The Seto Inland Sea is home to thousands of islands of varying sizes and human habitation. The cluster of three in particular—Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima—are highly frequented due to their striking modern outdoor art installations, the array of international artworks housed in their museums, and the famous architectural feats of both. Additional temporary artworks are displayed during the Setouchi Triennale, boosting visitor numbers even more.
Japan’s predominant religion is Shintoism. One affirmation is to hold nature sacred. This sensitivity to, and honoring of, the natural environment is evidenced when you walk in and around the elegant spaces and traverse the open-air gallery formed by the art islands.
Says self-taught Japanese architect and 1995 Pritzker Prize winner, Tadao Ando in an ArchEyes interview, “You cannot simply put something new into a place. You have to absorb what you see around you, what exists on the land, and then use that knowledge along with contemporary thinking to interpret what you see.”
The best point of departure to any of the three Japan Art Islands is from Okayama city, in the serene Okayama Prefecture, on the major island of Honshu. The order of your visit is up to you, but to visit all three is, well, imperative!
Naoshima Island: Busy and Beautiful
Yayoi Kusama’s landmark six-by-eight foot yellow polka dot outdoor sculpture, Pumpkin (1994), was thrashed from its moorings on the pier at Benesse House Museum in Naoshima town during August 2021’s Typhoon Lupit.
Not photographed so prolifically across social media, there is still Kusama’s red pumpkin—easily spotted as you arrive at Miyanoura Port and which you can clamber up or duck inside—offering you some photographic satiation.
The Chichu Art Museum (2004) is a Tadao Ando architectural masterpiece. It’s built into the top of a hillside to form an underground gallery, with courtyards and skylights that illuminate the artworks with natural light, this light modulating as the sun orbits.
On permanent display are pieces by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria. Turrell’s piece, Open Sky (2004), can be viewed at sunset. He uses light as his medium —and the results are spectacular. Meanwhile, the colorful cluster of plant- and tree-types in the Chichu Gardens en route painstakingly reflect those that appear in Monet’s work.
Also designed by Ando, the Lee Ufan Museum (2010) is a collaboration between the architect and Ufan, a Korean-born contemporary artist and primary figure in the minimalistic Mono-ha movement. The result is a semi-subterranean museum, the large stone, concrete and iron slab installations offering a phenomenal place of contemplation on where natural and industrial materials meet.
A third Ando gem is the Benesse House Museum (1992). It integrates a museum and hotel, and conveys the concurrence of nature, architecture, and art.
I Love Yu (2009) is a public bath house created by Shinro Ohtake and forms part of the Art House Project (1998), a collection of seven abandoned houses converted into outdoor installations by artists and architects from Japan and abroad. Ohtake has incorporated recycled items in his acclaimed scrapbook-type style and the result is a colorful, eclectic collage.
Teshima Island: Rural and Relevant
Teshima is just 5.6 square miles (14.5 square kilometers), with a forested 1,115-foot (340-meter) high mountain in its middle. The road that traces its 11-mile (17.7-mile) circumference connects the outdoor installations and galleries located in the two small ports of Ieura and Karato, and the villages of Suzuri and Kou.
With the building resembling the moment a water droplet lands on a solid surface, the Teshima Art Museum is an architectural wonder and collaboration between Japanese sculptor Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa.
Set among the terraced rice paddies, it is also directly connected to the outside elements via two elliptical openings. Here, light, sound, wind, the weather, and often bugs, enter the gallery space formed below a 10-inch (25.4-centimeter) thick, white, concrete shell. Here, you can witness the continuous flow of water as it ‘springs’ from various points. It’s a feat melding the man-made with nature, and marking the seasons and the flow of time.
To experience the very beginning of the water cycle, when the water initially trickles out at the start of each day, reserve your spot by registering no later than 8:45 a.m. for the special morning viewing program.
Wondering how to get around Teshima Island while you’re there? Two words: electric bicycle! Quantities of these local ‘pedelecs’ are limited, so it’s best to prebook yours from either Ieura or Karato before travelling.
Inujima Island: Small and Special
Named after a rock resembling a sitting dog (inu), Inujima is so small, you can only traverse it on foot (it’s flat too). There are two must-sees and one must-eat: Takomeshi, a local rice-with-octopus dish.
The smoke stacks that reach towards the sky are reminders of the island’s history. After serving as a base for marauding pirates, a copper refinery was built in 1909. Unfortunately, within a decade the seirensho closed and the population also dwindled drastically.
Almost a century later, the refinery remains were converted into an eco-building, the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum, with a gallery that blends into the ruins and is mostly underground. The four spaces rely wholly on the elements to moderate internal light and temperature. It’s remarkable, and so on-point with the climate crisis we face.
For the Inujima Art House Project (2010), all five galleries were designed by architect Kazuyo Sejima and they won her the Pritzker Prize in 2010. They are dotted around the village and configured to allow for any art piece or art work to be aesthetically and easily installed, and to also easily blend in with everyday life of the locals.
S-Art House is a pavilion made from acrylic. Art patron Soichiro Fukutake, curator Yuko Hasegawa, and the architect Sejima imagined an equilibrium between space, art, and the natural environment. And, this is it.
Learn more about the unique art and culture you can find in the Land of the Rising Sun with Japan Travel Guide.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.