Exploring Japan’s Art Islands

In Japan’s Shikoku Region, three-and-a-half hours west of Osaka, lie the island’s of Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima in The Seto Inland Sea. This collection of islands is the home of the Benesse Art Site, a rare artistic and architectural mecca set amongst nature and rural life.  

Once home to fruit farms, a Mitsubishi parts plant, and an unfortunate toxic waste scandal, the islands have since been transformed, thanks to the shared vision of Chikatsuyu Miyake (the previous mayor of Naoshima) and Tetsuhiko Fukutake (the founder of Fukutake Publishing). Together, in 1985, the business men opted to create an educational and cultural center on the south side of Naoshima.

In an interview entitled “Why I Brought Art to Naoshima,” Fukutake tells Destig Magazine: “I want to connect these sorts of cities [large metropolises] with unique, nature-rich islands through the medium of contemporary art, which bears a message for modern society. In doing so, it is my wish to foster mutual interaction between urban and rural areas, the elderly and the young, men and women, and residents and visitors. By discovering each other’s qualities, I believe that both sides can develop a sound mutual understanding and acceptance.”

Since the 1985 conception of the Benesse Art Site, 26 structures spanning three islands are visited by art lovers every year. While the majority of Japan’s rural areas struggle economically with populations on the decline due to Japan’s decreasing population and individual shifts to city life, the Art Islands have reached a sustainable populous. International visitors bring significant business to the local economy, while the islands draw many of Japan’s artistic youth to work the various sites.

Naoshima, the largest of the three islands, offers the Chichu Art Museum where underground architecture by Tadao Ando provides a stunning backdrop to the installations of James Turrell, Walter De Maria, and a jaw dropping installation of Claude Monet’s water lilies. The Benesse House Museum, also designed by Ando, sits high above the sea on the island’s south bank and features painting, sculpture, photography, and site-specific installations. Additionally, the Ando-designed, Lee Ufton Museum, completed in 2010, shows the impressive works of the Korean contemporary artist, Lee Ufan.

Naoshima’s Honmura Village is home to the Art House Project where traditional Japanese homes and shrines have been converted into art themselves. Here you can visit seven sites which include Minamidera, an interactive installation by James Turrell and Tadao Ando, as well as Kinza, a commentary of the pre-existing connections of time and nature by Rei Naito.

The island also offers a spattering of sculptures (the most popular being two large pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama) and the Naoshima Bath House, created by artist Shinro Ohtake, which provides the perfect wind-down for tired sightseeing bodies.

While visitors might have a difficult time squeezing all of Naoshima’s offerings into a single day, nearby Teshima in a day feels much more achievable with just nine sites. Teshima’s main draws are the Teshima Art Museum (an architectural feat by artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa which shows structural biomimicry at its finest), Teshima’s Yokoo House by Tadanori Yokoo that will transport you into a Japanese wonderland, and Les Archives du Coeur by Christian Boltanski, which houses the audio of heartbeats from millions of people around the world — they’ll even let you record your own to add to the collection!

The smallest of the three islands, Inujima maintains just three sites: the Inujima Life Garden by Kazuyo Sejima+AkaruiheyaInujima, the Seirensho Art Museum by Yukinori Yanagi, and the Seaside Inujima Gallery by Fiona Tan whose video work shows the island landscape and locals taking part in their every day lives.

While visiting all 26 structures on all three islands may take a few days, it’s worth it considering the amount of knowledge, art, and perspective you’ll gain — true Japanese island style!

Tresa Palmer is an interior designer and writer originally from Portland, now based in Los Angeles. After receiving her Bachelors in Merchandising Management from OSU, Tresa interned with By Malene Birger and Inexcess Fashion in London before moving to Sydney to work for the National Rugby League. Recently, Tresa completed her Certificate of Design from UCLA’s Extension School and is currently studying for her Masters in Interior Architecture from Cal Poly Pomona.

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