The best place to see contemporary art in Japan: not the modern metropolis of Tokyo but a cluster of rural islands in its inland sea.
It well may be the world’s most photographed gourd. The yellow polka-dotted pumpkin on a pier—the creation of the 90-year-old pop-art grandma Yayoi Kusama—is the unofficial symbol for Japan’s contemporary art mecca. 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.
This is the year to see this art-filled archipelago as it hosts the Setouchi Triennale, the art festival held every three years on 12 remote islands and in two port cities. Spread out over three seasonal sessions between April 26 to November 4, 2019, this art festival launched in 2010 in an effort to revitalize these sleepy rural islands that have suffered from massive depopulation, an aging population, and dying industry.
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 exhibits, 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.
Over a million people are expected to visit the Setouchi Triennale this year, with more than 200 artworks, installations, and events spread out over the islands. But even if you miss the Setouchi Triennale this year, 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 anytime.
The Setouchi Triennale covers 12 islands and two port cities so there’s a lot of ground to cover. 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 taking part in the Setouchi Triennale during all three sessions throughout the year (except Inujima, which you can reach by changing boats on Shodoshima 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 the rooftop onsen or from your own private balcony onsen.
Island hop via the ferry
While the colorful ferries aren’t technically considered part of the art exhibits, the views they provide of the island-dotted sea make them one of the most interesting parts of the whole experience. (Plus, the ferry to Naoshima is covered in Yayoi Kusama’s signature red poppy dots.) To avoid the long ticket lines each time you ride, buy a three-day ferry pass at the ferry ticket counter or at the Setouchi Triennale information centers in Takamatsu, Tonosho Port, or Uno Port.
If you don’t want to be limited to the ferry schedules, maximize your art-hopping with InsideJapan Tours’ personally tailored itineraries for the Setouchi Triennale, which include on-demand charter yacht service between the 12 islands. (It also offers Setouchi Seaplane excursions that allow you to take in the islands from above.)
Many first-timers to Setouchi Triennale 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. Or for a more budget-friendly option, sleep on the nearby beach in a yurt or in traditional minshuku (Japanese guesthouses).
Be sure to spend time at Tadao Ando’s Chichu Art Museum, a subterranean space located a five-minute drive up the road from Benesse House that 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 Inujima’s Seirensho Art Museum and mini “Art House Project,” a series of stand-alone galleries scattered throughout the island.
Just east of Teshima and Inujima lies Shodoshima—the second largest island in the Seto Inland Sea—that hosts over 40 artworks during the Triennale. Don’t miss Taiwanese artist Wang Wen-Chih’s massive bamboo installation Love on Shodoshima. This dome structure—nearly 50 feet high and 30 feet in diameter—was handwoven from the island’s bamboo plants and sits alongside the islands’ natural and disappearing architectural wonder—its terraced rice paddies. Another must-see is the large-scale installation The Shore Where We Can Reach by Chinese artist Xiang Yang. Initially a small wooden fishing boat, Xiang Yang has added on new components to the structure from places he’s been—including Chinese wooden furniture and even discarded chair parts from Brooklyn—so that it is now a vessel of his life’s journey. For the next Setouchi Triennale, he plans to add on more to complete it as a barge on the water.
Also known as “Olive Island,” Shodoshima was the first place in Japan to successfully cultivate olives. In addition to finding creative olive-infused things to eat here, it’s also the last place still producing 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.
If you’re short on time, Megijima and Ogijima are the two closest islands to the port of Takamatsu. Megijima offers a concentrated amount 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.
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