While rich in nature, Echigo-Tsumari, Japan suffers from an aging population that sees many young people moving to big cities for work or education. In 2000, Fram Kitagawa founded the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale to restore the cultural energy that once empowered the area. Art installations by internationally renowned artists and locals are dispersed throughout the region’s landscape and abandoned spaces, encouraging collaboration between diverse cultures and generations, becoming an integral part of the local environment, and drawing young people back into the community.

As part of the 2018 program, MAD Architects was invited to revitalise the Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel. The historic 750-meter passageway cuts through distinctive rock formations offering a safe way for people to enjoy panoramic views over one of Japan’s three great chasms. As a main point of interest for the region, tour groups continued to visit the site, but it had lost its appeal and was not functioning at its maximum potential.

MAD uses art to touch the space, revitalising the panoramic lookout tunnel and small wooden hut at its entrance, through artistic atmospheres that seek to bring new perspectives of nature into the passageway. “Tunnel of Light” draws on the ‘five elements’ of nature (wood, earth, metal, fire, water), interpreting each one as a distinct space that provides relaxation, contemplation and introspection, challenging the way we perceive ourselves within the natural scenery.

From mirrored apertures drawing the surrounding scenery into the tunnel, providing an alternative connection with nature that is mysterious and warm; to a lookout point lined with semi-polished stainless steel filled with a shallow pool of water that casts an infinite illusion of the gorge, evoking a feeling of everlasting solitude – each platform offers a distinct experience and renewed appreciation of the treasured landscape, re-connecting locals and visitors alike with the majestic beauty of the land, and one another.

“Tunnel of Light” presents a new model for how humans can relate to nature, cultivating the land with art as an ongoing process of urban re-activation. Within its first year of opening, “Tunnel of Light” has attracted triple the number of visitors – from 60,000 in 2017 to 180,000+ in 2018 – increasing tourism, and restoring the region’s economy, bringing vibrant new life to the environment and community. The Japan Arts Council has also selected it as one of five works that exemplifies the rich scope of the country’s arts and culture on a global level.