The Art Islands of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea

Yayoi Kusama’s iconic “Yellow Pumpkin” on the island of Naoshima. Photo by Diane Lopez.

In the late 20th century, a handful of people initiated an effort to revitalize the communities on the islands of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, whose populations were shrinking as young people left for jobs and cities. The project — to make the islands centers of modern art — took off and paid off. Today, several of the islands have innovative art museums and year-round art installations that annually draw a million tourists. Every three years, a dozen of them host the Setouchi Triennale, a festival exhibiting the work of artists from all over the world. It’s happening now and continues for most of 2019….

Ferry to the art islands from Takamatsu where we are staying

We planned our path through Japan around this festival and it’s been a wonderful way to see art and also the islands. We are staying in the large commercial city of Takamatsu on the big island of Shikoku, where a system of ferries shuttles passengers and vehicles to and from the smaller islands.  Bonus points for the region’s famous udon noodle dishes!

We started our Setouchi Triennale tour on the island of Teshima to its see famous museum (thanks for the tip, Sarah!). The Teshima Musuem is one work, an elliptical structure with large elliptical openings to the wildness outside. There are starring roles for trickles of water, echoes and silence, and a sense of being suspended in time. Sharing the space with dozens of other people somehow added to the richness of the experience, as if everyone together felt every kind of wonder.

Teshima Museum, from a photo sold at the museum.

The Chichu Museum on the island of Naoshima is also architecturally fascinating. Its art works drew us in, including an exhibit of four waterlily paintings by Claude Monet. The other exhibits are conceptual, surprising and confusing, in a good way.

“La Foret des Murmures” by Christian Boltanski

Although I loved the museums, honestly–and I know this won’t make me popular in the arts community where I don’t expect to be noticed anyway–I was disappointed with most of the art installations for the festival. For me, there are two ways to appreciate a piece of art: either the artwork itself tells a story or a person does, usually in something written for the exhibit. Most of the installations did not speak to me in either of these ways, and many seemed like superficial presentations of predictable themes.

But there were some installations I loved. On the island of Teshima, hundreds of small brass temple bells hung from metal posts in a forest of delicate young trees. Attached to the bell clappers were the names of dead loved ones, which caused the bells to ring in the forest breeze. The work was a pleasing reference to Buddhist temple traditions.

Yayoi Kusama’s “Red Pumpkin” on Naoshima is as Japanese as the country’s national flag. Admirers climbed in it, hugged it, laughed at it. Or with it I think. Eighty-nine year old Kusama has been called “the world’s favorite artist.”  Her “Yellow Pumpkin” has become a symbol of Naoshima’s success efforts to establish itself as a world-class center of the arts.

The little island of Ogijima, population 200, has a special kind of energy. Your arrival feels celebrated by Jaume Plensa’s “Ogijima’s Soul,” a small terminal building that seems to ready to float away like a snowflake. The roof is made of letters from the alphabets of the world, suggesting the way language elevates us as a global community.

My favorite work was also in Ogijima’s port. “Takotsuboru” is a giant clay pot like those Japanese fishers have traditionally used to catch octopus. Installed to attract children, it attracts a steady stream of adults. This symbol of island culture is understated yet dramatic, lovable and touchable.

“Catching Octopus” by Team Ogi

Although we visited the islands to see the art, we loved the islands themselves, and all of their non-festival but very artistic “permanent installations.”




    1. There is lots here on the island of Shokoku to return to, including a 700 mile “Temple Walk” (which you can do using wheels without cheating). I met a Canadian woman on the train who did it solo in 31 days.

  1. What a fun trip, Kim! Are you spending any time in Tokyo? My pen pal
    has a solo exhibition there now of her avant garde calligraphy.

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