By Kirika Nakamura / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer AKITA — The Aniai district, which is nestled in mountains in Kita-Akita, Akita Prefecture, is a small hamlet with a population of about 1,100. If you walk around its central area, you’ll notice colorfully painted rocks casually placed above guide signs and at shop entrances, among other places. These palm-sized rocks bear cute pictures of animals, vehicles and other items.
The stones are used for an Australian game called “WA rocks” (pronounced “wa-rocks”; WA being an abbreviation of Western Australia). Friendly exchanges through the game started in the Aniai district in 2017.
The game is very simple. Paint a picture on a rock using acrylic paint or some other pigments, and place it in a park or other places. If you find a painted rock, you can take it home or move it somewhere else. The game has some rules, including no selling or buying of the rocks; don’t put the rocks in places like cultural properties or outdoor artworks; and if you collect rocks to paint on from a river, you should not gather many, staying within the number appropriate for a hobby.
The Aniai district used to thrive as a mining town, but the community is graying and the number of students at a local elementary school has decreased from more than 100 in 2005 to about 20 in recent years. The town was being sapped of vitality, but a change came along in the summer of 2017, when a 44-year-old woman living in Australia returned to her parents’ house in Aniai and placed rocks for the game in the neighborhood as an experiment.
Local childminder Keiko Tanaka, 39, and her husband, Mineki, a 39-year-old company employee, became enthused about the game after finding a rock by chance. Wanting to have their own rocks picked up, they started painting them and hiding them at various places for other people to find. Then, at Keiko’s suggestion, a WA rock experience class to teach participants rock painting was held at Aniai Commune, a local community house.
Similar classes were held by a local association for children and other groups as well. Those events helped many locals enjoy playing the game in their own way. They included parents and children, as well as the elderly, with participants saying such things as, “It’s like a treasure hunt!” or “It’s fun in many ways — painting pictures and hiding the rocks.”
Keiko recalled, “I found it fun and played the game myself, then more and more people began agreeing with me.”
Since anyone can play the game easily and without being concerned about fees, photographer Takuro Hasegawa, who runs Aniai Commune, talked to the local railway company, Akita Inland Line, about a tie-up project. As a result, a rock-finding event was held twice last year near Aniai Station.
The event was publicized outside Kita-Akita. Hasegawa, 40, also put painted rocks at scenic places and at shops in Aniai to encourage visitors to walk through the area. He publicized the game at seasonal events as well, such as the Hina Doll Festival in spring.
Thanks to the game, new friendly exchanges are cropping up. If residents see visitors searching for a WA rock, they’ll tell them, “Here they are,” and hand them rocks as souvenirs.
“Many children started coming here on weekends. They brighten up the town,” a 74-year-old man who runs a kimono shop said happily. The Aniai Commune has welcomed about 400 people coming to WA rock events as of March.
These exchanges have gotten even more fun since Mineki launched a WA rocks Facebook page in spring last year. Users upload photos of the rocks they’ve hidden or report where they discovered and claimed rocks. About 400 people are registered with the page, many of them from the prefecture but also some from outside areas. Many of those registered appear to be parents in their 30s or 40s.
The game’s network is spreading further, as the rocks are finding their way into tourist facilities outside Kita-Akita. In the town of Ugo in southern Akita Prefecture, the local michi-no-eki roadside rest facility has featured WA rocks on its Facebook page several times since last autumn. It attracted more tourists to the town as people who saw the posts came from many places to hide or find rocks in Ugo.
Hasegawa moved to Aniai in 2013 because he fell in love with the area. He thinks residents’ views on the district are gradually changing.
“It’s difficult to encourage people to move or return to this place, but I hope [WA rocks] will help bring in more people from outside and there will be more residents who become even more fond of their town and continue living here,” he said.
A painted menagerie
There are other examples of communities trying to liven up their towns through rock or stone art.
In 2004, the city of Otake, Hiroshima Prefecture, began a project to set up stone art objects in front of train stations, in parks and in other places. These artworks are stones bearing pictures of animals or familiar gods from Japanese myths, such as the Shichifukujin (Seven lucky gods). The stones are approximately 60 to 100 centimeters in height.
Currently, the stone art can be found at about 150 spots. Walking courses are designed for people who want to enjoy viewing works of art while taking a walk.
The Yamahashi district in the town of Ishikawa in Fukushima Prefecture, has many field stones about three meters tall. The district took note of such stones and is working on an art project to draw pictures, including elephants and owls, on the stones along the main local street. The local government is planning to increase the number of painted stones in a bid to make the whole town like an outdoor zoo.
■ Kita-Akita, Akita Pref.
Kita-Akita is located in the northern part of the prefecture. Forestland occupies more than 80 percent of the city. The city was formed when four towns, including Ani, merged in 2005. Since the merger, the population has dropped by about 600 every year. Its population was 32,148 as of the end of January. As of July last year, 43.8 percent of the city’s population was 65 or older.
The Ani mine, which closed in 1978, boasted Japan’s largest output of copper during the Edo period (1603-1867).