Though best known for its unspoiled wilderness and harsh winters, Hokkaido’s Daisetsuzan National Park is also home to one of Japan’s most creative small towns. Called Higashikawa, this town of 8,000 people has blossomed into an artistic hub since launching an international photography festival in the mid-1980s. From photography to furniture design and more, here are just some of the reasons to visit.

Higashikawa Bunka Gallery

With regularly changing exhibitions featuring images by everyone from local school kids to acclaimed photographers, this should be the first stop for anyone interested in Higashikawa’s photography scene. Recent exhibitions have included Han Kyoungho’s “North Context,” a Tokyo Frontline Photo Award-winning series of winter images of Hokkaido displayed on large sheets of Korean hanji paper. Non-photography events also happen here, like TeamLab’s Sketch Christmas in 2022, where pictures drawn by local children were used to create a Christmassy digital installation.

Higashikawa Arts Exchange Center

Also known as CentPure, this town-run community center in what was once an elementary school is home to spaces exhibiting contemporary art, plus designer chairs by the likes of Finn Juhl from the globally focused Oda Collection. It’s also worth visiting for its airy library, which houses a great selection of books on the Daisetsuzan mountains. If you are thinking about a longer stay, CentPure runs Japanese classes and culture workshops, in addition to providing accommodation. There’s also a nice café on the premises: one of many laidback places to eat and caffeinate in town.

Local Higashikawa Wood Crafts

Woodcraft has been an important part of Higashikawa for generations, and the town is home to several related initiatives. This includes the annual Kengo Kuma x Higashikawa KAGU Design Award, which seeks to promote furniture design in the region, and the Kimi no Isu project, where kids born in Higashikawa are gifted a wooden chair crafted by local artisans as a way to pass down the town’s woodcrafting culture. To see wooden furniture handcrafted in Higashikawa, stop by the Kitanosumaisekkeisha showroom — they’ve been in business here since the 1970s but produce work with an understated, contemporary feel.

Higashikawa International Photo Festival

Launched in 1985, at the same time Higashikawa dubbed itself the “town of photography,” the town’s international photo festival is still going strong. If past years are anything to go by, the 39th edition will run from late July to late August and will feature a month of exhibitions, talks and workshops. There’ll also be the annual Higashikawa Awards for photographers and National High School Photography Championships. Just be aware that accommodation in town is limited: book early or base yourself in nearby Asahikawa city.

The 39th Higashikawa International Photo Festival 2023 will be held from July 29 to August 28 at Higashikawa Bunka Gallery and other venues. For more information, check out the photo festival’s official website.