‘Stories from Kameoka’ is an art project that was started during an artist in residence program in Kameoka at Artists’ Retreat No-Mu (January-February 2019).
By painting the portraits of residents of Kameoka and telling their stories, ‘Stories from Kameoka’ tries to capture the spirit of this beautiful rural city, just a mere 30 minute drive from well-known neighbouring city Kyoto. Challenges that Kameoka and its residents are facing - such as the issue of akiya (abandoned houses) - paint a more comprehensive view of life in rural Japan.
Combined with landscape paintings and my own impressions, ‘Stories from Kameoka’ is also an ode to the normal everyday life in a small Japanese city. The paintings and stories are in this sense also a reflection on the beauty of the (extra)ordinary.
You can view the paintings below, the text accompanying this art project is currently being written and will be added on this page later.
Portrait of Anna Namikawa, 2019, from the series 'Stories from Kameoka' (Kameoka Monogatari). 18 x 24 cm, aquarel on Fabriano 200 gram cold press watercolour paper.
Anna Namikawa 並河杏奈 (b. 1993)
‘Many people think that there is nothing ‘fun’ or ‘interesting’ in Kameoka. But for me there is a charm to places where there seems to be nothing’.
BORN AND RAISED ‘’I have been in Kameoka for 26 years now. First and foremost, Kameoka is my hometown. Now it has also become the place where I work.
Since April 2016 I work for a shopping street in Kameoka. The shopping street was established in 1953 and is called the H-street shopping district. The name comes from the H-shape the shops form when you look at them on a map. My job is to manage, revitalize and develop this local community. There are a fairly large number of seniors and the population is aging. I encourage the people that live and work here and we search for charming and attractive points and places in Kameoka. Together we develop and promote these areas, working together with the Kyoto prefectural office.
At the same time I also work as a web writer, interviewing people and writing articles for a travel web magazine called ‘Matcha’. I like to write about the parts of Kyoto that are not just about tourism but about the daily life and culture of the local people, to tell stories about these other sides of Kyoto.
I also work for the ‘Kyoto Migration Project’. The population of Tokyo keeps growing, but Kyoto also has a lot of advantages. We try to assist people who would like to live in Kyoto prefecture.
Doing three things at the same time sometimes can be a bit busy. However for me that is not a problem, because there are many parts of my work that I like a lot. Being busy is fine as long as I get enough sleep, sleep is very important for your well-being!”
KAMEJIN “About two years ago I got involved in a film project called ‘Kamejin’. The core members of the movie are me, Yuya and Aya. Yuya is a half-American half-Japanese videographer. I work at the same company with his girlfriend Aya. The three of us decided ‘let’s make a movie!’ Go also appears in the film! We made the film with a lot of people; the merchants from H-shopping street, the local people and the mayor of the city.. we really wanted to make the movie together with everyone.
The title of the film refers to the special name that the people of Kameoka call themselves: ‘Kamejin’. I heard this for the first time in middle school and thought it was a very original way to express identity. I kept thinking ‘I wonder if I can visualize this somehow?’. I’ve taken an interest since elementary school in drawing and creating. It is something I love to do. I decided to try drawing a picture. Suddenly the character ‘Kamejin’ was born!’’
*Note: Kamejin means ‘Kameoka people’, describing people who are from Kameoka and living in Kameoka. Anna’s character is a small cheerful turtle figure and a Japanese wordplay on the term ‘Kamejin’ combining the words kame (turtle) and jin (person).
“Kamejin became my personal project and people around me asked if I would like to collaborate with them. So my Kamejin character re-appeared in different forms. The first collaboration was with ‘Kameoka Hasamu Koppe-pan’. It is a shop in Kameoka selling koppe-pan, which is a flat bread roll.
The shop owner moved to Kameoka from a different area. Coming from outside, he noticed that because Kameoka has so many fields, agriculture and clean water, they produce a lot of good local vegetables, meat and other products. He decided to use and focus on the regional ingredients from Kameoka. His breads are a bit smaller than usual, because he wants visitors to come back and try different flavours and experience the rich food culture here.”
KAMEOKA’S CHARMS AND CHALLENGES “Kyoto cuisine is very famous, but actually uses a lot of Kameoka’s produce as a backbone! Kameoka has more than 2000 hectares of farmland. There are a lot of fields and fresh vegetables. As there are no tall buildings and Kameoka is located in a basin, you see a wide and beautiful skyline wherever you go. It is a calm place filled with nature, you can see mountains wherever you look.
People’s encounters are pretty important. Because of my work I get to meet a lot of different people here and I’ve come to think this is a really good place. I think the people in Kameoka are very kind.
The current situation in Japan is that a lot of young people -who are in their twenties or thirties-move to urban areas for the development of their career. This is true for other countries too. In Japan the majority goes to Tokyo.
I have been thinking ‘But what about Kameoka, isn’t Kameoka nice?’. You can easily go to Kyoto and it is not ‘really’ countryside. However many people think that there is nothing ‘fun’ or ‘interesting’ in Kameoka. I think Kameoka is a very interesting and miraculous place. There is a lot of history and culture, and I think the more you know the more interesting it becomes. People think there is ‘nothing’ because they don’t know about these things and places. But if you do find things to do and places to see here, they are often very special and worthwhile. I also feel that there are really a lot of interesting people here. Like the owner of ‘Kameoka Hasamu Koppe-pan’.
For me there is also a charm to places where there is nothing. Near my house, quite far from Kameoka city centre, there is a field. In the middle of the field there is a road that just goes seemingly endlessly straight about 800 meters. In the middle of the field there is a bench. The atmosphere is very calm and in the evening it is completely silent. I like to sit there and just relax.”
FINDING YOUR WAY “People say that I am very enthusiastic and serious in everything I do. I used to play basketball when I was young and I was practicing every day. It was not something I had to do, but something I wanted to do. And because I am quite curious, I am enthusiastic to learn about all kind of things, places and people. That is also why I went abroad to study in Oxford from April to August in 2014.
My main purpose at that time was to improve my English speaking skills and to experience a different culture and life. By naming me Anna instead of a more traditional Japanese name, my parents wanted to me to be like a bridge connecting Japan to other countries. In Oxford I could meet lots of people, experience other ways of thinking, perspectives and several ideas about the values of our life.
A difficult period for me was when I started job hunting. In Japan we all start job hunting in the last year of university. We all do the same: wear black suits, and sent out a lot of applications, some people even up to a hundred! Then you go on interviews and there are a lot of fixed steps to take. Usually you end up at a company where you work for a long time.
When I looked at the people around me, I felt like I was different and that I could not do this. I felt uncomfortable, and lost.
I had been interested in the development of local areas for some time. When I was in Oxford, I discovered several types of local communities, such as the church, basketball, students from other universities and interesting locals who I encountered by chance.
With this interest in local culture in mind, I decided to try working for a rice company, thinking maybe it would be possible to work together with local farmers. But it was hard to enter and comprehend. Also my own visions did not fit into the Japanese system of lifetime employment; working for the same company your whole life. My heart snapped in two and I felt at loss at what to do. However, looking around me and meeting all kind of adults, I realized that I should value what I want to do and what I am good at.
Then suddenly, naturally the path I could take revealed itself. And now people understand what I want to do. Actually, I had a very fast career. It is quite rare in Japan to be affiliated immediately after graduation with such a big company. In the end I happened to find the work that I had originally wanted to do. I think I am a very lucky girl. To be able to do what I want to do.”
Portrait of Yasuhito Shimizu, 2019, from the series 'Stories from Kameoka' (Kameoka Monogatari). 18 x 24 cm, aquarel on Fabriano 200 gram cold press watercolour paper.
Portrait of Go Naito, 2019, from the series 'Stories from Kameoka' (Kameoka Monogatari). 18 x 24 cm, aquarel on Fabriano 200 gram cold press watercolour paper.
Go Naito 内藤豪 (b. 1995)
‘’Kameoka is like a white paper. You can draw what you want to do. Kameoka is not yet ‘done’. What I am doing now is drawing something into that white paper.’’
COFFEE LOVER “At first, - until about eighteen years old-, I did not really love Kameoka. I wanted to go to another place. One that fit me better. To do something that I want to do.
At a young age I became interested in plants. That is why I decided to go to agriculture high school. But learning how to mix soil and using math, this was not really fun and also hard. I thought ‘maybe this is my hobby?’. I found out what I wanted to do professionally when I was fifteen years old. I passed by coffee roaster ‘Café Time’ in Kameoka. Outside there was a logo of a coffee bean. I thought ‘What the hell is this store? The logo is a seed?’. I went inside filled with curiosity. I was not a coffee lover but it looked so cool: they were selling seeds to people and getting money? I could not believe that this is actually a job.
What really caught my interest was that all the coffee beans looked the same but tasted completely different. Because it looks the same you have to be really professional. From a young age I had been searching for something that I could do professionally. Also there was this connection with my botanical interest. The espresso machine to me is like a motorcycle. I was always interested in design and the machine is like art. So I thought this is perfect, ‘let’s do this’. I bought a home espresso machine when I was fifteen and started to do latte art. The first time was so terrible, it did not taste good. ”
LEAVING KAMEOKA “Now I had a goal: learning all about coffee. The owner at coffee roaster ‘Café Time’ told me that I should learn English if I wanted to work in the coffee industry: ‘The way to coffee – the gate- will open for you’. I was not really interested in English at the time. But now I wanted to go to Vancouver, to learn English and experience the latest coffee culture. I worked 10 months straight after finishing high school to save money. My plan was to work in Canada and not return to Japan.
I went to English school for three months in Canada. I graduated from the lowest class. My English level was almost the same as junior high school student. Thankfully I got a job at a coffee shop. But I was fired two days later. I was not confident enough to talk to the customers. The reason was actually not my English level, but my own confidence. After that, I got a job as a dishwasher at another coffee shop. But there I was also fired, after three months. I lost my self-confidence.
But then, -it was not my plan-, I applied to a Japanese food truck company. I met a lot of Japanese people whose English level was much worse than mine. I could not believe it. ‘Is it ok to talk to a customer, with that level of English?!’. I got self-confidence again and could enjoy the last half year of my working holiday in Canada.”
RETURNING TO KAMEOKA “The fact that I left Kameoka, my birthplace, and now lived in some really fashionable city, it was not a good feeling. I think that young people are not confident to live in Kameoka because people are really passive. They are just waiting for things to change for the better. I felt like I had escaped.
In this period I also travelled to see some coffee shops in Canada. There’s a lot of coffee shops and the quality and design is so much higher than in Japan. I really liked the city of Portland: not too urban, not too countryside. People there are very creative and have their own stores. I felt that I can change Kameoka City to be more like Portland. I wanted to something for Kameoka before I die. I want to be a person that changes things and makes them better. Finally I realized that I don't need to move. Everything I need is already in Kameoka City.”
CHANGING KAMEOKA “Looking at cities like Kyoto, Seattle and Vancouver: these cities are already ‘done’. You can just watch. But Kameoka is like a white paper. You can draw what you want to do. What I am doing now is drawing something into that white paper.
Kameoka to me is essential. It is where I live. Thinking of Kameoka, I think Kameoka is a bit of an outsider. It is close to Kyoto city and part of Kyoto prefecture. But ‘Kyoto’ is like a big brand right? We do not feel like Kyoto people.
I think Kameoka is a very rich city. There are mountains, it is affordable, there are beautiful rice paddies and also very tasty water. Which is also good for coffee. I also like the emptiness of Kameoka. Living in an urban city, you cannot really enjoy a simple walk. There is noise, there are dirty smells. I do not want to use my time outside for only ‘door to door’ transportation. In Kameoka I can enjoy the nature and the seasons.
I want to change some things, but not everything. Kameoka has a lot of good points. I became involved with Kamejin project (*a film about Kameoka, in which Go Naito plays one of the leading roles) because I was writing about the bad points of Kameoka on my Twitter account. Anna (*Anna Namikawa, see other portrait in this series) saw my tweets and sent me a message. She worked for Kameoka H-shopping street. Café Time where I worked was also part of H-Shopping Street. Through Anna I became involved in the Kamejin filmproject. It was a really nice experience, an experience not many people can have.”
OVERCOMING OBSTACLES “People think I am a quiet person, but my brain is so noisy. Since two years I work in a kitchen. Working in the kitchen is actually more difficult than living in a foreign country. It is very difficult for me to do multiple tasks at the same time. I cannot understand how people do this. I chose this place, but this workplace does not fit me. However, I feel like I should not escape this problem.
I have ADHD. I think that I can never do the same quality of work as the people that have a quiet brain. It is probably impossible, I think. It was really a shock for me when a young person started at my workplace and grew to my level in just four months. I am doing the work so seriously, it is really difficult. However, I found a pattern to control my brain: perfect preparation . Not only in the workplace, but also in my private life. I prepare everything. There are so many rules in my day to do a good job. I think most people would give up. I am proud that I am continuing.”
Portrait of Fumiko Nabika, 2019, from the series 'Stories from Kameoka' (Kameoka Monogatari). 14 x 16 cm, aquarel on Fabriano 200 gram cold press watercolour paper.
Vastness, 2019, from the series 'Stories from Kameoka' (Kameoka Monogatari). 30 x 40 cm, gouache on Fabriano 200 gram cold press watercolour paper.
Japan, similar to the Netherlands, is a densely populated country. On the world ranking the Netherlands is 29th, while Japan ranks 40th (respectively 411.3 inhabitants per km² and 334.6 per km²). While the Netherlands is characterized by a flat landscape, 73% of Japan consists out of mountains. This results in many places where the population density is quite low and the mountains ubiquitous.
Kameoka is such a place in Japan. Although the surface area is roughly the same as Amsterdam, the population density is significantly lower: 390 inhabitants per km² compared to 5.135 inhabitants per km² in Amsterdam.
Wherever you go in Kameoka, the mountains are never far and always in sight. Because Kameoka is in a basin and there are no tall skyscrapers, a broad horizon welcomes you. This gives Kameoka a rural and picturesque atmosphere.
Besides mountains, Kameoka is also full of agricultural fields. Big neighbour Kyoto, besides known for its many impressive cultural sights, is also well-known for its mouth-watering cuisine. Unknown to many is one of the keys of success to Kyoto’s world-famous cuisine: Kameoka’s high-quality produced ingredients. It is said that Kameoka is one of the foggiest places on earth, and this fog provides fertile soil and good drinking water for Kameoka’s agricultural sector.
Abandoned building, 2019, from the series 'Stories from Kameoka' (Kameoka Monogatari). 21 x 31 cm, gouache on Fabriano 200 gram cold press watercolour paper.
Tranquillity, 2019, from the series 'Stories from Kameoka' (Kameoka Monogatari). 30 x 40 cm, gouache on Fabriano 200 gram cold press watercolour paper.