• Sky Gelbron

6 Months in Rural Japan at an Artist-in-Residence

Updated: Aug 16, 2019

A lot of people of the older generations have resistance to the idea of a "gap year", under the assumption that it is an excuse to lounge around while responsible others acquire their platinum of an education.

Some young adults, especially those who have struggled with intrinsic motivation, will most definitely struggle with sluggishness, aimlessness, and lose the precious benefits of time off school. Time off may not be for the unmotivated, but may help those struggling with burnout.

Assuming someone doesn't simply slip into distraction, a break from higher education can be an invaluable use of time to better understand oneself and their passions, especially after 12 years of schooling. Taking time off can help individuals in their young 20s to relate what they have only studied in books to living experience, applying real-life skills to active experiences that more solidly inform who they are and what they love.

In September 2016, I left to spend 3 months in Japan at an artist-in-residence program in rural Japan called Moriuius. I had spent the previous summer working to acquire the funds for the plane ticket. The program was kind in offering enough facilities and food that I need only pay for my own travel expenses. Thanks to cheap flight resources, I found a round-trip ticket for a little over $600.

As so happens, you never anticipate just how impactful and inspiring something will be until you truly encounter it. I am ever grateful for the memorable experiences and wonderful people I met through Moriumius.

The Beginning of Moriumius

Moriumius is located in the small town of Ogatsu in the Miyagi region near Sendai, and lives at the edge of a national forest preserve surrounded by the ocean. The founder of the program, Gentaro Yui, found an abandoned school building in the area after the devastation of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit the area that would become Moriumius. The program acquired over 5,000 volunteers to make the program possible. "Mori" is the Japanese word for forest, "umi" is the Japanese word for sea, and "us" is the latin root for together/tomorrow, thus the program name represents the mission to reunite humanity with nature and their shared future. One core aspect of Moriumius is welcoming in children as a part of community, culture, and sustainability education programs.

Moriumius has lived true to their mission and been impactful in more ways than can be imagined. The dedication to sustainability is seen in their architecture, agriculture, culinary pursuits, intertwined biologic and compost systems, and environmentally-minded visiting artists.


The structure of the main building is upcycled from a 93-year old school building, originally designed by shipwrights. One addition was the inclusion of mountain ink-stone, which found predominantly in the Ogatsu area. These are the same stones used for the Tokyo station roofing!

The baths are also constructed from bamboo and natural clay, and are heated by fire from logs acquired from the forest. Environmentally friendly bio-degradable body soap and shampoo are provided. Most daily water waste is recycled through a biotope pond where it is purified through plant filtration, naturally supporting the rice patty and other living creatures.

I used some of the broken natural ink-stone in the art I created at the program. I created work on my handmade recycled paper-making with my handmade mould and deckles. After learning paper-making, I began workshops in paper-making as well as collaborative piece workshops with puzzle-pieced paper-wrapped stones.

Culinary Pursuits

Community meals are often created with fresh, sustainably grown or harvested ingredients either from the local towns or Moriumius itself. This includes fruits, vegetables, rice, seaweed, green tea, eggs, dairy, meat, fish, and even sea salt. Moriumius also orders other products from sustainably-minded companies. To list only a few daily activities of visitors and the staff, Moriumius partakes in growing and harvesting rice, making salt from seawater, making their own tofu, harvesting and preparing green tea, making plum wine & syrup, going fishing, and culinary education.

I was vegan at the time, and I know what you're thinking... vegan in Japan? Although I still eat predominantly vegan food, as it turns out, both first-hand experience with the farm animals and the shortage of vegan options actually opened me up a bit to eating eggs, dairy, and fish on occasion. When I arrived at Moriumius, I noticed that due to how hard the staff was working, there were some needs of the animals (goats, chickens, and pigs) that were more difficult to keep up with. I gladly filled what was lacking since I have a strong compassion for animals, and wanted to make the lives of both the staff and animals easier. I also learned to carve bamboo for eating utensils, and painted on trash plastic to raise awareness about it's danger to our oceans.

I have to say... before that summer I had never milked anything in my life! But so my life motto goes, "If I can do _____, I can do anything..." So since Belinda the goat wasn't nursing anymore, I build a milking stand and began my human-goat friendship with her to prevent her from getting Mastitis. It wasn't easy at first, and I had to make a lot of adjustments to make the stand function efficiently. Then, I painted educational signs and did workshops about the health of chickens and how to milk a goat. Finally, I expanded the chicken pen for more free-roaming space and got creative with some of Belinda's milk that was not being used to make cheese and probiotic whey drinks. Ultimately, what I have learned is that we can respect the lives of the animals we use for by-products if they are cared for and loved by looking to them not simply as products but as an honored part of our nutrition and livelihood.

My Nature Illustrations and Designs

Following suit with helping the animals and the other earth-oriented works I made at Moriumius, I also made plenty of watercolor illustrations appreciating the beauty of the surrounding town and nature. I'm hoping that these works can deliver visitors that are staying for only short periods a more extensive look at Moriumius and the locations, activities, and history present in the area. This extended to memories written on a kotatsu blanket with paint, and T-Shirt designs which were eventually made for the 2017 summer staff and attendees.

To take part in a community with a greater mission like Moriumius has further fueled my long-term ambitions as a person and artist alike. I enjoy sharing the knowledge I could only acquire at Moriumius and it’s lessons with others. I am grateful that Moriumius has grown to be what it is, and for the resilience of Ogatsu’s inhabitants after tragedy. Moriumius speaks to me a single yet very important value to retain during our struggles, and as we move toward the future: hope.

To learn more about Moriumius, please visit:

One day, I would love to begin an intentional community with fellow artists and begin a program educating others in a variety of arts, sustainability, healthy eating, and other subjects that better our world from the individual to the global level.

#ruralculture #sustainability #Japan #Moriumius #artistinresidence

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