The massive steed stands on powerful hind legs, its forelegs thrashing high above our heads, while its coat — a mosaic of multicolored flowers – brings to mind a horse in a child’s picture book.

It is the iconic, 5.5-meter-high monument standing at the entrance of the Towada Art Center, a contemporary art museum that bears the name of the city located deep inside Aomori Prefecture, northern Japan.

Towada Art Center horse

The “Flower Horse” is the work of South Korean artist, Choi Jeong Hwa.

My friend and I dropped by the museum on our travels through the prefectures of Akita, Aomori and Iwate, three of the six prefectures that form the Tohoku region.

Northern Japan remains relatively untouched by modern mass tourism, with much of the accommodation being traditional inns rather than large hotels. 

On our recent visit we stayed at Tsuta Onsen, an atmospheric and well-maintained old ryokan, or traditional inn, in Towada, a small city near Mount Hakkoda in Aomori. Situated by a lush forest, it offered comfortable rooms, both Japanese and Western-style, decorated with traditional wooden carvings and a pleasant all-wooden hot spring bath. 

Transport-wise, the first Tokaido Shinkansen, which connects Tokyo with major cities in the west, debuted in 1964. This is almost two decades ahead of the Tohoku and Joetsu shinkansen lines, which only began service in 1982 between Tokyo and cities in the north. The high speed railway has often played an important role in developing tourism in various areas. In Tohoku, progress has been slow.

From Tokyo, we took an overnight bus to the city of Noshiro. This takes more than 10 hours but is Y10,000 less than the Shinkansen. From Noshiro we rode the Gono Line, a roughly 150-km railway line that connects Akita and Aomori. The ride provides a stunning view of the rugged shores of the Sea of Japan.


The Sea of Japan. I never tire of looking at the sea.

From Hirosaki City in Aomori Prefecture, the train’s last stop, we proceeded inland by car for the rest of our journey. This made it easier for us to visit the museum, which can only be reached by bus or car, and is about a 35-minute ride from the closest Tohoku Shinkansen station, Shichinohe-towada.

I enjoy visiting museums, but prefer traditional Japanese art or crafts exhibits, as contemporary art is often a little esoteric for my taste.

But the works showcased at Towada museum were approachable, requiring no great understanding of contemporary art. This in part helps explain why it has attracted more than 1.5 million visitors — both the art devotee and the casual tourist — since it opened its doors in 2008. This is more than 20 times the population of the city of Towada, and is a testimony to the wide appeal of the museum. Visitors are free to take pictures of some of the works, even scramble onto a chair to look at the art, all of which adds to the entertaining nature of the museum.

The museum’s building consists of pristine white building blocks of various sizes connected by glass corridors. From the front, one wall is covered with an image of a tree with a thick trunk drawn in bold, black lines, by the British artist Paul Morrison.

The building was designed by the Japanese architect Ryue Nishizawa, who is also known for his work in designing the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa, another well-known modern art museum in Ishikawa Prefecture, facing the Sea of Japan.

We enter the hall, pleasantly filled with light streaming in through the glass walls.  As we turn the first corner of the corridor, we confront a towering, matron-like woman. She is clad in a somber black dress and wears a pair of sturdy black shoes. Her hair is pulled back from her slightly wrinkled face into a tight bun.

Each strand of hair, each blood vessel in her seemingly supple skin appears real. Her towering height is the only unreal factor. While she does not actually lock eyes with us, she shows different expressions depending on where we stand, or which way the light falls on her face. It stirs our imagination about the life this woman might have led.

The room is devoid of any other object. My friend and I strain our heads to look up at her, while at the same time being careful not to get caught in a family photo of a nearby Chinese couple with their lively young children. 

Towering Lady at Towada Museum

The 4-meter “Standing Woman,” by the Australian artist, Ron Mueck.

We follow the sign in the corridor to the next exhibit, but on our way there are several coal-black dogs at our feet. They look like strays, but appear friendly and look up at us with huge eyes. In contrast to the earlier woman in black, they are not at all life-like and wear humorous expressions.

Aomori dog

Dogs at our feet, by Japanese artist Hiroshi Fuji.

A work by Yoko Ono, the “Wish Tree,” is planted in the museum’s modest courtyard. This is part of a series she began in 1996 with the wish for world peace. A tree native to the site, is chosen and planted. At Towada museum, it is an apple tree, which is appropriate as Aomori Prefecture is by far Japan’s top producer of the luscious fruit. 

Dozens of huge, unripe green apples hang from the tree. A label providing a description of the work invites us to write a personal message on a long, narrow card and to hang it on one of the tree’s branches. We are also invited to use a wooden hammer to ring a temple bell placed nearby, the “Bell of Peace.”  I duly do as directed. The ringing sound is much louder than I anticipate, and I am slightly embarrassed at the resounding tone that lingers in the small space.

The message cards are collected once a year and delivered to the artist. They are eventually stored at the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland, which is a memorial that Yoko Ono built to her late husband, John Lennon.

Miho in Aomori

I write my wish on a slip of paper, and hang it on the tree.

Elsewhere, several works by Yayoi Kusama are casually scattered in a small park opposite the main museum building.  We are free to roam, enter and even mount the sculptures by one of Japan’s most celebrated avant-garde artists, now 90 years old. There is her ubiquitous yellow pumpkin randomly decorated with black polka dots. It is half-buried in the ground and has a semicircular entrance. A girl, a couple of dogs and a mushroom all bear the artist’s signature, repeated dot patterns against a range of pastel colors.

The work of – who else – Yayoi Kusama.

It is said polka dots first appeared to Kusama in a vision.

The museum houses about 40 permanent works of art, each shown in a dedicated space.  They were all made exclusively for the Towada museum, which is compact enough to comfortably tour in about one hour. But, one could easily spend twice that time roaming through the rooms, snapping pictures, and taking a break at the museum’s brightly-lit, high-ceilinged gift shop and café.

Snap back a day – and we were literally “looking down” on a different sort of “art.” This was tanbo art (or “rice paddy art”) in Inakadate Village, also in Aomori Prefecture.

Every year, Inakadate hosts an event, “Tanbo Art,” in which two rice paddies become huge canvases for  a set of pictures made entirely by different colored rice stalks. Seedlings that will grow into stalks of various shades of green, red, purple and yellow are planted at the end of May. The best season to enjoy the art is over the month from mid-July. At the end of September, the rice is harvested. 

Each year,  a single theme is chosen for the two rice paddies. In the past the themes have borrowed scenes from popular movies such as “Gone with the Wind” and “Roman Holiday.”  One year Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, was vividly recreated, a huge improvement from 1993 when the first tanbo art —  a simple picture of a mountain and a few Chinese characters – was unveiled.

From the top of a four-story building, this year we viewed two pictures, both scenes from a popular old TV drama, “Oshin,” which tells the story of a girl born to a poor rural family, who overcomes adversity to eventually achieve success through hard work.

Aomori tanbo art

Rustic art spread before our eyes. On the left…

And on the right…

Never having watched the tear-jerker when it was broadcast in 1983-1984, the theme was something of a disappointment. Still, that did not undermine my sense of wonder at seeing this ingenious art in a rice field, cleverly recreated using perspective and calculated to be seen from high up.

Tanbo art started in Inakadate Village, but is now copied in a few other rice paddies in Japan.

While the Towada Museum and tanbo art are drastically different forms of art, the purpose for which they were built or started are strikingly similar — to revitalize the area, suffering from a slumping population, by attracting tourists. Japan’s rural areas have been the hardest hit by the nation’s dwindling and aging population. During my travels, I have often been saddened to see signs of how this has ravaged the countryside. Many stores are shuttered — even in fairly large cities — and homes allowed to fall into disrepair.

Here in Towada, both institutions have succeeded, judging from the number of visitors they attract.  One news report said that in 2015, the rice field in Inakadate Village drew 340,000 visitors, adding the substantial sum of 62 million yen to the village coffers that year. The village collects an entrance fee of 300 yen, which allows visitors to climb to the top of a building opposite the two rice paddies for a panoramic view of the tanbo art below.

One difference is that tanbo art, by its nature, is seasonal, while Towada Museum can be visited at all times of the year. In the winter, the flower-coated horse looks delightful with a light dusting of snow.

The horse in winter. British artist Paul Morrison’s mural painted on the white wall of the building, “Ochrea.” The pristine white building of the museum also provides a perfect backdrop to the vividly-colored horse. (Photo by Yasuhiro Niki.)

Towada Art Center

Towada-shi, Aomori Prefecture

Open: 9:00 – 17:00

Closed: Mondays, end and beginning of the year

Entrance fee: 1,200 yen (includes special exhibits)

Inakadate Village Tanbo Art

Open:  early June to early October

Fee:  300 yen (adults), 100 yen (children)

Tsuta Onsen Ryokan

1 Aza Tsutanoyu, Oirase,

Towada-shi, Aomori 034-0301 Japan