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Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale guide for the arts lover in Niigata

One of my favourite things from my road trip around Niigata was checking out the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, an art festival with many interesting contemporary artworks that tell the history and stories of this rural agricultural area. Here’s my Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale guide on how to get around ETAT, what key artworks to look out for when you visit and some tips to help you better explore this Niigata region.

Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale 2024 starts from 13 July to 10 November. Find out more at the ETAT website. You can also check out my article about ETAT on ST Life [paywall].

About the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale

The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (ETAT) is one of Japan’s largest arts festivals that takes place in southern Niigata across 6 areas – Echigo-Tsumari are actually old names for Tokamachi and Tsunan respectively.

ETAT is actually the predecessor of the Setouchi Triennale in the Seto Inland Sea area that I visited in 2016 – ETAT started in 2000 and was a way to revitalise the agricultural Niigata region which had an aging population and was losing young people to the cities.

Matsudai Castle Hill Lookout Tower
Look out for the yellow signs that indicate ETAT artworks. This one is on the slope of Matsudai Castle called Matsudai Small Tower (D70)

Echigo-Tsumari Art Field Locations

I spent 3 nights in this area and about 3 days exploring I based myself in Tokamachi City and spent a fair amount of time exploring neighbouring Matsudai and Matsunoyama, as well as heading out to Nakasato to see the Kiyotsu Gorge.

Here’s a map detailing where I went and what I saw, as well as some things I wish I had time for along the way. A note that this is based on my visit in 2023, there may be new additions to check out with the newer editions of ETAT.

Trip map created using Wanderlog, a travel planner on iOS and Android

Tokamachi 十日町

While Tokamachi refers to the wider area that covers all the towns I list below, Tokamachi City is probably the busiest district within this area and where I based myself to explore the festival. Tokamachi is one of the easier spots to get to because it is on the Hokuhoku train line, and most of the main artworks are within walking distance of the downtown area as well, which makes it an ideal base if you don’t have a car.

Museum on Echigo-Tsumari / MonET (T025)

The Museum on Echigo-Tsumari (MonET) (entry fee/passport required) is the main heart of ETAT and a good place to see a bunch of works and pick up information and maps to plan your route, and has the most comprehensive merchandise store of all the locations.

Tokamachi MonET Palimpsest Viewpoint
Palimpsest: Pond of Sky by Leandro Erlich (that’s not a reflection you are looking at btw!)

There are too many works to list comprehensively, but some of the works I enjoyed at MonET:

  • LOST #6 (T230) by Kuwakubo Ryota – a little train goes around a model of Tokamachi city in a dark room casting really interesting shadows on the wall as it circles the tracks, using these shifting shadows to tell a story of Tokamachi’s history
  • SOIL LIBRARY/NIIGATA (T280) by Kouichi Kurita – this artist collected soil samples from all around Niigata and arranged them aesthetically – so pretty and an intriguing work

Check out the MonET website for more.

Tokamachi MonET 16 Ropes
16 Ropes (T416) by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov captures snippets of conversations from the Soviet era hung on 16 ropes stretched across a room, each with a ‘garbage’ item attached

IKOTE (T309)

Also known as the Tokamachi Industry and Cratft Center, We had one of our first meals in Tokamachi at the beautiful igloo-shaped IKOTE not too far away from MonET – the architects Takaharu and Yui Tezuka also built the Kyororo building in Matsunoyama. The shape of the house is due to the massive snowfall they get around these parts.

Ikote by night
Tokamachi Ikote Food Table
They have a pretty extensive dinner menu – I got the Tsumari pork, a local delicacy of Tokamachi

Hachi and Seizo Tashima Museum of Picture Book Art (T173)

Hachi and Seizo Tashima Museum of Picture Book Art (entry fee/passport required) is a fantastical installation set in an old disused school set a bit further out from downtown Tokamachi.

While it delves in to the issue of losing the young to the cities, this work has a lot of whimsy, wistfulness and nostalgia in it, quite different from The Last Class in Mastunoyama (see below) which is also about the loss of youth – it’s interesting to see how different artists tackle similar themes in completely different ways across the festival.

Tokamachi Picture Book Museum Hall
Let your imagination run wild as the last 3 students of the school go on a colourful adventure!
Tokamachi Picture Book Museum Classroom Me
Teaching the last 3 students in the school
Tokamachi Picture Book Museum Mini House
This miniature house has a working TV if you go right up to it!

House of Light (K005)

James Turrell’s House of Light is technically in Kawanishi 川西 but it’s not far by car from Tokamachi City. A beautiful traditional style house on stilts up on top of the hill, you can visit the work as a guest for a very short period in the afternoon, but the best way to experience the House of Light is to stay overnight so you can witness the light changing segments at sunset and sunrise.

Check out my detailed review of the House of Light and what you can expect if you stay overnight.

Tokamachi House of Light Exterior
Traditional house on stilts to combat high snowfall – that roof on top opens!
Tokamachi House of Light Show Start Pink Glow
The pink light means the show is about the begin. That roof opens up to the outside elements
Tokamachi House of Light Roof Open Photo
I’m in awe at how a simple hole in the roof can do such interesting things with light

There are some other artworks to see in the Kawanishi area if you venture up towards the Fushiguro Castle Ruins area, but these are mostly smaller sculptures scattered around the area. Only recommended if you have time and the weather is good because the road leading there is a pretty narrow mountainous stretch.

Tokamachi Kawanishi Donkey
As you drive down the hill, you’ll come across some other works like the Homage to Rachel Carson: Four Little Stories (K003) and Nodure (K004) which looks like a white colour bus stop

Other things to do in Tokamachi

One of the highlight foods to eat in this area is something called hegisoba, a special type of soba created from buckwheat and funori seaweed. My guesthouse folk recommended us the restaurant Nishino which was a short walk from the house and the train station. We tried both hegisoba and hegiudon (the udon version) – they are pretty filling so pace yourself, and generally ate a lot at this meal, so good!

If you need more options, another hegisoba restaurant recommended to me is Echigo Tokamachi Kojimaya.

Tokamachi Nishino Hegisoba
Hegisoba is served in ‘bite sized’ segments that you dip and eat

Nishino にし乃 [Google maps]. Open 1130am – 2pm, 530pm – 10pm. Closed on Tuesdays.

Tokamachi Koryukan is the guesthouse that I stayed at in Tokamachi for 2 nights and I highly recommend it not just for its great location (a short 10 minute to Tokamachi Station and an even shorter drive). This is a cute traditional style guesthouse that’s also a cafe sometimes during the day time.

The owners are really nice and friendly and speak pretty good English, and gave us excellent recommendations on things to check out around the area. They even helped us arrange to forward our luggage via Takkyubin and sent us to the office to get it done! They have many kimonos you can try on in the hallway – that’s another product that Tokamachi was once well known for!

Facilities wise, they prepare an excellent traditional style Japanese breakfast – rice topped with a fresh raw egg and some fish and veg side dishes. It’s a shared bathroom but a large onsen bath style one that has its own cloakroom.

Tokamachi Koryukan Exterior
Evening at the Koryukan
Tokamachi Koryukan Room
Our slightly messy room – there is a mini balcony area of sorts that can squeeze a 3rd futon if you have 3 pax
Tokamachi Koryukan View
View from the house – facing the fields
Tokamachi Koryukan Breakfast
So simple but so good

Tokamachi Fureai no Yado Koryukan 十日町ふれあいの宿 [Google maps]. Make a reservation via the Tokamachi Koryukan website.

Matsudai 松代

Matsudai is located about 30-40 minutes’ drive west of Tokamachi City with a hub near the train station and some pretty cool installations around the area.

Matsudai NOHBUTAI Field Museum (D053)

The Matsudai NOHBUTAI Field Museum (entry fee/passport required) is a funky looking building with a good collection of works both within and around the building. This building is a short walk from the Matsudai Train Station, again another convenient hub for the non-drivers.

Matsudai Castle is also nearby but up a pretty steep slope so you do need to drive to get there.

More at the Matsudai NOHBUTAI website.

Matsudai Nohbutai Building
Matsudai Nohbutai Building
Matsudai Nohbutai Rice Terraces
The Kabakovs have several works at ETAT and here at Matsudai Nohbutai, but the most visible one is probably The Rice Field (D001), one of their earliest works – this isn’t the full picture as there is a particular spot near the building where a Japanese poem is strung up on strings and meant to be viewed together with this scene
Matsudai Nohbutai Building Classroom
Relation – Blackboard Classroom (D058) features many classroom desks with things hidden underneath the table portion you can flip up

Matsudai Castle

Matsudai Castle (entry fee/passport required) is right next door but located on top of a lofty 384m tall hill which you will need to drive to, and then slowly walk up (15 mins for normal people, 10mins if you ran like I did).

We practically ran up this hill because we visited very close to closing time and I only had 8 minutes to see everything! There are 3 works, each found on a different level, and some other sculptures scattered along the hillside.

Matsudai Castle Exterior
Matsudai Castle was built as a watchtower of sorts and actually fairly modern, reconstructed in 1981. The castle grounds itself actually spread across the Matsudai area
Matsudai Castle Slope
Can you ese that tiny white dot in the centre? That’s me running ahead of my friend who made it up 4 mins behind me lol

Perspectives of Longing (D377) by Esther Stocker is the first sight that greets you, an incongruously contemporary visual of a giant crushed up ball in what would have been the entrance hall of this once traditional building.

Matsudai Castle First Floor
The juxtaposition of old and new is quite something

Going up to the second level is Laxudai (D378) by Toyofuku Ryo, a glitzy golden house in that sandwich level between the ground and top floor. It’s like a hidden little world within the castle.

Matsudai Castle Second Floor
The golden house under the stairs

Finally on the top floor with the best views of the surrounding area is Shedding Time (D379) by Kurakake Junichi feels like a meditation room, where the dark walls and round openings allow you to really focus on the splendid view of the surrounding countryside.

Matsudai Castle Top Floor
A gold platform sits in a room with dark painted walls and round doorways
Matsudai Castle Top Floor View
Look at that view!

Other things to do in Matsudai

Rice is of course the main feature in Niigata, but in these hilly parts, the Hoshitoge Rice Terraces are one of several tanada (rice terraces) that make for spectacular viewpoints. I visited in October which is pretty out of season – the best times to visit will be middle of the year when the terraces are filled with water, and will reflect the sunrise/sunset light.

Matsudai Hoshitoge Rice Terrace Me
Hoshitoge Rice Terraces are just one of the beautiful landscapes found in Niigata
Matsudai Hoshitoge Rice Terrace Trees Me
Looking out over the rice terraces

We also visited the Matsudai Shibatouge Onsen: Unkai 峠温泉 雲海 which is a lovely hot spring facility up on the mountain and views of the surrounding valley from the hot spring pools. I couldn’t take pix of the view, but it’s a lovely place to soak in after a long day of art hunting! You could also stay overnight here and there is an ETAT sculpture here (I didn’t photograph it because it was already dark).

Matsudai Shibatouge Unkai Onsen Exterior
No pix of the baths unfortunately, but there is a lovely mountain view as this is up in the hills

Matsunoyama 松之山

Matsunoyama is a renowned hot spring area and a favourite apres-ski spot during the winter season. The onsen water here is supposed to have very strong medicinal properties and be good for health and beauty.

The Last Class (Y052)

The Last Class (entry fee/passport required) takes place in the abandoned Higashikawa school and is really atmospheric and haunting. You enter the dimly lit school hall where table fans lazily blow around straw and hay on the floor. Further in, the dark hallways feel like a horror movie with the thumping of heartbeats echoing through the building – the French artist Christian Boltanski has a work on Teshima in Setouchi Triennale that also uses heartbeats (in a less scary way).

Matsunoyama Last Class Hall
The Last Class by Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman is set in an old disused school building in Matsunoyama’s Higashikawa Village
Matsunoyama Last Class School
The disused school building
Matsunoyama Last Class Mirrors
These walls are covered with mirrors, again emphasing that emptiness and horror movie feel
Matsunoyama Last Class Shadows
What you can’t hear from this pix is the whirring of the fan and the thumping heartbeats

House Memory (Y072)

House Memory (entry fee/passport required) by Shiota Chiharu takes a traditional minka house and makes it look like a human-sized spider took over it, with 44,000m of black yarn used to create webs throughout the house. It’s a pretty cool experience walking through this, especially when you discover the objects hidden in the webs which belonged to the villagers – items they couldn’t bring themselves to discard even though they weren’t needed.

Matsunoyama House Memory Exterior Sign
Looks like a normal house from outside
Matsunoyama House Memory Web
Spider webs galore inside!
Matsunoyama House Memory Web Items
Slightly creepy items amidst the webbing

Other things to do in Matsunoyama

Matsunoyama onsen is the main reason people visit this area and most of these are located along the stretch of road in what feels like the valley of the area. I was recommended to check out Takanoyu but there are several options around here. The water is unusual in that it’s apparently sea water trapped underground millions of years ago, so it’s salty and the mineral content is also very high, making it one of the top medicinal hot springs in Japan.

There is a free public foot bath along this stretch of road. The water is pretty hot so you will need to run the cold water for a bit if you want to use it without scalding your feet, but it has a nice view of the area and one of the ETAT artworks nearby.

Matsunoyama Foot Bath Building
Foot bath outside this building
Matsunoyama Foot Bath Me
Too hot for me!
Matsunoyama Art Cow
The Black Symbol (Y106) is a figure of a bull that reflects the artist’s Spanish background

We had lunch in Matsunoyama in a restaurant called Yama’ai or San’ai that is famous for their huge portions of katsudon cooked in the hot spring water here. You can see in this picture below – that is ONE portion believe it or not. We asked the lady boss to split it into two for us and were honestly quite sure that she had mistakenly served us two portions, but nope that’s one portion! Very good katsudon.

Matsunoyama Katsudon Me
Shocked at the gigantic portion – this is for 1 pax and costs just 1,050 JPY (S$9)

Yama’ai/San’ai お食事処 山愛(さんあい) [Google maps] Open daily 11am – 830pm.

Another nice spot to visit is the Bijin Bayashi or Beauty Forest 美人林. The trees here were chopped down in the early 1900s and left the mountain side very bare. Around the late 1920s, they replanted the entire forest with Beech trees which is why all the trees here are unusually uniform in terms of height and growth. It was still very green when we visited in early October – November is when the autumn orange colouring really shows up.

Matsunoyama Bijin Bayashi Forest Entrance
Entering the Bijin Bayashi – such tall trunks!
Matsunoyama Bijin Bayashi Forest Me
Forest bathing

Next to the Bijin Bayashi forest is another ETAT work that I really wanted to see but for some reason closed that very day we visited. Kyororo (Y019) or the Echigo-Matsunoyama Natural Museum of Science (entry fee/passport required) has weather-proof architecture meant to tolerate up to 2000 tons of snowfall! The exhibitions here focus on wildlife found around this area as well as some ETAT artworks.

More at the Kyororo website.

Matsunoyama Kyororo Exterior
Kyororo looks like a submarine

Nakasato 中里

Located south of Tokamachi, the highlight of Nakasato is Kiyotsu Gorge, one of the must-sees in the area whether you are an art fan or not, as it is one of the 3 largest gorges in Japan.

Tunnel of Light (N079)

Kiyotsu Gorge 清津峡 (entry fee/discount with passport) has long been famous as one of the top 3 gorges in all of Japan, but in 2018, the 750m tunnel walk through the mountain was transformed into the Tunnel of Light (N079) with artworks and photo worthy spots against an amazing gorge view. There are also some bits sharing about the history of this area within the tunnel – they’ve found fossil evidence of prehistoric sharks around here!

More at the Kiyotsu Gorge website. Note that during ETAT season and peak months you have to make advanced reservations to visit for crowd control.

Kiyotsu Gorge View from Tunnel
Kiyotsu Gorge view from the tunnel

The various artworks that make up Tunnel of Light are meant to represent different elements.

Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel Green
Expression of Colour (Earth) – different coloured lights used to jazz up the tunnel
Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel Mirrors Me
Small enclaves along the 750m walk have different art installations and gorge views, like this one called Drop (Fire).
Kiyotsu Gorge Striped Section Wide
These stripes make for such interesting shots, and that thing in the middle is Invisible Bubble (metal), a TOILET with a 1-way glass dome that lets you look outside when you’re using it!
Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel of Light Water Mirror Me
People come to take this shot of Light Cave (Water) at panorama station at the end of the tunnel. There is a shallow pool of water to walk through to get to this spot
Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel of Light Water Mirror Photographers
Here’s what it looks like if you’re the one getting your photo taken – lots of people and photographers (yes that’s me, this was taken by my friend Y)

Don’t miss the little building free footbath and ‘Periscope’ at the gift shop near the entrance and

Kiyotsu Gorge Entrance Path
There is a building along the path leading to the gorge entrance which has a souvenir shop, some snacks and the foot bath on the upper level.
Kiyotsu Gorge Footbath Pano
Periscope (wood) is where you can soak your feet in this conical enclosure and enjoy a view of the surroundings by looking at the round mirror above your head.

The  Isobe Yukihisa Memorial Echigo-Tsumari Kiyotsu SoKo Museum of Art (N072) or Kiyotsu Warehouse Museum is set in a former school building and located en route to the gorge – sadly it was closed when I was there so I didn’t get a chance to visit.

Nearby: Echigo Yuzawa

Nakasato is about half an hour by driving away from Echigo Yuzawa, a very popular ski area accessible from Tokyo via Shinkansen. The Echigo Yuzawa train station is also home to the Ponshukan where over 130 different sakes are available to test drink and a sake hot spring bath!

Read more over at my Niigata hidden gems post.

Echigo Yuzawa Ponshukan Entrance
Vending machine style sake for tasting!

Planning to visit Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale

This sprawling art festival in the rural areas of Japan needs a bit of preplanning if you want to maximise your time here. Here are my suggestions on getting around ETAT.

When to visit Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale

I visited ETAT in October 2023, but the neat thing is that you can visit outside of the triennale years as there are over 200 permanent works on display. 2024 is a good year to visit as it is a triennale year so expect to see new works this season!

When you’re planning on which days to visit the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, most of the works will be open on the weekend (Saturdays and Sundays), but it may also be a lot more crowded.

Avoid visiting ETAT on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because most things are closed then for maintenance. In 2023 I visited on Thursday and Friday – it was generally not crowded, but only half the works were open then.

The weather in early October was the tail end of summer, so around the low 20ºCs in the day, dropping to the high 10ºCs in the evening where you might need a light jacket. Trees in general were still pretty green – you need to visit in November for autumn foliage.

How long do you need for Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale

I spent 3 nights in Niigata – 1 in Kawanishi staying overnight at the James Turrell House of Light, and 2 nights at Koryukan Fureai in Tokamachi City (more in the Tokmachi section), which felt like enough time to see the many of the highlights, but you may want to allocate yourself more time if you want to go deep and go slow.

Tokamachi Picture Book Museum Goat Sign Me
Still very green all around in October and just slightly cool. This was taken at the Picture Book Museum in Tokamachi – that red goat sign really looks like a horror movie title for some reason

How to get to Niigata

Southern Niigata is about 200km northwest of Tokyo. The easiest way to get from Tokyo to Niigata is to:

  • Take the Joetsu Shinkansen – Tokyo Station to Echigo Yuzawa – 1 Hr 20 mins
  • Connect by Train – Hokuhoku line from Echigo Yuzawa to Tokamachi/Matsudai (roughly 40 mins)
  • Connect by Car – rent a car at Echigo Yuzawa and drive to Nakasato (30mins) or Tokamachi (40 mins)

Best way to get around Echigo-Tsumari Art Field

Self-driving by car is by far the best way to get around these parts because it’s pretty rural and mountainous. Some of the artworks in particular are based in remote locations and not the easiest to visit.

Tip: Pick up a large paper guide map at the start of your trip – it has both a detailed map with numbers + info and a photo gallery of ALL the ETAT works which was easier to refer to in the car as compared to scrolling on the phone.

Some of the works require a bit of effort to get to, but quite honestly not all of them are worth the effort if you’re short on time so don’t feel too pressured to cover every single work. Most of the outdoor works are sculptures – I focused on the hubs and the larger scale installations, and only saw sculptures if they were nearby. Some works I just randomly stumbled across without even trying!

My suggestion is to visit the works in clusters. Also, consider doing road trip style where you stay in a different location every night to maximise your visiting time and minimise having to make the drive back to your home base.

During the Triennale years, they do have shuttle buses and guided tours (in Japanese) to ferry you around the area which can help you explore the ETAT art field more efficiently.

Tokamachi House of Light Car Me
Our cosy little grandma car. I love the huge tactile buttons instead of all the touchscreens newer cars have nowadays!

Should you purchase an ETAT admission passport

The outdoor installations of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale are free to view, but some of the works require an entry fee. Depending on when you go and how much you want to see, it may make more sense to buy an Admission Passport (4,500 JPY for 2024 summer season) that grants you entry to all the works for one price.

This passport is usually valid for a few months, but it may be worthwhile to buy even if you are only going to be using it for just a few days. I bought the 2023 passport which was valid from April to November for 2,500 yen and while I didn’t manage to see everything, it would have cost me 5,400 yen to pay for entrance fees for what we visited if we didn’t have the pass.

The passports are mostly valid for 1 visit per installation, but give 50% discount for a revisit. I gave the pass to a friend based in Japan after my trip in case she wanted to make use of the installations that I didn’t have time to visit.

ETAT Admission Passport 2023
ETAT Admission Passport 2023

Have you been to the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale aka ETAT? Tell me what your favourite works are, I hope to go back again in a different season to see new works! In the meantime check out my other posts for more things to do in Niigata.