The Japanese artist who became a 'perote'

Artist Shinji Naganawa, in his studio in Álora.
Artist Shinji Naganawa, in his studio in Álora. / ANDREA JIMÉNEZ
  • The painter Shinji Nagawana was born in Japan’s fourth largest city but he visited Spain and began a new life in Álora, where he has lived for over thirty years

Shinji Naganawa was born in 1949 in Nagoya, the fourth biggest city in Japan, with 2.2 million inhabitants. When he was 25 he decided to travel around Europe to obtain new experiences and find his place in the world. That place turned out to be Álora, a small town of 13,000 inhabitants which gave him a home and a family.

"I feel more 'perote' [the name by which people of Álora are known] than Japanese," says Naganawa, who has been painting since he was a child.

His house in the centre of the village has a light-filled studio on the top floor, where he talks to us amid books, pictures and sketches for his highly colourful works.

Naganawa's adventure in Europe began in the late 1970s. The artist, who started painting when he was 13, following in his father's footsteps, had saved money throughout his adolescence so he could go and explore the world.

His first stop was Paris, where he spent nearly two years soaking up French culture.

"After that I couldn't stand the cold any longer and decided it was time to move on," he says.

That was when he went to Madrid, in 1981. After several weeks there, the Japanese artist came down to Andalucía to visit its main cities, including Malaga.

"While I was in Malaga, a Japanese friend told me that he had a house in Álora and he said I could go and stay there," says Naganawa, who at that time spoke no Spanish at all.

"I could only speak French. When I bought my ticket for Álora it was very difficult to explain where I wanted to go, because at first they couldn't understand me," he jokes.

When he got off the train in Álora, he was disconcerted.

"I couldn't see a town. I didn't know where I was. Then somebody pointed upwards and I realised that was where the town was. I was amazed; it looked beautiful, a town of white houses that seemed to embrace you like a swan," he says.

His friend hadn't given him an exact address for the house, just an infallible method of finding it.

"He told me to ask people for 'casa de Ise' and they would know where I had to go," he says.

After asking around the village he found his destination, an empty house where he could stay during his visit, which he expected to be short.

"A neighbour told me he would bring sheets and towels the next day, but he didn't turn up until two or three days afterwards, and I had bought sheets by then. That's when I found out that when people say 'mañana' they don't mean the next day, it will be sometime after that," he says, laughing.

Of all the cultural differences between Spain and Japan, he believes the main one is that life here is less restricted. "It's much more fun and straightforward," he says.

The friendliness and kindness of local people captivated him, and after spending a few months in Álora he decided it was time to collect the belongings he had left in Madrid and Paris and make the town his home.

"Every day someone would invite me to the bar for a drink. One time, a neighbour took me to his house, where some of his family were." And that was how he met his wife, Dolores Cortés, a local flamenco artist.

"It wasn't easy, marrying her, because she is from a gypsy family so it wasn't well regarded," he says.

More than 30 years later they are still together and have two children. After their marriage, they moved to Nagoya, where they lived for a year.

"In the end we came back, because it was a very different way of life and we couldn't adapt to it," says Naganawa, who still travels to Japan several times a year but always returns home to Álora.

The landscape inspired him to create new works of art which now form part of his collection: streets and other views of Álora, which he has taken to numerous art galleries he still works with in Japan.

"My style has been evolving and now I am trying new challenges, I want to do something different," explains Naganawa, but he says his life is firmly tied to Álora now. "I'm staying here forever," he says.