Pale gold sunlight glints off the glassy waters at Takamatsu Port, a sleepy set of piers in Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku Island, one of the main gateways to Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.
This naturally protected stretch of water and its numerous small islands have a unique allure but their remote location and lack of infrastructure meant they were far removed from Japan’s main tourist trail, until art shone a light back on the region.
This year, that focus is heightened with the fourth instalment of the Setouchi Triennale. This unique art event, which began in 2010 and runs for three seasons over the course of seven months, sees 12 islands and two ports play host to a series of striking artworks by leading Japanese and inter- national artists. The result is arguably the world’s most tucked-away and spread out, yet engaging, exhibition.
And while art may be the primary draw to these islands, this writer discovered that each one has its own unique history and natural charms.
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s iconic “Red Pumpkin” sculpture perched at the entrance to Naoshima’s western Miyanoura Port is your first clue that this island is command central for the region’s artistic thrust.
Back in the mid-1980s, the island was best known as the site of Mitsubishi Materials’ copper refinery. But Tetsuhiko Fukutake (president of Fukutake Publishing, later Benesse Holdings) and then-mayor of Naoshima Town Chikatsugu Miyage wanted to bring the introspectiveness of art to the dramatic landscape of the island. Their vision first began to take shape in 1989 in the form of the Naoshima International Campsite, a community space with yurts meant to offer children from around the world an experience with nature. The camp no longer exists, but it proved the catalyst for other projects.
The southern area of Naoshima now includes contemporary lodgings and sleek museums like the Chichu (“in the earth”) Art Museum, which burrows into a hill; from outside, the building is virtually invisible. Opened in 2004, it features a warren of twist- ing views that open out on to “caverns” that house artwork from artists such as James Turrell and Claude Monet.
Within walking distance of Chichu, the Lee Ufan museum, showcases the affinity between Korean-born Ufan’s sculptures and Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s architecture. The outdoor pieces are a calming series of minimalist works set in Ando’s cleanly designed spaces.
From Miyanoura, a leisurely 4km bike ride takes you to the eastern port of Honmura, famous for its Art House Project, a collection of seven former residences. A standout is Ishibashi House, which features Hiroshi Senju’s ethereal, misty waterfalls. A slow meander around the town, with its charming cafés and gifts shops, is highly recommended.
It’s name in Japanese means “little bean island,” but Shodoshima is the largest of the islands of the Setouchi Triennale, located just over an hour by ferry from Takamatsu Port. You’d need a car and a couple of days to properly investigate its pale golden beaches, forested hills, terraced rice fields and maze-like towns.
With its Mediterranean climate, this rocky island was a major salt producer back in the Kofun period (250-538AD), but is now famous for its traditional soy sauce factories and several small- scale but internationally award-winning olive oils, from the island’s own hillside groves. Tributes to this important industry include a sculptured laureate of olive leaves from Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa as well as a stately 1,000-year-old olive tree, which stands on a promontory along Shodoshima’s west coast.
To explore the art on the island, pick up a map at the ART no SHOW TERMINAL port in Tonosho. From there, it’s a 10-minute bike ride to MeiPAM, a group of art houses hidden in a neighbourhood known as Maze Town. The town’s labyrinth of narrow streets was designed centuries ago to thwart attacks from pirates but today, the experience of discovering what’s around each bend adds to the location’s appeal. Currently, three buildings are set to display upcoming Triennale works of art, while a fourth hosts the Museum of Yokai (Japanese monsters).
Atsushi Nomura, 55, is the spry and enthusiastic manager of the MeiPAM project, who hopes the recent art ventures will help to revitalise the community, which has seen its population halved since the late 1940s. Two new additions to Maze Town include a souvenir shop featuring Setouchi products, such as purses fashioned from recycled sail cloth, and a restaurant serving local olive-fed beef and organic vegetables.
Another attraction less than 10 minutes by bike from Maze Town is Angel Road, a sandbar that appears at low tide, connecting Shodoshima to a series of lovely smaller islands.
Once an idyllic island of fishermen and farmers, Teshima took a turn for the worse when illegal toxic waste, dumped on the island from the late- 1970s, began to poison the surrounding seawaters. All this changed when a young man Shozo Aki, initiated a grassroots organisation to sue those responsible. The suit lasted for 25 years but against the odds, the islanders finally won, and the government removed approximately 600,000 tonnes of waste.
This tarnished past makes the island’s main attraction, the Teshima Art Museum, even more striking. Half-buried into a grassy hillside, the museum, which opened in 2010 under the Benesse umbrella, resembles a giant water droplet. The clean white concrete structure is marked by a series of tiny water drops seeping from the ground, beading and journeying across the museum’s flat surface. At this monumental art project, visitors can sit and marvel at the sound of the wind sighing as well as the echoes of birds and voices floating through the circular openings in the work and reverberating inside the shell.
It’s not the only art you can discover on the island. Those with time to spare can bike on to discover French artist Christian Boltanski’s Les Archives du Coeur. It entails an encounter with the sound that proves we are all still alive, recording as it does the heartbeats of visitors from around the world.
You can also check out art space and residency Teshima no Mado (Teshima’s Window), located near the port. Owner Rika Aki, 48, also sells coffee and baked goods, but her real focus is media art, which she plans to study in graduate school. The art salon vibe of her spot is ideal for a break to peruse her library of art books.
This tiny island has a two-fold history, first as a quarry for high-quality granite that was used to build the walls of Osaka and Okayama castles, and then, from 1909, as the site of a copper refinery. Crumbling smoke stacks and buck- ling black brick structures tell the story of an operation that failed due to falling copper prices and explain the island’s current population of just 50 people.
Under the auspices of Benesse, the refinery has been re-purposed as the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum. Like a hermit crab coiling into a new shell, the museum has achieved its architect Hiroshi Sambuichi’s goal of “using what exists to create what is to be” with minimal environmental impact.
Several Art Houses, most pur- pose-built to display installations, are covered under Inujima’s single-entry ticket. Notable ones include Haruka Kojin’s “contact lens”, a cleverly named series of reflective acrylic circles that render the island’s last village homes in various permutations and inverses, and Chinatsu Shimodaira’s “Ether,” where yellow threads pierce an interior space like shafts of light.
5. Megijima and Ogijima
Both of these small islands host a scattering of art projects, and can be accessed easily in a single day. On Megijima, Takahito Kimura’s “Sea Gulls Parking Lot”, a flock of over 100 lightweight seagull weathervanes, swing in unison in the bracing sea breeze as though welcoming travellers.
On Ogijima, Spanish artist Jaume Plensa’s “Ogijima’s Soul”, a lacy roof of letters and characters, covers the port building like a clamshell, and a short walk along the beach brings you to Keisuke Yamaguchi’s “Walking Ark”, a chorus line of white legs carrying islands to the sea. Walking this island feels like going back to a quieter, gentler time; tiled-roof homes cling to the steep hillside, cats follow visitors down narrow walkways and aside from the sound of waves, there is only the cry of sea hawks soaring over- head. The natural beauty and slow pace here are gentle reminders that life itself can be art