Meet Masahiro Wada at Nippara Cave

· Thursday August 8, 2013

Meet Masahiro Wada, an artist born and raised in rural Tokyo. Through installation, performance and video he examines elements of culture and history, interpreting them with a touch of satire and ridiculousness. Over the past few years, Masahiro has exhibited throughout Japan, as well as in Melbourne, Guangdong and New Delhi, and recently returned from a six-week residency at SOMA in Mexico City, where he used his dreams as the basis for research into ancient cultures. From his studio space in an old timber mill near Okutama, Masahiro is currently preparing for a number of upcoming exhibitions including a solo show this month at Art Centre Ongoing, and then at Koganecho Bazaar in Yokohama and Art Lab Aichi in Nagoya.

I met Masahiro at his house in western Tokyo, and over a morning coffee he explained that, with the exception of several years spent studying in London, he had lived his entire life in Tokyo. Yet despite this, he had never lived in the city, and instead had always called 'rural Tokyo' – the western-most parts of the Tama area – home. He proposed that we drive to Okutama, an area popular with hikers, climbers and fishermen, to visit Nippara Limestone Cave. Aside from being a place rarely visited by city dwellers, it was a place, he said, that offered a truly raw perspective of nature.

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After passing the long strip of diners, salons and coffee shops that face Yokota Air Base, we drove westward, passing by Ome and following the Tama River through the outer parts of Tokyo's fringe.

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Passing by soba restaurants, souvenir shops and remnants of the ailing timber industry, we left the small town of Okutama behind and wound our way slowly through the narrow roads that lead to the cave, not far from the border of Saitama.

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After parking the car, we cleansed our hands at the nearby shrine, bought our tickets and crossed the bridge to the entrance of the cave.

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The cave’s metal-framed entrance resembled an old mine, and I couldn't help but think of Masahiro's installation Welcome Stranger, which was inspired by the Victorian gold rush in the 1800s.

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Having visited the cave numerous times since he was a child, Masahiro took the lead as we walked cautiously down the damp passage, descending into the mountain.

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Along the way, geological features and other points of interest were acknowledged by signs that varied from handpainted to slightly more opulent. The most impressive one was the gold sign that led us to the peaceful sounds of a suikinkutsu, a traditional Japanese garden ornament.

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We entered the cavernous grand hall, and despite the temperature hovering at a damp eight degrees it was agreed that it was the most liveable of the underground areas – it was in fact used as a training place for yamabushi (mountain priests).

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Ascending the set of stairs on the other side of the hall, we came across a small shrine among the rocks, where visitors made offerings to a local god.

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On our return loop we ventured into the section of stalactites and stalagmites, which we took photos of with the aid of several openings in the mesh fence that had been bent to accommodate camera lenses.

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Descending another staircase, our two-dimensional map became increasingly vague as paths wound around and over one another, and fellow visitors appeared in gaps far above our heads.

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After an hour of exploring the dark confines, we began to feel the warmth of the afternoon creeping down the passage. Having had a close-up view of the inside of the mountain, we took a few last photos before retreating out into the sunlight.