Echigo Tsumari Art Field is probably the biggest art exhibition that you never heard of - I certainly hadn't when I stumbled across it. Driving around the Tokamachi area you often see incongruous works of modern art dotted around the landscape. Not a local government looking for original ways to exploit the budget as I first suspected, but part of a triannual art exhibition.
The first Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial took place in 2000. It has very lofty ideals of connecting art back to nature and the traditional culture of the region. The next one is set for 2015 but many of the art installations are in place year round so with a bit of exploring you can discover some real gems. According to the official website there are over 160 works of art, deliberately spread over a 760 square meter area. Wandering around is part of their admittedly inefficient approach to displaying the art and they shun the idea of centering everything in one main location.
Over the years we have had great fun visiting some of the exhibits, some by accident, some actively sought out. A car is a great help as you can drive around for days and still only manage to see a small selection of the huge catalogue. The area is sprinkled with yellow signs pointing you in the direction of the nearby artworks. The website has some recommended itineraries if you are blown away by the choice. Definitely have a look at the gallery of the different works to get an idea of the wide range on display - it is sure to whet your appetite. The artworks are in parks, abandoned buildings, fields, old school houses - as you track them down you go on a voyage of discovery around a beautiful area.
There are also plenty of events linked to the art festival with visiting artists and year round workshops that take advantage of the local traditions, culture and climate. The website has links to restaurants where the regional produce is highlighted and it is even possible to stay in some of the works of art.
Don't wait for the next Echigo Tsumari Triennial - hire a car and prepare to be amazed.