Some of Japan’s Best Art Is Found on These Rural Islands

The best place to see contemporary art in Japan is not where you’d think.

Yayoi Kusama Yellow, polka-dotted Pumpkin on a pier on Japan's Naoshima island with the ocean and some low mountains in the background.

Several works by the famed artist Yayoi Kusama, including her iconic, polka-dotted pumpkin, are on Naoshima.

Photo by Anson Fan

It well may be the world’s most photographed gourd. The yellow polka-dotted pumpkin on a pier—the creation of the 94-year-old pop-art grandma Yayoi Kusama—is the unofficial symbol for Japan’s contemporary art center. But you won’t find this giant gourd in the ultra-modern metropolis of Tokyo. Instead, it’s in an unlikely haven for world-class contemporary art—a cluster of small and sparsely populated islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.

Here, a group of 12 remote islands (including Naoshima, the island on which Kusama’s pumpkin sits) and two port cities have become a destination for art lovers around the world. It all started in 2010 when the Setouchi Triennale, an art festival held every three years, was launched in an effort to revitalize these sleepy rural islands that have suffered from massive depopulation, an aging population, and dying industry.

Since then, creators from around the world and younger generations of Japanese are breathing new life into these islands. Once shut-down elementary schools are turning into art galleries, and abandoned homes are now filled with contemporary artwork made in collaboration with the local people. These islands’ unique history and way of life are not being painted over and forgotten; they are being preserved and reimagined for future generations.

Travelers on an art pilgrimage are also putting these once-overlooked islands back on the map. Even if you aren’t able to make the Setouchi Triennale, the permanent art on these islands—from a subterranean modern art museum to the pop-art installations along the sea—is well worth the 90-minute flight from Tokyo. Here’s how to visit.

Islands not to miss

The outdoor exhibit of Yayoi Kusama's Narcissus Garden, which features a cluster of round, mirrored balls sitting in the grass and reflecting back the images of the people standing in front of them.

Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden is one of many sculptures and art installations you can find on Naoshima.

Photo by Anson Fan

Many first-timers to the area might think they’ll be able to see every piece of art or even every island, but unless you have unlimited time, it’s going to be difficult. Instead, focus on one of these islands a day and try to enjoy the slow pace and natural beauty of the region, as well as the local food.


This is the island where it all began. Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake opened Benesse House Museum in 1992, bringing contemporary architecture and art to abandoned homes and beaches on the island. Twenty years ago, Naoshima was an isolated and sleepy island, but Fukutake saw the island’s natural beauty as a perfect backdrop for art and art as a salvation for the island’s suffering economy. Designed by architect Tadao Ando, the Benesse House overlooks the Seto Inland Sea and doubles as both a museum and boutique art hotel. Spend a night at the museum under the same roof as works by Hiroshi Sugimoto, David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, Shinro Ohtake, and Richard Long.

While there, be sure to visit Tadao Ando’s Chichu Art Museum, a subterranean space a five-minute drive up the road from Benesse House; it was designed underground so it wouldn’t tamper with the natural landscape.

But the most powerful art here is the unseen and the unsnapped. Put your camera away and experience the pitch-black darkness of famed American light artist James Turrell’s sensory twisting Back Side of the Moon. No cameras are allowed in Japanese digital artist Tatsuo Miyajima Sea of Change 98 permanent exhibit either. Made in collaboration with the island’s residents, it encourages you to pause and reflect by the shallow pool of glowing numbers. Local residents—from age 5 to 95—set these LED counters to a speed that indicates how they view the passage of time. End the day soaking up the art and culture at “I♥YU” (yu means hot water or bath in Japanese), a funky colorful sento (bathhouse) designed by Shinro Ohtake.

Teshima and Inujima

The Benesse Art Site Naoshima, the collective name for all art-related activities by Benesse Holdings, Inc. and Fukutake Foundation on these islands, also includes sites on the two nearby islands of Teshima and Inujima, which are less crowded and more laid-back. While you’ll have to take a 30- to 40-minute ferry ride from Naoshima to each island, it’s worth it to see the water droplet–shaped Teshima Art Museum, as well as the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum and mini “Art House Project,” a series of stand-alone galleries scattered throughout the island.

 “Laundry Six Cycles,” a recent painting by Leandro Erlich, depicts six wall-mounted washing machine doors with circular windows.

Little Shops on the Island Laundry Six Cycles 2018 by artist Leandro Erlich

Photo by HOW Art Museum / © Leandro Erlich 2018


Just east of Teshima and Inujima lies Shōdoshima (also known as Shōdo Island), the second largest island in the Seto Inland Sea. For art, don’t miss the Georges Gallery, a gallery and café that displays the works of French photographer Georges Rousse, and the Hishio no Sato Museum of Contemporary Art across the street. In between, keep an eye out for various sculptures scattered throughout the island, including the Gift of the Sun, a wreath-like structure by Choi Jeong Hwa that greets those arriving at the port.

Be sure to enjoy the island’s edible delights as well. Also known as “Olive Island,” Shōdoshima was the first place in Japan to successfully cultivate olives. In addition to producing creative olive-infused edibles, it’s also the last place still making Japan’s 400-year-old traditional wood-barreled soy sauce. End a day of art-hopping with an imaginative treat—soy sauce–covered ice cream at the café at Yamaroku Shoyu, a soy sauce brewery that was featured on Netflix’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

Megijima and Ogijima

Megijima and Ogijima are the two closest islands to the port of Takamatsu. Megijima offers a concentration of art to see along its sandy beaches, including a beachfront bonsai art house and a playful collection of “Little Shops on the Island,” featuring ping-pong tables and Laundromat installations. The hillside fishing village in Ogijima also offers artwork that’s walkable from the ferry, such as the permanent installation Ogijima’s Soul, a translucent port welcoming visitors to the island.

Where to stay

Exterior of Benesse House in Naoshima, Japan. Stone steps lead up to the main concrete building, where a glass tea house sits in front of it. Lots of green trees and wildflowers are in the background.

The Benesse House is part museum, part hotel.

Photo by Anson Fan

Short on time? Stay on Naoshima

Naoshima is the best place to stay if you only have a couple of days since it has a large concentration of sculptures, museums, and art installations—so much, in fact, that you’d need at least two days to see it all—and several notable hotels that are worth the journey.

A true delight for art lovers is Benesse House, which has 65 rooms in four distinct buildings on a quiet, seaside property dotted with sculptures. If you can, book a room in the Museum house, which allows you to spend the night in an actual museum, or the Oval house, best known for its oval-shaped architecture and hilltop views of the sea (only guests at the Oval house can enter). All stays include free admission to the museum and extended hour access.

Opened in 2022, the Naoshima Ryokan Roka is a new, luxurious addition to the island’s hotel offerings. In contrast to Benesse House’s cool, concrete modernism, Roka is a warm, modern take on the traditional Japanese ryokan, making use of light-colored wood furniture and shōji doors and windows in the design. Each of Roka’s 11 suites include an open-air bath. The on-site restaurant, En, serves multicourse kaiseki and sushi dinners (vegan options available). Keep an eye open for playful touches, such as conversation starters on the chopsticks, throughout.

Small bridge over large pond in Ritsurin Garden in the port city of Takamatsu

Ritsurin Garden in the port city of Takamatsu

Photo by Shutterstock

For a longer stay, set up base in Takamatsu

If you want to visit as many of the 12 islands as possible, your best bet is to make the island of Shikoku’s port city Takamatsu your base. From Takamatsu, you can catch frequent ferry service directly to the eastern islands like Naoshima and Shōdoshima (except Inujima, which you can reach by changing boats on Shōdoshima or Teshima).

There’s also much to experience in Takamatsu, including the Ritsurin Garden’s artfully landscaped paths of more than 1,000 pruned pine trees, as well as the region’s signature udon noodles—a thick wheat-flour noodle. (There’s even an Udon Taxi that will take you to all the locals’ secret spots.)

If you want to be close to the ferries, stay at JR Clement Inn Takamatsu, a modern Western-style hotel steps from the train station and ferry docks. Or for a more traditional Japanese experience, head up the hill to Hanajyuki’s onsen (hot springs) heaven with sweeping views of the city and the sea from an onsen on the rooftop or one on your own private balcony.

Ferries, bikes, and getting around

If coming from Osaka or Kyoto, you can reach the islands by taking a train to Okayama and transferring to a bus or a local train bound for Uno Port. Here, you can catch the ferry to Naoshima.

Alternatively, you can fly or take the train to Takamatsu and check into your hotel (if this will be your home base) or catch a ferry to one of the islands. To avoid the long ticket lines each time you ride, buy a booklet of tickets at the ferry ticket counter in Takamatsu, Tonosho Port, or Uno Port. Be sure to buy a return ticket as well.

Once you’re on the islands, public buses and bike rentals (most ports have companies renting bikes) are the best way to get around.

This article was originally published in 2019. It was most recently updated on July 13, 2023. Jessie Beck contributed to the reporting of this story.

Kathleen Rellihan is a travel journalist and editor covering adventure, culture, climate, and sustainability. Formerly Newsweek‘s travel editor, she contributes to outlets such as AFAR, Outside, TIME, CNN Travel, and more.
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