Hidden Art Spaces of Northern Japan

Discover some of the intricacies of art in Northern Japan, where traditional culture rubs shoulders with sleek modernity.

Explore Hokkaido, Japan’s most northerly and sparsely populated island, and home to the Ainu, whose artwork is inspired by their volcanic surroundings. Visit outdoor sculpture parks around Sapporo where works of bronze, stone and concrete are in dialogue with their natural environment. In Honshu, Japan’s largest and most densely populated island, wander through the Echigo-Tsumari Art Fields, where sculptures are exhibited in fields, houses and abandoned buildings under the satoyama philosophy of integrating man and nature. Explore the modern metropolis of Tokyo, where traditional and contemporary art sit side-by-side at the heart of Japanese culture.

**Tour is on request. Please contact Renaissance Tours**


This tour is part of the World Art Tours program organised by the Art Gallery Society of NSW in partnership with Renaissance Tours.

Depart Australia or New Zealand on suggested Japan Airlines flights to Tokyo. Renaissance Tours or your travel agent can assist you with your travel arrangements.

On arrival in Tokyo, make your way to the hotel and check in.

Travel by local train to Kamakura to visit the home of architect Yoshihiro Takishita, the founder of the Association for the Preservation of Old Japanese Farmhouses. Takishita is well known for saving many traditional Japanese minka homes, especially in the area around Mt Haku. Minka homes were the vernacular architecture of Japan, inhabited by farmers, artisans and merchants (the three non-scholarly castes of Japanese society). Takishita has moved four of these homes to Kamakura and will invite us into his home and provide a lecture on these important Japanese structures.

Wander through the Zen Buddhist temples of Kamakura before a mid-afternoon return to Tokyo. In the evening, delight in a fine-dining experience in a restaurant specialising in healthy tofu cuisine.


Check out from the hotel and take the 240km/h bullet train to Echigo-Yuzawa, before continuing by coach to the town of Tōkamachi, gateway to the Echigo-Tsumari Art Fields. After lunch in Tōkamachi, visit the Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art KINARE. The museum serves as a gateway to the Echigo-Tsumari region, with artworks inspired by the topography, history, fields, food, villages and abandoned schools and houses of the prefecture.

In the late afternoon, check in to the hotel in Echigo-Yuzawa, and enjoy a refreshing soak in the hotel’s own onsen (natural hot springs) before dinner.

NB. Tour members’ main luggage will be transferred by luggage truck to Echigo-Yuzawa and arrive (Fri 07 September). Tour members should pack a small overnight bag for travel by Bullet train (Tokyo to Echigo-Yuzawa).


Depart for a full-day exploration of the Matsudai area. Visit Furusato Hall, the former home of a wealthy silk baron, and Nohbutai Snow-Land Agrarian Culture Centre, a vast art site comprising converted rice fields. Spend a morning strolling through the site, which is crowned by Matsudai Castle atop the hill in the centre.

Have lunch in a restaurant supplied by fresh local farm produce, before visiting Junichi Kurakake’s ‘Shedding House’, a house entirely carved by hand which has ‘shed’ its identity as a functional house and revealed its new identity as a work of art. Explore the terraced rice fields so redolent of rural Japan before returning to the hotel for time in the onsen before dinner.


In the morning, visit a converted inn in Matsudai now operating as a café, lovingly restored by the German architect Karl Bengs. Continue to Australia House, a combined residence, gallery and studio built in 2012 to accommodate Australia’s official representative artist at the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale. Australia House was designed by the architect Andrew Burns and is supported by the Australia Council and Australian Embassy in Japan. Explore the nearby Dream House, whose creator Marina Abramovic recreates her colourful childhood dreams in this old farmhouse, and visit ‘Elixir’, an installation by Australian artist Janet Laurence using colours derived from local roots and herbal medicines.

Enjoy lunch at the Echigo-Matsunoyama Museum of Natural Science before a tour of the museum itself, and visit Christian Boltanski’s huge installation ‘The Last Class’, housed in an abandoned high school. Return to the hotel for dinner.


Begin your fourth day at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Fields with a visit to James Turrell’s ‘House of Light’, a combined work of art and architecture created in collaboration with Japanese artist Tadao Ando. ‘House of Light’ was conceived in response to Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’, and is a meditation on the importance of light in traditional Japanese homes.

After lunch, explore further art installations in the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale (programme to be announced), before returning to the hotel in the evening.


After breakfast, check out from the hotel and transfer to Niigata airport, along the way descending the Japanese Alps and crossing the plains beside the Sea of Japan. Fly to Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four great islands. From Sapporo airport, transfer to the hotel beside Lake Tōya, an annular lake formed from the caldera of an extinct volcano which lies under the watchful gaze of Mt Yōtei, the ‘Mt Fuji of Hokkaido’.

In the afternoon, stroll along the shore of Lake Tōya and enjoy the many fine sculptural installations along the promenade before dinner at a local restaurant.


Depart for a day exploring the Tōya-Usu Global Geopark which surrounds Lake Tōya. Discover the powerful geological forces which created this dramatic and beautiful landscape in the Volcano Science Museum. Catch the Usuzan Ropeway cable car from Shōwa-shinzan, a new mountain which formed over two years in a wheat field in 1943-1945, and ascend to the summit of Mt Usu which rises above the southern shore of the lake. Walk around the rim of Mt Usu (weather permitting) before descending to the northern shore of the lake to visit the Tōyako Museum of Art, which houses the wooden statues carved by Hokkaido artist Bikky Sunazawa.

Enjoy a picnic lunch in the local village before an afternoon at leisure to enjoy the beauty of the lake and mountains. Dinner tonight is in our hotel.


After breakfast, check out from the hotel and travel to Sapporo through the rolling hills of inland Hokkaido. Have lunch in the Sapporo Beer Museum and then enjoy a tour of this unique institution. Explore the Botanical Gardens of Sapporo including its Ainu Museum which contains excellent examples of objects used by the Ainu in everyday life and in religious rites. A particularly notable inclusion is a rare film of an Ainu Iomante or ‘Bear Sacrifice Ceremony’, shot in the early 1900s, which displays the centrality of the animal within Ainu worship.

Enjoy an evening at leisure to continue your exploration of Sapporo, perhaps wandering through Ōdōri Park to view ‘Black Slide Mantra’, a twisting slippery-dip created out of black marble by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi.



The Ainu
The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan, distinct from the Yamato people who constitute the vast majority of the Japanese population. Hunter-gatherers and fishermen, the Ainu were the original inhabitants of the island of Hokkaido before it was subsumed within the (Yamato) Japanese Empire centred on Honshu. Historically, the Ainu spoke a language unrelated to Japanese (or any other known language), and looked very different from the Yamato Japanese, with men sporting thick, heavy beards and women tattooing their lips jet black. Officially there are only 25,000 Ainu remaining today.

The Ainu regarded things which were useful to them and things beyond their control as kamuy (gods). In daily life, they prayed to and performed various ceremonies for the gods. These gods included nature gods, such as fire, water, wind and thunder; animal gods, such as bears, foxes and spotted owls; plant gods, such as monk’s hood, mushroom and mugwort; object gods, such as boats and pots; and gods which protected houses, gods of mountains and gods of lakes. The word ‘Ainu’, meaning ‘human’, refers to the opposite of these gods.

In the morning, travel to Moerenuma Park, created on the site of a former rubbish dump and designed by Isamu Noguchi, many of whose works appear throughout the park. The centrepiece of the park is the glass pyramid ‘Hidamari’ (‘sunny spot’), which houses an installation by Noguchi and information about his design of the park. In the summer, the building is cooled using snow stored nearby. Lunch today is at the restaurant L’Enfant Qui Rêve, many of whose staff trained with the same tea master as your tour leader!

After lunch travel to the small mountain town of Bibai and the sculpture park of Arte Piazza Bibai, which displays 40 sculptures of internationally-renowned artist Kan Yasuda.

Return to the hotel for an evening at leisure in Sapporo.


After a morning at leisure, transfer to Sapporo airport for an afternoon flight back to Tokyo. Transfer to the hotel and check in, before an evening at leisure to explore the myriad eating establishments surrounding the hotel.


In the morning, walk to Omotesandō, Tokyo’s fashion and arts precinct. Visit Nezu Museum, a private collection with a superb garden and tea houses. Stroll down the Omotesandō street itself, ‘the Avenue des Champs-Élysées of Tokyo’, and enjoy a teppanyaki lunch at Omotesandō Ukai-tei.

After lunch, visit the Ōta Memorial Museum of Art, tucked away in the backstreets of Omotesandō, which contains Tokyo’s largest private collection of ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints from the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868). Stroll through an evergreen forest to the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo’s major Shinto shrine, which is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji (r. 1867-1912), the founder of modern Japan. Discover the beauty of Shinto religion in the inner shrine, a glorious exemplar of Japan’s original architectural forms.

The evening is at leisure to enjoy dinner in one of the many traditional and modern restaurants in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo.


After breakfast, travel on one of Tokyo’s famously efficient trains to the beautifully preserved temple town of Yanaka. Known as the ‘little Kyoto of Tokyo’, Yanaka was deliberately built as a maze of alleyways and temples to protect the castle at the centre of old Tokyo from invasion. Visit the Asakura Museum of Sculpture and SCAI The Bathhouse Gallery, housed in a 200-year-old bathhouse. Enjoy lunch in the Hantei restaurant, and spend the afternoon strolling through the campus of the Tokyo University of Fine Arts.

In the evening enjoy dinner in one of Japan’s famous tempura restaurants, Tsunahachi.


After breakfast, travel to the Mori Art Gallery in Roppongi Hills, the city’s major private contemporary art space. The museum primarily exhibits the work of Asian artists. Spend some time at leisure for lunch in the bustling Tokyo Midtown Centre, and then visit the Suntory Museum of Art.

Return to the hotel in the mid-afternoon, and in the evening enjoy a special farewell meal with John and fellow travellers at Daigo, a two star Michelin restaurant which is known for its Buddhist-inspired vegetarian food.


Check out from the hotel (luggage stored) before a visit to the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum was founded in 1979 under the auspices of the Fondation Arc-en-Ciel and was one of the first Japanese museums to specialise in the collection, exhibition and support of contemporary art. Since its foundation, the museum has striven to promote international exchange through contemporary art and to cultivate up-and-coming artists.

Return to the hotel in the afternoon to collect luggage. For those returning to Australia or New Zealand today, make your way to Tokyo airport in time for suggested flights on Japan Airlines departing in the late evening.


Per person, twin-share

AUD 12,750

Single supplement*

AUD 2,750

Deposit per person (at time of booking)

AUD 500

*Single travellers may request to share.
Please advise at time of booking.

Final payment due

06 July 2018

Tour code


Fitness level

Above Average

Please see booking conditions for fitness level definitions.

This tour involves walking approximately 4 to 6 km on most days, and allows you to experience Japan like a local, using the efficient subway system and exploring the country’s artistic treasures on foot.  

Suggested airline

Japan Airlines
Please contact Renaissance Tours or your travel agent for current airfares and flight reservations.


Australian and New Zealand passport holders do not require a visa to visit Japan.

Tour price includes

  • Accommodation in centrally located 4 and 5 star hotels with breakfast daily (B)
  • Meals as per itinerary (L = Lunch, D = Dinner), including local wines and beer with meals
  • Economy Class flights from Niigata to Sapporo and from Sapporo to Tokyo
  • Comprehensive sightseeing and visits to museums and galleries, and entrance fees as per itinerary
  • Lectures and talks with your tour leader throughout
  • Transportation throughout on trains and comfortable air-conditioned coaches
  • Tokyo subway and metro pass
  • Gratuities for local guides and drivers
  • Hotel porterage (one piece per person)

Tour price does not include

  • International flights (please contact Renaissance Tours or your travel agent for assistance)
  • Airport porterage
  • Airport/hotel transfers on arrival and departure
  • Items of a personal nature, including telephone, laundry, taxis etc.
  • Travel insurance (a condition of travel; please contact Renaissance Tours or your travel agent for assistance)


Your hotels
Tokyo – Hotel Metropolitan Marunouchi ****
Yuzawa – Hotel Futaba ****
Lake Tōya – Nonokaze Resort, Tōyako ****
Sapporo – Sapporo Grand Hotel ****
Tokyo – Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel *****

NB. Hotels of a similar standard may be substituted

Please note that in most Japanese hotels there are limited rooms available with double beds. Most rooms for two persons have twin beds.