A Taste of Japan's Art Islands and Where to Stay
Japan’s “art islands”, spread throughout Japan's Seto Inland Sea, are nothing short of magical, home to stunning views and inspiring nature because of their art. Known colloquially as the "Art Islands", they present a unique fusion between world-class art and Japanese regionalism. You won't find anywhere else quite like it, and visitors often leave inspired, changed, and wanting to go back.
The islands' transformation into an art hub dates back to the 1980s when a local businessman, a head of a publishing company, and the mayor of Naoshima (one of the islands) had a shared vision. They both wanted to revitalize the islands from their former industrial (copper smelting was a big industry) and polluted past into an educational and cultural combination between nature and art. The development has had a relationship with well-known Japanese architect Tadao Ando right from the start, and he has designed many of the buildings, art installations, and museums on the island.
Today, names like Claude Monet, James Turrell, Yayoi Kusama, Walter De Maria, and more have become associated with the islands. The works of emerging Asian artists are also exhibited on the islands, and even more so during the Setouchi Art Triennale.
The first Setouchi Triennale was held in 2010 with the theme of “Restoration of the Sea” and was held across seven of the area's islands, including Naoshima, Teshima, Megijima, Ogijima, Shodoshima, Oshima, and Inujima as well as Takamatsu Port (on Shikoku). The Trienalle focused on traditions specific to the history and lives of each island's inhabitants.
Subsequent Triennales included additional islands and are typically more than 100 days long and spread over three different seasons. Each Triennale showcases a variety of contemporary art, including installations, performances, and sculptures, while also encouraging visitors to explore the natural beauty of the Setouchi region. The event has become a major tourist attraction, drawing visitors from all over Japan and worldwide to experience this unparalleled blend of artistic expression and nature.
This sentiment is reflected in part of the Triennale's mission statement; "Through the Setouchi Triennale, we aim to revitalize island communities that once thrived within the spectacular setting of the Seto Inland Sea, a nexus of trade and cultural exchange, and transform this region into a Sea of Hope for the world."
Getting to know the Islands
All in all, there are 12 islands with artworks. All are worth taking the time to explore. However, first-time visitors often focus on the biggest of the islands, including, Naoshima, Teshima, Inujima, and Shodoshima.
All can easily be accessed from Takamatsu Port on Shikoku or Uno Port on the mainland, depending on how you plan your stay. Here we'll introduce some of the main islands as well as a sampling of accommodation options on the most frequented islands and ports. Before heading to any of the islands, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the many ferry schedules. Weather can sometimes lead to cancellations of certain routes so it's worth planning ahead.
Naoshima is probably the most famous of the islands, as a lot of the first artworks developed by the Benesse Art Foundation began there. If you only have time to visit one of the islands, let this be the one.
One of the most iconic art installations on Naoshima is the "Pumpkin" by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama who is known for incorporating dots into her artwork. There are actually two pumpkins. A red one which you can actually walk inside, that sits near the port and ferry terminal, and a yellow one by the shore of the island's Benesse Art Site, overlooking the sea.
Unfortunately, a typhoon blew the yellow pumpkin out to sea, and it was damaged until being replaced only recently in October 2022. The sculptures have become synonymous with Naoshima and as symbols of the art islands in general.
Another breathtaking museum on the island is the Chichu Art Museum, designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando. The museum is built into the hillside overlooking the sea, blending seamlessly into the natural surroundings. The museum's collection includes works by famous artists such as Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria. One of the most memorable exhibitions in the museum is Turrell's "Open Sky", a room designed to create an immersive experience of the sky and the changing light throughout the day.
Another museum that should not be missed is the Lee Ufan Museum, which houses a collection of works by the Korean artist. The museum is situated in a tranquil setting, surrounded by a bamboo forest and overlooking the sea. The works on display are minimalistic, with a focus on the relationship between man, nature, and the universe.
The Art House Project is another must-see on Naoshima. This project aims to revitalize old, abandoned houses on the island and turn them into unique art spaces. Each house has been transformed by a different artist, creating a diverse range of installations and experiences. The Art House Project includes works by artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tatsuo Miyajima, and Rei Naito.
Where to stay
1. Benesse House
If you can afford to, staying at Benesse House is a special place and an experience you’ll never forget. Opened in 1992, the space is part museum, part accommodation. There are four different accommodations; The Museum, Oval, Park, and Beach.
Architect Tadao Ando also makes an appearance here, having designed all of the structures. There are nearly twenty installations dotted around the lawns, beaches, and cliff edges. With on-site restaurants, cafes, and shops, one can easily lose track of time here. Hotel guests also have 24-hour access to the museum, spa facilities, as well as a free shuttle bus service between galleries. The hotel is in high demand and can often book up quickly, so be sure to plan ahead and reserve in advance.
2. MY LODGE
MY LODGE was newly built in April 2020 and is a good mid-range option. This cozy accommodation boasts a unique MUJI House design and provides the perfect place to unwind.
The lodge is located just a four-minute walk from the Naoshima Pavilion and features 16 rooms, all with beautiful sea views and decorated with unique artworks. Plus, with a restaurant on-site called "Luke's Table," guests can enjoy a slow-cooked menu with French-inspired offerings.
And if that's not enough to win you over, MY LODGE Naoshima is also home to three adorable cats. So, whether you're exploring the island's art installations or simply looking to relax and take in the stunning views, MY LODGE Naoshima has everything you need for a memorable stay.
3. Naoshima Tsutsujiso Lodge
If you're looking for a more affordable and rustic experience in Naoshima, you won't want to miss out on the charming Naoshima Tsutsujiso lodge. This option is located just a stone's throw from the famous yellow pumpkin sculpture.
Here, guests have their pick from unique Mongolian yurts nestled right on the beach, cozy mobile homes, or a traditional Japanese cottage. Each yurt can comfortably accommodate up to four guests, complete with a mini-fridge, a powerful space heater, and plenty of extra blankets for those chilly ocean breezes at night. And when it's time to eat, guests can choose from a delicious winter or summer menu perfectly tailored to the season.
Shodoshima is the second largest island in the Seto Inland Sea and is known for its scenic beauty, olive groves, and soy sauce production.
The island also has numerous installations and museums showcasing both local and international artists. Since the island is so large, there is a lot of art to see, spread out and centered amongst the island's various ports. A complete list of the artworks on the island can be found here, but some highlights include the Art House Project, created under the same concept as the other islands but with a particular connection to Tokyo.
The Meiro no Machi (Town of Labyrinths) is an interactive art installation in the town of Tonosho you can't miss. The installation features a series of interconnected mazes, each with a unique theme or challenge. Visitors can explore the labyrinthine paths, solve puzzles, and enjoy the colorful artwork that adorn the walls.
Where to stay
To make the most of your island-hopping adventure, we've rounded up some fantastic lodging options near the port that will keep you conveniently close to the action.
1. Kokumin Shokusha Shodoshima
Perched on a hill overlooking Shodoshima Furusato Village and the Seto Inland Sea, Kokumin Shokusha Shodoshima is a serene inn that offers panoramic views and comfortable accommodations.
Located just a five-minute drive from Ikeda Port, the inn boasts a hot spring observatory bath that affords spectacular sunset views and a banquet hall that can accommodate up to 100 people.
Guests can indulge in the Shodoshima olive hot spring "Shimanoyado Bijin no Yu" and take advantage of the inn's gymnasium, tennis court, and outdoor grounds. The cuisine, which focuses on local ingredients, is a favorite among guests, and the inn offers special rooms with breathtaking views of the Seto Inland Sea, Western-style and Japanese-style rooms, and barrier-free rooms.
Whether gazing at the sparkling sea, watching one of Japan's top 100 sunsets, or taking in the moon and stars, Kokumin Shukusha Shodoshima is the perfect place to relax and unwind.
2. Bay Resort Hotel Shodoshima
Experience the surreal beauty of the Kankakei Gorge and the Seto Inland Sea from the comfort of your own room at Bay Resort Hotel Shodoshima. Each spacious room is adorned with Oriental decor and comes with a stunning view of the sea.
The public bathing area includes an open-air hot spring bath and private baths that can be reserved for a fee. Indulge in a dinner buffet of Western or Japanese dishes made from fresh seafood and locally made key seasonings such as olive oil and soy sauce. Guests can also rent yukatas in various colors. The hotel is conveniently located just a three-minute drive from Sakate Port or a 10-minute drive from Kusakabe Port.
1. Uno Port Inn
Uno Port Inn is the perfect accommodation option for those looking for a taste of old-school Japan. Originally built in 1983 as Utsumi Ryokan, it served as a stay for workers from nearby refineries and shipyards.
Today, Uno Port Inn preserves the original details of the Showa-era building, from low-height doors to a series of fusuma sliding doors, while offering guests the comfort of modern amenities such as new bathrooms. Each room is named after a respected filmmaker who lived during the Showa era, adding to the experience of feeling like you're in a classic Japanese movie. The inn is conveniently located near Uno Port, making it an easy port option for visiting the art islands, and is easily accessible from Okayama by train.
2. Takamatsu Port
JR Hotel Clement Takamatsu the perfect midrange option for those wanting to stay on Shikoku, get a taste of Takamatsu proper, and still visit the art islands (Takamatsu port is one of the ports with the most ferry options).
The hotel features stunning panoramic views of the Seto Inland Sea and Takamatsu City. With 18 types of guest rooms, including Western-style rooms with beds, Japanese tatami rooms, and luxury suites, there's no shortage of options to choose from. When it comes to dining, the hotel has a range on offer too, including a cafe, steakhouse, Japanese restaurant, Chinese restaurant, French restaurant, a bar on the 21st floor, and a bakery.
A brief look at Teshima and Inujima
Now that we have two of the main islands covered, here are some highlights from the other two:
Teshima is best known for the Teshima Art Museum, which was designed by architect Ryue Nishizawa and houses just a single piece of artwork by artist Rei Naito. The island also features a number of other art installations, including the "Teshima Yokoo House," which was created by artist Tadanori Yokoo and Les Archives du Cœur, which is an audio installation created by the French artist Christian Boltanski that consists of a collection of recorded heartbeats from people around the world.
Inujima is home to the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum, which is housed in a restored copper refinery. The museum features contemporary art installations and exhibitions related to the island's industrial heritage. Other notable installations on the island include the Inujima "Art House Project", a series of art installations located in traditional Japanese houses.