‘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 and read the text below. These are not the full texts, the whole text you can read in my art book 'Stories from Kameoka'. More information below.
This art book is a collection of all the paintings and stories from this project by people from Kameoka (Kamejin) and Philo Ouweleen.
Content: - Portraits of inhabitants of Kameoka and their stories - Landscape paintings accompanied by text - Blog posts written during my stay in Kameoka, accompanied by photos.
Size: 18 x 24 cm Pages: 55 Price: €15 Limited edition: 100 copies Graphic design: Michael Tjia
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.
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.”
‘’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. Currently I work for the ‘H-street shopping district’ in Kameoka. 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.
About two years ago I got involved in a film project called ‘Kamejin’. 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! Kamejin means ‘Kameoka people’, describing people who are from Kameoka and living in Kameoka. My character is a small cheerful turtle figure and a Japanese wordplay on the term ‘Kamejin’ combining the words kame (turtle) and jin (person).
The current situation in Japan is that a lot of young people move to urban areas for the development of their career. I have been thinking ‘But what about Kameoka, isn’t Kameoka nice?’ I think Kameoka is a very interesting and miraculous place. But people think there is ‘nothing’ here because they don’t know about Kameoka’s special people and places. A difficult period for me was when I started job hunting. 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. 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. In the end I happened to find the work that I had originally wanted to do: development of a local area. I think I am a very lucky girl. To be able to do what I want to do.”
SOLD 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.
Fumiko Nabika 並河文子 (b.1931)
“When you practice the tea ceremony, you are training the five organs of sense. You enjoy all these rich sensations in a quiet environment, together with others in harmony.”
“Originally I am from Kyoto city. I moved to Kameoka when I got married. This was back in Shōwa 32 (1957), so it has now been 62 years since I came here.
In the Japanese countryside there is a system of groups, duties and roles. Everyone takes care of something, of the shrine, the temple, the yearly festival. In the beginning being from Kyoto it was all hard to understand, but now I kind of know how it works. And that is all because of the tea ceremony.
When I was ten years old, I started studying the tea ceremony. My two older sisters studied the tea ceremony and ikebana. At that time the war had started and sugar and snacks were scarce. But because my sisters were taking tea ceremony classes and were still in training, they would always come home with cakes and sweets. I was so jealous! And that is why I started learning about the tea ceremony, because I wanted sweets! I have now been performing the art of the tea ceremony for over 70 years, which takes strength and perseverance.
When you practice the tea ceremony, you train the five organs of sense. You see with your eyes the elegant designs of the tea utensils, you hear the sounds of nature, you taste the wonderful flavours and textures of the tea and accompanying sweets, you experience the change of seasons, you smell the tatami floor. You enjoy all these rich sensations in a quiet environment, together with others in harmony. Living in Kameoka, there are actually quite some things that I am discontent about. However, when I compare Kameoka to Kyoto, the air is very clean and pure and the water here is delicious. There is a lot of greenery and nature. Also Kameoka has a lot of shrines and temples with cultural treasures. However, since these do not get promoted that much, sometimes even locals do not know about these special places.’’
Abandoned building, 2019, from the series 'Stories from Kameoka' (Kameoka Monogatari). 21 x 31 cm, gouache on Fabriano 200 gram cold press watercolour paper.
In Kameoka, people are working on solutions to problems that are not unique to Kameoka but are faced by other smaller cities and suburbs as well. One of these problems is the problem of abandoned houses (akiya) or abandoned buildings (akiyashiki). Vacant buildings and houses are a major problem in Japan. Experts estimate that there are now 10 million empty houses. The problem can be seen as a direct result of the aging population that Japan has been struggling with for years and has not yet found a solution for. Currently one in four Japanese is over 65 years old.
In suburbs such as Kameoka, there is also a move from the periphery to the centre (such as neighbouring big city Kyoto): resulting in even more vacant houses. Adding to the problem, is the complexity of transferring a piece of land in Japan, which is also time-consuming and costly. To simply move to another house and to just leave the former house behind, is to many Japanese an attractive alternative to a pile of paperwork.
If Japan’s demographics stay unchanged, the current population of 127 million inhabitants will have shrunk to 87 million in 2060. As a result, estimates are that as early as 2033 one third of Japanese houses will be vacant.
This artproject was started during an artist in residency program at Artists' Retreat no-mu, a complex of several former vacant houses in Kameoka. These have been refurbished and are now functioning as accommodations for artists to stay and work. In this way, Artists' Retreat no-mu is tackling the problem of akiya on a small scale.
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.’’
“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. When I was fifteen years old, I discovered coffee and wanted to learn all about it. If I wanted to work in the coffee industry, it was important to learn English.
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.
The fact that I left Kameoka, my birthplace, and now lived in some really fashionable city, felt like I had ran away. Finally I realized that I don't need to move. Everything I need is already in Kameoka City and I want to make Kameoka even better.
People think I am a quiet person, but my brain is so noisy. I have ADHD. I think that I can never do the same quality of work as the people that have a quiet brain. 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.’’
Tranquility, 2019, from the series 'Stories from Kameoka' (Kameoka Monogatari). 30 x 40 cm, gouache on Fabriano 200 gram cold press watercolour paper.
Stories from Kameoka’ is a project in which –besides a view of Kameoka- I hope to offer an ode and a glimpse into the normal, ‘everyday’ Japan. The title of this project is a reference to a Japanese novel, which is also seen as the first modern novel in the world. ‘Genji Monogatari’ (The Tale of Genji) was written in the early 11th century, presumably by maid Murasaki Shikibu. The story is an epic about Prince Genji, describing the customs of the aristocratic society and Genji's love affairs.
In contrast, ‘Stories from Kameoka’ takes place in Kameoka: a small city in Japan, where at first glance there is maybe ‘nothing special’. The shared stories and painted portraits are of Kamejin: people living in Kameoka.
Staying in Kameoka, for me there was a focus on the ordinary, the ‘everyday’. Pausing and looking at things that might be considered as being ‘nothing special’, allowed for another way of looking at the world. Slowing down you notice things that usually go by unnoticed and re-discover the beauty of the (extra)ordinary.
Anna Namikawa’s favourite place in Kameoka is an empty field. “There is nothing, there is no one”. Maybe, these moments and places of silence, of ‘nothingness’ actually are very meaningful and rich.