night’s kip. Hôtel de Glace usually opens earlier than January 2, depending on the weather.
Hôtel de Glace is open January 2–March 21.
Snowhotel Kirkenes – Kirkenes, Norway
So far up the longitude meridian that there’s only really Svalbard in the way of Kirkenes and the North Pole, this wonderful Norwegian snow hotel is open 365 days a year. In the cold, blizzard-blanketed winters this is reindeer and husky country: a quiet, isolated region endured by only the most hardy of creatures. But for overnight guests, it’s a beautiful once-in-a-lifetime spot for a winter vacation.
Inside the plump hotel itself, artists bring each bedroom to life with snowy bas reliefs of local winter animals like wolves and owls, whilst specialist ice sculptures that line the halls and ice bar area turn frozen water into glacial artworks worthy of Frieze Art Fair.
Tadashi Kawamata is a man with a material, wood. With this he builds cabins, observatories, nests and monumental frescos that are at home both in galleries and in the heart of towns and cities. While you might think that the artist, educated at the Tokyo University of the Arts, would use only high quality woods, the reality is rather different. Kawamata instead uses recycled wood from furniture from junk shops, old crates and other left over materials. These recycled materials have been elevated by art, both make for beautiful creative objects, and have a low environmental impact.
The artist works between Paris and Tokyo and began attracting global attention in the 1970s with his in situ works entitled By Land. He installed wood cabins in the most inaccessible parts of New York and Tokyo, such as Madison Square. A few years later he created Les chaises de traverse, a huge pile of wooden chairs suspended between the floor and the ceiling in the Delme synagogue. A few miles the artist also filled the Saint-Livier Hotel in Metz with a wall of chairs. In a short film by Gilles Coudert, the artist explains how each of the chairs represents a different person with a different history, and the wall is as if each of these people were linked together. In 2010 the artist scaled up, setting up a cabin in front of the Centre Pompidou before his chef d’oeuvre at the Renaissance Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.
In 2011 the work of Kawamata took on a new dimension following the tsunami that hit Japan. In Tokyo during the earthquake, he soon left for Paris, while people at home were on the front line helping one another, the artist wondered how he could maintain a link with them. He soon made one of his most emblematic works Under the Water a huge wooden wave recreating the tsunami that ravaged the Japanese coastlines. The work was exhibited at the Centre Pompidou Metz and at the gallery Kamel Mennour where the artist often shows.
Some would like to categorise it as an activist project, but Kawamata firmly rejects the appellation, I’m not an activist, he says, preferring instead to think about the political and social aspects of an issue in a different way. His work would be better described as Land Art, a name given to him when he was appointed the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2014. The contemporary art movement however also uses natural materials but is more oriented towards work that uses nature as its canvas, whereas Kawamata is more at home in the urban or public spaces.
The work of Tadashi Kawamata is marked by its ephemeral nature. His monumental wooden creations both infiltrate and accompany buildings, but are easily dismounted and given a new artistic life.
Nothing is recurring, nothing is permanent states the artist. No material can survive for eternity, everything is temporary. It is just a question of time, even a building that lasts 1000 years is temporary. Nothing is resistant to the wear of time, not men, not walls.
While indigo dye has been produced since the 19th century in Japan, it was only in the early 20th century that it became widespread. It took off most prominently in Tokushima, 600 kilometres from Tokyo on the island of Shikoku. At the time, there were almost 2000 cultivators, today there remain only five. Among them are the craftsperson collective Buaisou, whose mission is to preserve the ancestral art of indigo blue dye.
Buaisou was created in 2015 by Kakuo Kaji who responded to an open call from the Japanese Ministry for Education, offering to train up to two people in the craft of indigo dye. The aim was to preserve this art form before it was lost forever. Buaisou was born, establishing itself as a collective of farmers and dyers who follow through the whole process from start to finish.
‘At Buaisou, we are involved in every step”, says Kaji. “From planting the indigo seeds to producing the dyes and to dyeing the fabric’.
Indigo, the unique art, rooted in Japanese culture
The founder explains how he became interested in indigo dye at the age of 17 years old. ‘I moved from Aomori to Tokyo to study textile design at Zokei University. This is when I first became interested in indigo dyeing. I fell in love with the process and the patience it requires – it is unique compared to other forms of plant dyeing in that it takes significantly more time. It is an art form.’
Today, Buaisou is run by six people. Five craftsmen who are responsible for farming and dyeing, and Kaji, the director of the team. ‘We wanted to create the colour all by ourselves’, he explains. ‘Everything is done on-site at our farm, as much as possible’.
It is a lengthy process which can take over a year and a half to complete, ‘From seeding to finishing composting indigo leaves to make indigo dye (Sukumo), it’ll take over a year. Then we have to dry our indigo dye out, which will take about half a year’, Kaji adds.
With a unique approach, completely devoted to indigo dying, Buaisou attracts worldwide interest, organising workshops with artists, designers, professors, students, tourists and even celebrities such as Kanye West. ‘We have many inquiries from all over the world’, tells Kaji. ‘Most people don’t know what the indigo is. Whether it’s synthetic indigo powder from abroad or indigo paste from abroad, people just call it “indigo”. We’re all about education’. The workshops allow visitors to create the indigo dye only from indigo leaves, lye, bran and shell lime in order to produce a natural pigment which can be used for all sorts of artistic purposes.
Going from strength to strength, since 2018 Buaisou has been producing their own hand-dyed jeans. ‘Our future goal is to grow our own cotton and weave it ourselves’, says Kaji. This is all part of the broader project of raising awareness about indigo dye across Japan and modernising attitudes in order for the craft to continue to be passed down through generations.
moriyuki ochiai architects sets a constellation of tea rooms under the stars, a cluster of tea rooms offering a view of the surrounding scenery and the starlit sky as a teahouse connecting people to the stars and nature located in the town of bisei, okayama prefecture, japan, known as a sanctuary for stargazing. the site is surrounded by rolling hills and distant mountains and offers a view of a spectacular landscape.
moriyuki ochiai architects’s pieces are able to host a variety of events held throughout the year by the astronomy club and the tea ceremony club as well as a performance stage for concerts and plays. named after two rivers running through it, the town of bisei (jap. ‘beautiful stars’) is found in okayama prefecture which is also known for being the birthplace of eisai, a japanese buddhist priest, credited with introducing green tea to japan. in alignment with its heritage, the constellation of tea rooms is also in harmony with the surrounding undulating terrain, thus creating a landscape in which the indoor and outdoor expand seamlessly like the flow of a river under the milky way.
the japanese tea room was developed as an enclosed microcosm called ‘enclosure’, and as such, each unit is designed as a spatial installation where one can perceive minute changes in its natural surroundings and experience the wonder and mystery of natural phenomena. meanwhile, mirrors placed on the exterior walls reflect the ever-changing outdoor environment like the water surface of rice paddies scattered across bisei, thus modifying the look and perception of the constructions throughout the day.
visitors can experience the project as a galaxy of tea rooms built independently as they move in and around them freely. the outdoor space, taken as the space comprised between the tea rooms, the surrounding nature and the starry sky are beautifully intertwined to form a new landscape that comes in and out of view through the openings and gaps cut out from the multiple structures. the loose gathering of tea rooms forms an extension of the landscape and creates an environment enhancing the fun and joy derived from human activities. by merging together this newly formed belt of tea rooms with the idyllic hills, mountains and starry skies of bisei, the studio sought to realize a tea house that reshapes the town’s panorama.
the surrounding nature and the starry sky are beautifully intertwined to form a new landscape that comes in and out of view through the openings and gaps cut out from the multiple structures
design firm: moriyuki ochiai architects
team: moriyuki ochiai, jillian lei, xingguang li, marie uno, haruka amano, yuta takahashi
location: bisei-okayama and awajiiland, japan
client: irbisei, nijigennomori/pasona group
constructor: takei construction, ca leading (osami hiroyama, masakazu hirose, yoshiko makabe, kazuya okuno, sanae iwamoto), soken group
special paint: osamu yamaguchi
paint: masanao uchida lighting: color kinetics japan (masaki yamashita, koki yano, miyahara yusuke)
Yuriko Takagi is a photographer who worked with Issey Miyake. Three years ago, 65-year-old Takagi met a piece of forest land in Karuizawa which covers an area of 1440 square meters. Then she passed her driver’s test, decorated the house and moved into the forest. “As a woman, you got to be independent, living your own life is a lifelong career”.