Eiko Tanaka

Interview
4 February 2020

Eiko Tanaka is a 39-year-old contemporary artist educated at Kyoto University of the Arts with experience living and working in Berlin. Now he is actively engaged in the fusion of tourism and art. The owner of the Omoya house in the third generation. Almost any meal for him ends with the search for ice cream. As a child, his grandmother owned a small candy store, and the love of sweets comes from there.

Eiko and I are sitting at a large dining table in his family home Omoya.

His wife Kana is to join us soon. Kana is an illustrator and yoga teacher. Once, Omoya was a village house surrounded by other buildings and rice fields. Now it is a guest house, which in winter becomes an art residence.

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Coat of arms of the Tanaka family on a paper lantern

Eiko, how did Omoya transform from a family home to an art residence?

It's a long story (laughs). It all started with the search for an answer to the question "who am I"? To better understand myself, about two years ago I turned to history and did a study of my roots.
My ancestors came to these lands in 1460. At that time, a big war was brewing in Kyoto. I think my ancestors fled from Kyoto to avoid war.

In search of answers to the question of who they are, I visited the temple where a record of our entire genealogy is kept. Here in this photo you can see a scroll that lists the names of my ancestors. In the Buddhist tradition, the departed person receives a new name - kaimyo.

This allows you not to disturb the soul of the deceased when his real name is mentioned. Unfortunately, I cannot read and pronounce these names. They are written in hieroglyphs that are not used in modern life. Even for the Japanese, they have a very strange sound.

And this is a kamon - the coat of arms of our family: the hieroglyph of the number 2 in a circle. In one of Omoya's guest rooms, boxes with this symbol are built into the ceiling. Paper lanterns are stored inside. They once illuminated the road.

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And here in this photo is my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother, and here is another woman. She was not a member of the family, but she visited our house very often. A slogan hangs over their heads, congratulations on joining the army, on the outbreak of war. It is interesting to look at these photos and see how I look like my great-grandfather and grandfather... The whole family was waiting for my great-grandfather to return from the war. Then my grandfather married my grandmother.

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But my mom is pretty! It's the sixties and kids are already wearing western dresses for everyday life, not kimonos. My great-grandfather at this time opened a small factory for the production of golf clubs. It was here in Kameoka. At this time, the economy was booming and people started playing golf. All production was located in two small buildings very close to this house. Now there is Kit's house, which receives guests. We also had a traditional Japanese garden.

My family owned a lot of land. We also had a stall with cows. The family kept them for milk.
In the seventies, sometime after I was born, my family stopped keeping cows. Here in this photo you can see that there were rice fields around the house. As I said, we owned a lot of land, but my grandfather did not want to farm.
He hated this occupation and gradually sold the land. He was more interested in industrial production. All the new houses that are in front of Omoya's house were once our family's land. And around the house were rice fields.

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Eiko during the summer festival

Do you miss the way things used to be?

I don't think about it all the time, but when I do, I feel like I miss this scenery and the sound of the frogs singing in June... It's good that not all the sounds of my childhood are gone. Today I heard sparrows chirping in Omoya and it made me feel nostalgic. As a child, I heard exactly the same sounds. In the city center of Kyoto, you will not hear such sounds. In one of Omoya's guest rooms, two murals hang from the ceiling: birds (flying sparrows) and flowers - blooming asters. I don't know how they got there. Usually, such places are decorated with some kind of wood carving. And then out of nowhere painting! My ancestors showed their personal taste in this.

The landscape has changed a lot since my childhood, and it's hard for me to keep in my memory what was before. Here I am sitting now in Omoya - and there is a feeling of recognition, but I go out into the street and ... Some kind of plastic house, as if after a disaster. Rice fields are still there, but they are no longer ours and they are somewhere far away... People lose their memories... Memories are always associated with objects, landscapes. It is difficult to remember in detail what you can never see again. So I lost some part of myself...
I'm still quite young so it doesn't affect me that much. But I think it's very hard for older people. It is difficult to maintain the integrity of perception, family feeling, continuity.

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The Eiko family in front of the entrance to Omoya

Please tell me about life in Omoya when you were a child.

Now only Omoya stands in his place. "Omoya" means "main house" and literally means "mother's house". The family also had utility rooms: a stall for cows and a house where golf clubs were produced. Omoya was the main house. The house where my grandparents lived. Older people understand the meaning of the word Omoya, but young people don't.

The basic structure of the house remained the same. But the house was used differently. When I was a child, this was my grandparents' house, and they slept where the kotatsu (low heated table) is now. There was a sliding door between the common area and their room - now it's an open space. There were two tables here, and the whole family would gather for dinner every night. For dinner, my mother and grandmother often cooked tonkatsu, hamburger, nabe, okonomiyaki.

We ate a lot of meat in my childhood. Ten years ago my little sister became a vegan, then my brother also joined, and a year later I also became a vegan. My parents were very worried about this, but my mother started to get interested in new meatless recipes, and now she can cook vegetarian food. Dad was very indignant then, but over time he changed. 10 years later (laughs). Now parents, if they eat meat, then it's only the meat of wild animals. My sister did a good educational job.

The side rooms with tatami mats and sliding doors were not in constant use. They are now for guests - that has not changed.

Construction work is going on right next to us. The owner of the new house is doing his best to preserve the foundations of the old traditional house. But this is not a love of history - there is simply not enough budget to build a good new house, and you don’t want to build a cheap house, and therefore they leave the foundations of the old one. In our modern culture, unfortunately, such rural houses have no value. And every year their price goes down and down. Everyone wants to live in new, more comfortable homes. I call them plastic houses: no aesthetics, no history.

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Eiko's parents wedding photo

My father worked for a very large electronics company in Tokyo before he got married, but then he fell in love with my mother and moved to live in Kameoka. Moreover, it was an acquaintance through pandering, but real feelings arose. Now my parents have moved in the suburbs of Okayama. They bought an old house surrounded by greenery and mountains. It can be called a farm: there are only three houses and three very elderly women, a married couple of 70 years old and my parents live there. My father wanted to lead a natural lifestyle in nature. Nowadays, simple provincial life has nothing in common with a natural way of life. One needs to move further. So mum and dad are now doing organic farming, no pesticides and manual tillage. They are very happy there! They also opened a cafe. I am very happy for them.

Why is the issue of identity important to you right now?


Ten years ago my grandfather died of cancer. Somewhere around this time, I began to think about the finiteness of life. Well, this is not news, of course, but it's one thing to just know - it's another to think about it. I began to think about my personal history because my ancestors brought information into my cells - into my DNA. I used to know the history of the family to the level of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, now I know a little more. My great-grandmother used to say: stick to your blood. This meant - keep your home and your land. Family roots were very important to her. I seem to be influenced by this upbringing.

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Grandfather's funeral

Where is your home now?


Half in Okayama - where my parents now live, there is a very good atmosphere and they are happy there. I don't really like the atmosphere surrounding Omoya. I find it difficult to build relationships with the environment, because people have a very closed way of thinking: they are not open to new ideas and new people. They are too worried about the little things, and it is extremely important for them what the neighbor has to say. It's a very small world, I don't like it. But I want to change this. In April (2020), I will open a cafe in Omoya not only for guests, but also for neighbors. I hope to get closer.

Kana, my wife, and I decided to open the doors of Omoya and two other houses for creative people during the winter period every year. This is the second year of the art residency.

For my neighbors, this may be the first experience of meeting foreigners. Foreigners are rare in our area.

I am glad that I can invite creative people from different parts of the world to my family's memorial house - Omoya.

All my close relatives who lived in this house thought narrowly: you can’t do this, you can’t do that ... They received a traditional upbringing and an anachronistic education that did not encourage creativity. I don’t want to remember this and get upset, but when I meet creative people in an art residence and see a completely different type of thinking and communication, I breathe easier.

Do you have a difficult relationship with Omoya?


After the death of my grandfather, our family had a hard time. My parents didn't know that the family owed loans to the bank. Relatives began to quarrel over the alleged inheritance, and it was terrible! My parents had to work until 2 or 3 am to earn enough money to pay off their debts. No wonder they sold the land without regret and moved to another location. Too many bad memories.

Now, inviting tourists to Omoya, holding an art residence here, I kind of rewrite my memories.
This is where I feel good right now.

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3 years old Eiko with his mother in Omoya

I know about the grand renovation that you and Kana did with your own hands. You literally rewrote history. Tell me about this in more detail.

Kana and I got married in Omoya. I do not perceive the service of marriage companies as something real. I wanted a sincere ceremony in the house with which I am connected. So that Kana and I can share this moment with our families and find our way.

[In the back room, the artists taking part in the winter residence sit at a low kotatsu table. Eiko's wife Kana is with them. From the back of the house comes exclamations in English and Japanese, tinged with accents, and merry laughter. Kana leaves the cheerful company and moves to our dark wood table in the middle of the kitchen]. 

Kana:
I don't like the typical commercial wedding either, and I don't like being in front of a lot of people. We wanted to have an intimate ceremony with the family. It was then that Eiko came up with the idea of ​​overhauling Omoya. At the time, I had no idea how difficult it would be to do so. I trusted his idea and followed him.

Eiko believed that we should do the overhaul with our own hands. Our home is our work. We have been renovating for about 3 months. We started in January and worked until March. We did everything together: removed the old tatami mats, the old coverings hiding the beams under the roof, laying new tatami mats, wooden coverings. How cold it was! We often worked until 23pm. At this time, it becomes unbearably cold! We also felt cold from other things - evil spirits. Oh, goosebumps... During the renovation, I didn't feel like staying in Omoya at night...

We had a very tight schedule. After all, the wedding day was appointed, and it was necessary to be in time by all means!

Eiko felt that we should hold the ceremony at the local temple because that temple would provide us with protection.

Eiko:
Izumo Daizingu is the name of this temple. Izumo is home to Japan's most important Shinto shrine. Once upon a time, the kingdom of Izumo extended to our places, and our territory was on its border. The most important temple of our region is located in the Tamba region. It was built in the 16th century. There is a sacred stone on the territory of the temple.

Kana:
Ah, that's why I had to climb up in a wedding kimono and traditional geta! But okay, it only took 10 minutes. Compared to 3 months of repair....(laughs). But joking aside, it was a very special wedding.

After the ceremony, we returned to Omoya and had lunch with our family. Pictures of ancestors hung on the wall to protect us. We tried to think in a way that they care about us, and not just worry about whether we can save this house ...

Then we had a big party with friends and 60 people came to congratulate us. We were so busy renovating to meet the deadline that we completely forgot that I would need a dress for a party with friends and some decoration at home. At the very last moment, I asked a friend to come up with something, and four close friends organized everything - from my makeup to the party menu.

Eiko:
The spirits of our ancestors no longer worry about us. Omoya has a good atmosphere, a lot of funny laughter, everyone is happy! In general, there was no economic point in keeping this old Omoya house, but I believe in its invisible value, and it's not just memories. This is a historical value, preserved materials. It looks like art. In art, we also believe in the invisible value of works. As an artist, I think I have to convey to other people the intangible value of houses like Omoya. That's why I keep this house. Even my parents are not interested in the fate of Omoya, the local people of Kameoka are also not worried about the disappearing old houses, the landscape of Kameoka.

It's very hard for me to believe this! But this is a very good place with an old Japanese landscape. I am trying to bring new value to Omoya by establishing an artist residency program. It seems to me that in this way I also answer the question “who am I”.

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