How do you bring young people back into Japan’s rural areas? One popular answer seems to be with art and architecture. In one of the country’s latest rural revitalization efforts, Beijing-based design studio MAD Architects was invited to reactivate the long-forgotten Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel in the Niigata prefecture. Created for the 2018 Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, this series of permanent artistic interventions aims to help bring back “the cultural energy that once empowered the region.”

path to the tunnel

periscope installation

Set in the heart of Japan’s snow country, Echigo-Tsumari is a mountainous, agricultural region where more than a third of the community comprises the elderly (at least 65 years of age). In a bid to attract young people back to the countryside, Fram Kitagawa founded the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale in 2000. The art field hosts approximately 160 site-specific artworks across 200 villages in an area greater than 760 square kilometers. For this year’s program, MAD Architects was invited to re-imagine the historic Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel, a 750-meter passageway carved through rock that offers stunning panoramic views.

Periscope interior

Expression of Color

In a project dubbed “Tunnel of Light,” MAD created five interventions along the historic tunnel to follow the five elements of nature — wood, earth, metal, fire and water. The first installation (wood) is the “Periscope,” a small timber hut that houses a cafe, shop and hot spring foot spa with a circular aperture surrounded by mirrored lenses. “Expression of Color” (earth) marks the tunnel entrance and is outfitted with atmospheric music and different colored lights at each lookout point. The first of the modified lookout points is “Invisible Bubble” (metal), featuring a reflective and introspective capsule-like structure that only allows one-way views from the inside out. “The Drop” (fire) at the second lookout point comprises mirrored “dew drops” attached to the ceiling and walls and back-lit by red light. The “Tunnel of Light” culminates with the “Light Cave” (water), where semi-polished stainless steel elements bring reflections of gorge into the tunnel to create “an infinite illusion of nature.”

Invisible Bubble

The Drop

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“MAD’s ‘Tunnel of Light’ is an artistic transformation that demonstrates how art and nature can come together to reinvigorate a community,” the designers said in a project statement. “Each one of the installations forms a poetic space where visitors can transcend the role of observer and become an active participant — allowing individuals to place themselves in nature in unexpected ways.”

+ MAD Architects

Images by Nacasa Partners Inc and Osamu Nakamura

Light Cave