Every three years the mountainous, rural and relatively unspoilt Echigo-Tsumari region of Niigata-ken hosts a spectacular international art festival, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, from mid-July to early September (the next will be in 2012). Artists from all over the world are invited to exhibit their work, with previous standouts being Cai Guo Quiang from China, who reconstructed an old Chinese climbing kiln, and Rina Banerjee, who, inspired by the Taj Mahal, converted a school gymnasium into a giant birdcage. For more details check out w http://www.echigo-tsumari.jp.
Even if you’re not in Japan during the festival, a visit to this region is still a rewarding journey. The main places to head for are Tokamachi, Matsudai and Matsunoyama, all of which have fascinating permanent exhibition facilities built for the past triennials and plenty of sculptures and other artworks sited in paddy fields and on hillsides. The best way to get around is to hire a car, although during the festival there are also free bikes available at all the main sites. Otherwise you can travel here by local train from either Echigo-Yuzawa on the Niigata Shinkansen route or Saigata on the Joetsu line.
By the far the most memorable lodging experience is spending a night in one of the art pieces. Serbian Marina Abramovic’s Dream House (夢の家; t 025/596-3134, w http://www.tsumari-artfield.com/dreamhouse;), a refurbished century-old farmhouse, is one great option, while the architectural genius House of Light (光の館; t 025/761-1090, w www11.ocn.ne.jp/~jthikari; Tokamachi-shi), designed by James Turrell for the purpose of meditation, stuns with its retractable roof and slick, modern interior. Both are short taxi rides from Tokamachi Station and are open from April to December.