If you could only visit one more overseas destination in your lifetime, where would it be? For me, it would be the Setouchi Islands in the Seto Inland Sea. There, three innovative contemporary art sites hide amid some of the prettiest scenery in Japan

In Japan, aesthetics are everything. From the orderly presentation of bento boxes to intricate commercial packaging and kawaii (cute) restaurant-front mascots, everywhere you look you’ll find fun, quirky and just-so-very pretty visuals.

So it should come as no surprise that the Japanese love art. Contemporary art, in particular. For anyone with a passion for art and architecture, the islands of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea are a travel fantasy come true. Once home to heavy industry, such as salt mines and copper smelters, the islands of Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima are now dotted with modern art museums and multi-media installations spread out between tiny townships, verdant rice paddies and wooded national parkland.

I’ve wanted to experience Japan’s art islands for many years, and I am filled with excitement as my ferry pulls into Miyanoura Port on the island of Naoshima, where I am greeted by my first piece of playful art – a large, red polka-dotted pumpkin designed by eccentric Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

Later, as I am driven by minibus towards my hotel on the other side of the island, I spot another giant Kusama pumpkin, this time bright yellow and plonked at the end of a mist-shrouded pier. It is possibly the most photographed sculpture on the island.

Benesse House Museum. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Benesse House Museum. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

I’m staying at Benesse House Park Hotel, one of four boutique hotels associated with the Benesse House Museum art gallery (which also has accommodation, but it is far out of my budget). The Benesse properties were designed by architect Tadao Ando, who also designed many of the gallery spaces on Naoshima. They include a concrete cubiform museum dedicated to Ando’s own career; a bunker-like museum housing works by Korean artist Lee Ufan; and the Chichu Art Museum, a monumental concrete structure holding pieces by James Turrell and Walter De Maria. There’s also a room full of Monets that gallery-goers must visit in silence, wearing the soft cloth slippers provided.

Chichu Art Museum is one of many buildings by architect Tadao Ando on Naoshima. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Chichu Art Museum is one of many buildings by architect Tadao Ando on Naoshima. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Benesse House Park Hotel allows its guests late-night, private access to its Museum, so that’s where I head on my first night, roaming the gallery alone before tucking in to an eight-course degustation in the Museum’s impressive restaurant, Japanese Issen. Even the meal is an artwork.

It begins with a pretty plated assortment of watershield dressed in sour sauce, eel rolled in kelp, prawn, wakame seaweed with herring roe, horse bean, sweet potato, red konjac and squid. After seguing into sashimi plates and turtle custard, dinner ends with a grapefruit jelly craftily set into a segment of fresh grapefruit skin.

Diinner at Japanese Issen. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Diinner at Japanese Issen. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

The next morning, I take advantage of the hotel’s courtesy van, which travels between galleries and the port, and I hop off at the town of Honmura, where seven of its traditional, 200-year-old timber houses have been converted into art installations. Armed with a map of the Art House Project, in which empty townhouses have been transformed into living artworks, I wander tiny alleyways to stumble upon each art house.

One of them is inhabited by a replica Statue of Liberty and another by a pool of flashing LED numbers, installed by the artist with the help of local residents, who set the pulse rate for each one. My favourite installation, Back Side of the Moon, is by James Turrell, and involves blindly entering a pitch-black house with the aid of a guide to help you to a seat. You must wait for your eyes to slowly adjust to the darkness for the artwork to be slowly revealed.

James Turrell's Dark Side of the Moon. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
James Turrell’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

I allow half a day each to visit Inujima and Teshima by ferry. On Inujima, there’s a smattering of art houses as well as Inujima Sheirensho Art Museum, which is built within the remains of a copper refinery, complete with crumbling smoke stacks.

Its artworks include one inspired by classic Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who warned of the potential negative effects of Japan’s flirtation with Western-style industrialisation. Doors and window frames taken from Mishima’s former home are suspended in mid-air, while in a separate room, blood-red letters from his writings drip in digital mayhem down a traditional lacquer screen. As an avid reader, I’ve loved Mishima’s novels (Confessions of a Mask; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) so I was awestruck to be confronted with these evocative, living reminders of a brilliant writer (and actor) who met his end in 1970 in an act of ritual suicide.

Everything about Inujima is, in fact, forceful, starting with your entry to the art museum. You enter through the basement and follow a series of short, dark hallways with cobbled floors and low ceilings, which branch perpendicularly off each other, around and around in a seeming spiral. It’s a disorienting sound-and-video installation: in front of you, a horrifying burning orb glows at the end of the corridor, dripping and spitting fire, while a ferocious din blasts your ear drums. Apparently, you are looking at and hearing a copper smelter in action, but you may as well be about to crash-land on the sun.

Perhaps you'd like to see a pretty landscape after that last paragraph. I know I would! Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Perhaps you’d like to see a pretty landscape after that last paragraph. I know I would! Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

On Teshima, local buses drop off visitors to three main art spaces. Teshima Art Museum is an eggshell-like structure seemingly embedded into a hill – a collaboration between artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa. Visitors can sit inside the breezy, delicate white space and watch slow-moving pools of water form across the subtly sloping floor, while changing light can be seen in the sky through two oval openings. It is a quiet, reflective space.

There’s another private house-cum-art installation here too, Teshima Yokoo House, whose interplay between art and architecture include mirrored reflections and projection. But perhaps the most inspiring artwork of all, for me, sits quietly in a remote beachfront shack.

Even the gift store at Teshima Art Museum looks like an otherworldly egg has descended upon the landscape. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Even the gift store at Teshima Art Museum looks like an otherworldly egg has descended upon the landscape. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

French artist Christian Boltanski’s Les Archives du Coeur is a three-room installation whose full impact is felt by moving from space to space. The first room is called Heart Room, where light bulbs flash in time to amplified heartbeats. Next there is a listening room, where you can search through an archive of sounds made up of strangers’ pulses. When I move on to the final room, I record my own heartbeat and add a message for the archive.

I feel incredibly moved by all this. That evening, I’m told that locals often come here to listen to the heartbeats of relatives who have passed away, and my eyes well with tears. Not only was my favourite art piece a very cool place to visit, it is a beautiful memorial.

Naoshima's streets are lined with historic timber homes. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Naoshima’s streets are lined with historic timber homes. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

While you’re here

EAT > Shioya Diner: Located in an alley across from the ferry terminal at Miyanoura Port, this 1950s-style diner serves up root beer, hot dogs and American barbecue. It’s an amazing find, and you can read all about it here

BATHE > Naoshima Bathhouse “i ❤ yu”

Also near the ferry terminal, this bathhouse designed by Shinro Ohtake is packed with colourful murals and artworks, including a rather voyeuristic elephant. You’ll know it by the giant neon “truck lady” out front. Find out more here

LEARN THE HISTORY > To understand the art projects of Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima, purchase the book Insular Insight: Where Art and Architecture Conspire with Nature from museum gift shops when you are there. The Benesse Foundation’s incredible projects have reinvigorated a region that was foundering thanks to the end of industry – all the young people were leaving, and the older citizens had nowhere to work. Not only has the area been given new life through art, but agricultural projects such as rice fields are giving the elderly community both income and a sense of purpose. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone interested in discovering how a society can change for the better through diversification. Buy it here

An ice-cream stall on Naoshima. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
An ice-cream stall on Naoshima. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Where to stay

LUXE: Benesse House has a choice of four accommodation types on Naoshima, with complementary mini-bus access to museums. For more information and to book go here

BUDGET: Naoshima has plenty of more affordable accommodation options, including hostels, locally rented rooms and, er, yurts. To find one that is right for you, go to naoshima.net/en

Note: This story originally appeared in Jetstar Australia’s inflight magazine

Go-o Shrine is a Buddhist temple with an arty conversion – crystal stairs that continue through the ground and into the basement space. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Go-o Shrine is a Buddhist temple with an arty conversion – crystal stairs that continue through the ground and into the basement space. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
A sneaky peek into a Naoshima resident's private garden. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
A sneaky peek into a Naoshima resident’s private garden. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Concrete and lawn: two of Tadao Ando's architectural devices converge at Chichu Art Museum. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Concrete and plants: two of Tadao Ando’s architectural devices converge at Chichu Art Museum. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Inujima's broken brick ruins sit above one of the most interesting art galleries in the world. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Inujima’s broken brick ruins sit above one of the most interesting art galleries in the world. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles