May Misfortune Become Good Luck! Wara Art Connecting the Region to the Future
At the end of summer every year, giant objects made of rice
straw appear in Uwasekigata Park in the Nishikan Ward of Niigata
City. They are works known as “Wara Art” that are made in
collaboration between locals and students at Musashino Art
University (“Musabi” from here on). The Wara Art Festival is an
annual event put on by Niigata City since 2008 to showcase these
sculptures, now a staple of autumn in the region.
However, in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wara Art Festival was canceled for the first time. Ringing in 2021 saw the spread of infection and new strains of the virus, further restricting activities with seemingly no end in sight. The Musabi students can’t come this year either... But we still want to hold the Wara Art Festival... That thought sparked a search for a new way to make holding the Wara Art Festival in 2021 possible. The year’s theme was “Lucky things that bring vitality to those who see them.” This is a backstage look at the Wara Art Festival that overcame a pandemic to be held.
Thinking of Niigata from afar, Musabi students decided the theme and designs
Wara Art Festival Venue: Uwasekigata Park
Wara Art began from an exchange between then Iwamuro Village, a well-known hot spring town, and Professor Miyajima Shingo from Musabi. They pondered what they could do with the rice straw from Niigata, one of the country’s top rice-producing regions. This query reminded them of how people think “Snow Festival” when they hear “Sapporo” and they wondered if they could do the same for Niigata and a festival of rice straw. Thus, Wara Art was born. Originally, it was treated like an extra-curricular activity of the research lab, but as the years went on, Wara Art gained wider recognition and more students joined in on the project. It grew into a large scale project with local links, more designs, and the addition of a week-long trip to Niigata to build the sculptures each year, and in 2016 it became a collaborative project between industry, government, and academia. Since Professor Miyajima retired in 2019, Professor Nakahara Shunzaburo has taken lead of the class in his stead. However, as they were unable to come to Niigata in 2020 and 2021 for sculpture building, the classes were cancelled.
Students who have participated in the project, starting on the left is Takahashi Ryuta (Department of Architecture, 1st year), Tanabe Yuka (Department of Scenography, Display, and Fashion Design, 1st year), Nemoto Sumire (Department of Science of Design, 2nd year), and their instructor, Research Assistant Seino Fumihiro (Department of Science of Design Research Lab)
“Niigata City expressed a desire to hold Wara Art in some way or the other and the university discussed what they could do from afar to help,” Research Assistant Seino recalled. After some consideration, they decided that instead of offering a class, they would allow students to apply to choose the theme and draw up the designs without going to Niigata. “In a typical year, we have 40 students working on this project but with the state of the world at this time, we felt anxious about having many students gather. In the end, ten students participated to create three sculptures.” (Research Assistant Seino)
Wara Art Sculpture Design Sketches
After some discussion between the students, they decided on “Lucky things that bring vitality to those who see them” as the theme. “Being in the midst of this pandemic, the overall mood in Japan was very bleak. With those circumstances we thought it would be nice if we could hold the festival to brighten the mood and different ideas for lucky things came up.” (Nemoto)
Ho-oh brings peace and tranquility to humankind
“I wanted to participate in a project cooperating with other departments. Additionally, I wanted to try working with rice straw, a material that I did not have much experience with,” says Takahashi who was a part of the team that created the Ho-oh sculpture. During the design stage, they envisioned and created a model of the creature to have its wings spread as if it was about to fly upwards but the final product turned out a bit different. “When I saw the finished sculpture, the real thing had such power, just like I imagined. It wasn’t exactly how we had designed it as the local people made adjustments as needed to create a truly impressive piece that I think turned out incredibly.” (Takahashi)
The unique shape and humorous expression are characteristic of the Niigata folkcraft called Sankaku Daruma
Tanabe always admired extra-curricular projects at Musabi so when she learned about the Wara Art Project in a school email she applied. “My team created the daruma and at first we planned to create a typical one. Then, one member of the team told us that the daruma in Niigata are a bit different so we decided instead to create the Sankaku Daruma that is familiar to the people of Niigata. There are such funny-faced daruma in Niigata,” Tanabe remarked, smiling.
Amabie is said to answer prayers for protection from disease
“It sounded like it would be fun to make a design from scratch
and make a big, three-dimensional artwork,” said Nemoto who
participated in Wara Art as part of the Amabie team. “We chose
to make a cute Amabie character for our design but we worried
about how the expression would turn out in rice straw. When I
saw the finished sculpture, I was so glad to see they were able
to capture the character’s cuteness.” (Nemoto)
“It is unfortunate that we were unable to go to the venue in-person but I was so grateful that people went to see the sculptures and that it was in the news. We were unable to actually speak with Niigata locals face-to-face but it was a wonderful experience to connect through rice straw,” says Takahashi. The three talked about how they wanted to go to the venue in-person.
Making things is not something that can be done solely in the research lab, but it is something that progresses with cooperation from different people and communication with staff. “The Wara Art Project is a class for the students to experience and learn for themselves what really goes into craftsmanship. We were unable to go to the venue in-person this year but I hope that next time instead of simply sending off a blueprint, the students can form strong relationships with the people who work in the region through gathering rice straw, practicing traditional “toba-ami” weaving, managing the park, and even experiencing rice-farming itself.” (Research Assistant Seino).
Local production supporters helped to create the sculptures
Uchiyama Seijiro (82) of Uchiyama Signs. “Every year I enjoy blending into the crowds and listening to their reactions to the sculptures.”
One of the strongest supporters of the making of Wara Art in
Niigata’s Nishikan Ward is local sign making business owner, Mr.
Uchiyama Seijiro. For the 2nd Wara Art Festival (in 2009) he was
asked by the city office to help with the project and was put in
charge of making the frames for the sculptures. Every year since
then, he has made the wooden frames based on the students’
designs, making adjustments for weight and balance.
In a typical year, the students add the rice straw to the frames themselves but this year, under Mr. Uchiyama’s direction, local residents built the sculptures.
Production supporters from left: Kobayashi Sara (6th grade), Kobayashi Hanae (6th grade), Mr. Uchiyama, Kobayashi Kanae (2nd grade), Takeshita Kanon (university 2nd year)
“I was worried about finding enough volunteers to help with the
sculptures,” said Mr. Uchiyama, recalling his apprehension.
Niigata City Office staff put out the call to local residents
and students to gather production supporters but with the
pandemic, they had a hard time. That said, with the help of the
Silver Human Resources Center, local residents built the works
over three weeks.
“The older local people from the Silver Human Resources Center were better than the students at working with the rice straw,” recounts Mr. Uchiyama with a laugh. “Thanks to them, we were able to finish ahead of schedule.” (Mr. Uchiyama)
Elementary student volunteers pointing out the part they worked on
Kobayashi Sara and Kobayashi Hanae, classmates at the local Maki Minami Elementary School learned about the production supporters when they saw a poster at their school. They applied with their friends, and the four of them took on the challenge of working on the chest and tail of the Ho-oh sculpture, in addition to the bundles that would become the face of the Sankaku Daruma. Hanae’s younger sister, Kanae, even came to help them out each day.
The four students, including the Kobayashi’s, working on the sculpture
The students’ only experience with rice straw was when they harvested rice from their school’s paddy. “Mr. Uchiyama made it look easy but gathering the straw neatly into bundles was really hard. We were happy to see what we made used in the sculpture,” they said and talked about wanting to apply again next year if there was another call for volunteers.
Takeshita listens to Mr. Uchiyama explain how to maintain the sculptures
Takeshita, a Niigata University student, was born in Shizuoka Prefecture. She learned about Wara Art when she came to Niigata but this was the first time she had actually seen it herself. “Rice straw is harder than I thought. I was surprised to see people get cut by the straw, start to bleed, but continue working.” Though interactions were solely via the design sketches due to the pandemic, she said she was happy to have this exchange with another university. “From next year, it would be nice to have direct exchanges with students from Musabi and local high school and middle schools.” (Takeshita)
Currently, Mr. Uchiyama, his younger brother, and his son are the three who guide the production of these works. “If we get more local production supporters who properly understand how to use rice straw and are able to teach others, we would be able to take in various volunteers,” explains Mr. Uchiyama, hopeful for the growth of the community.
Swans visiting the wetland in Uwasekigata Park (taken on Oct. 10th)
Flowers from each of the four seasons can be enjoyed here (taken on Oct. 10th)
Volunteering this year was Takeshita’s first chance to visit Uwasekigata Park. “I was surprised by how incredible the location is. The big wetland and walking path, seasonal flowers, big playground equipment for kids to play on, it’s so spacious and a perfect place to relax and hang out.”
Where Wara Art is heading
Visitors walking through the park to see the three lucky sculptures. Many posted on social media.
Stalls for the outdoor “Nishikan Market” open on weekends during the festival
The Wara Art Festival was held for the first time in two years without a hitch thanks to the Musabi students, Mr. Uchiyama, and the many volunteers. Over the approximately two months from Sunday, August 29th through Sunday October 31st, 2021 numerous people gathered in Uwasekigata Park. The Wara Art Festival had to adapt to the pandemic. However, this new endeavor makes you feel the potential of opening up so that more people can be involved in this project which has grown in popularity over the last 10-odd years. Wara Art will surely continue to grow and take on the role of not only connecting Niigata City and the students of Musabi, but also bring the community together and carry the local culture into the future.
“Looking back on the 2021 Wara Art Festival” (by Kejima,
Nishikan Ward Industry and Tourism Division) It was decided to
hold the Wara Art Festival even though the students from Musabi
could not come to Niigata, but it was a challenge gathering
production supporters so I was honestly worried if the
sculptures would be completed. To gather production supporters,
we went around to different neighborhoods in the area, including
schools from elementary all the way to universities, including
the Agricultural College.
We weren’t able to get many volunteers, but some university students and some members of Maki High School’s art club came to help out which allowed us to connect people to Wara Art who never had before.
Wara Art, which was born in Niigata’s Nishikan Ward, is currently spreading not only through Japan, but across the globe. As the place it started, I hope we can make the festival something that even more people can be a part of. I would love to expand on the connections with production supporters that we were able to establish. I would love for them to get involved in a range of other activities outside of sculpture making such as gathering the rice straw and weaving straw in the traditional “toba-ami” method. Also, from this year, we are asking elementary schools in Nishikan Ward if we can have the straw from their school rice paddies. I think children would be more interested if the by-product of something they grew was used in a Wara Art sculpture.