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Épinard

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A Japanese homestay builds community through making art and taking it slow

‘We noticed something. As we made the people who came here happy, we were also happy. If this could spread around the world, everyone would be at peace.’

There can be a peculiar hollowness to the Airbnb experience. Stays often involve being surrounded by someone else’s personal stuff – furnishings, books, family photos – while only ever interacting with them remotely or via their guidebook. It can all make for a rather half-baked feeling of connection with the hosts and their community. Preferring instead to hunt down arrangements that promise genuine interactions, the London-based filmmaker Steve Atkins booked an alternative homestay for his visit to Ōiso in Japan. The house, called Épinard by its owners, doubles as a small utopian experiment centred on building ephemeral communities and art. After a transformative four-day visit, Atkins was inspired to return and make a short film about the space.

Located near the beach and crafted from recycled shipping containers, there’s something galleon-like about the building, which is apt given that its owners aim to provide a place of sanctuary amid the turbulence beyond. By buying into the philosophy of the space, guests are given a fleeting chance to experience a ‘new society’ and a ‘new concept of family’, says Masami Nakazato, Épinard’s co-founder with Ikuko Nakazato. This spirit of rejuvenation inspired the name for the house – from the French for ‘spinach’ – and emphasises the strength and nourishment that they hope its environment will foster. Even the two large turtles that roam the premises seem imbued with metaphor, setting expectations for the pace of life onsite. Just an hour south of Tokyo, a trip to Ōiso – tucked between the ocean and the mountains – thus becomes an escape to tranquility.

With his documentary, Atkins captures the uniqueness of Épinard as both a space and a joyfully inhabited community, built around slowing down, making art, and forging authentic connections between visitors and the local culture. But, more than just a portrait of a unique place to rest and renew, Atkins’s film explores the Nakazatos’ aspiration to spread Épinard’s doctrine of tranquility and creativity beyond its walls, and to the wider world. ‘It cannot easily be achieved,’ Masami Nakazato concedes. After all, utopian dreams rarely are.

Written by Adam D’Arpino

Director: Steve Atkins

3 March 2021