Exploring Japan’s Art Islands

A. D. McCormick
9 min readMay 21, 2023

Discover Naoshima and its art-infused neighbors in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.

Miyanoura Port on Naoshima. Photo: A. D. McCormick.

You can’t just stroll into James Turrell’s installation Backside of the Moon on Naoshima. Stepping out of the summer glare, you’ll feel your way along the wall as you carefully navigate a series of sharp turns, plunging into total darkness. You’ll sit alongside your fellow art pilgrims, trying not to bump into anyone. And then, once you’ve settled into your spot on the invisible bench, you’ll wait for the art to emerge from the nothingness that confronts you.

Gradually, your eyes will adjust, revealing a ghostly portal that seems to hover at the other end of the space. But it takes several long minutes for your eyes to cooperate, and until then you are left with your thoughts in the stillness of the dimensionless room. It’s at moments of quiet like these, frequent and sublime on Naoshima, that you reflect on where you are — a little island in western Japan — and how unlikely it is that all of this amazing artwork can be found here.

Outside Minamidera, which houses James Turrell’s installation “Backside of the Moon” (1999). Photo: A. D. McCormick

Passing it on the ferry, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish Naoshima from its many neighbors: clusters of forested mountains jutting out of the sea, with sleepy villages here and there. But among the Seto Inland Sea’s 3,000 islands, the art islands are in a category unto themselves. They represent a growing phenomenon, a flourishing of contemporary art and architecture set against spectacular scenery. From tiny islands with a handful of residents to large islands with tons to see and do, each art island offers a unique experience to visitors, often blending contemporary art with ancient cultural traditions.

The story of the art islands began on Naoshima, where the Benesse House Museum opened in 1992. Stemming from a visionary collaboration between the long-time mayor Chikatsugu Miyake, businessman Soichiro Fukutake, and architect Tadao Ando, the project sought to unify art, architecture, and nature, offering a novel alternative to the urban museum experience.

Yayoi Kusama’s sculpture “Pumpkin” (1994) made international headlines when it was swept into the sea by a typhoon in 2021. It has been reinstalled. Photo: A. D. McCormick

As it spread across Naoshima in the late 1990s and then on to neighboring islands in the new millennium, the project took increasingly radical turns: A series of art installations in old houses. A museum built entirely underground. A “museum” consisting of one ultra-minimalist (and utterly mesmerizing) water effect inside an enormous, undulating concrete bubble. In 2010, the Setouchi Triennale debuted, an island-hopping art festival that has since grown to include twelve islands, plus art on nearby mainland ports. (Setouchi is the Japanese name for the Seto Inland Sea region.)

In this guide, dive into the wonderful art and architecture on Naoshima, where it all began, with some asides about four neighboring art islands that are worth checking out as well. While the Setouchi Triennale is a popular time to visit the islands, you don’t have to wait for the next one in 2025 to have a magical experience in Setouchi. With that in mind, this is not a Setouchi Triennale guide, but a general guide to the sights you can find here anytime, though the information in this guide applies to festival years as well.

Naoshima

Naoshima is a small island in the eastern Seto Inland Sea, halfway between Hiroshima and Osaka. It has been the site of major art-related development since the early 1990s and now hosts several museums by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando. The island’s art collection includes major work by such household names as Claude Monet, James Turrell, Yayoi Kusama, and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. Other highlights include artworks taking the forms of a functioning bathhouse and a Shinto shrine, blurring the boundary between art and life. Its troupe of all-women bunraku puppeteers is unique to Naoshima.

“The Naoshima Plan ‘The Water’” is part of a series of architectural works by Hiroshi Sambuichi on Naoshima. On hot days, visitors can cool their feet in water pumped from an underground aquifer. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Despite its small size, Naoshima has a surprisingly varied mix of cafes and restaurants, featuring local fish burgers, artisan pizza and gelato, as well as classic Japanese fare like sushi and okonomiyaki. Visitors who spend the night on Naoshima can choose from luxury rooms on the museum grounds, traditional guesthouses, or even Mongolian yurts on the island’s southern shore.

While the north side of the island holds a sprawling factory campus, the southern end is lush and green, with nice beaches and a few hidden nature trails. The island’s ports also offer direct connections to two neighboring “art islands,” Teshima and Inujima.

What to do

The main attraction on Naoshima is its collection of art museums. These are the highlights.

The entrance to Chichu Art Museum. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Chichu Art Museum
“Chichu” means “underground,” and the museum lives up to its name: cavernous concrete spaces cut into the mountain, with galleries devoted to Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria. It is an utterly unique environment, windowless save for large openings to the sky above. The museum is mostly lit by nature, so your experience changes based on the season. For example, in the Monet room, a series of the artist’s water lily paintings representing different weather-moods (gloomy overcast, cheerful springtime) are further augmented by the indirect daylight filtering down from above. [Official website]

Kadoya, one-seventh of Naoshima’s Art House Project, contains the installation “Sea of Time” (1998, 2018) by Tatsuo Miyajima.

Art House Project
A former dentist’s office, a former wealthy salt merchant’s home, the site of a former temple — once abandoned, now reborn as artwork. Art House Project is a collection of seven traditional houses and religious sites in Honmura that were renovated to marvelous effect by renowned artists and architects. A glass staircase at Go’o shrine descends to a secret cavern underground; a waterfall mural in a former storeroom reflects magically in the lacquered floor; and a James Turrell artwork at Minamidera emerges from the darkness as your eyes slowly adjust. [Official website]

Benesse House Museum. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Benesse House Museum
The museum that started it all when it opened in 1992, Benesse House Museum displays a small but dazzling collection of artworks by renowned international and Japanese artists. Permanent features include 100 Live and Die (1984), a monolithic Bruce Naumann neon installation centered within a circular, two-story atrium, as well as several large, site-specific works by Yukinori Yanagi, Richard Long, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Other artwork in rotation includes paintings by David Hockney, Andy Warhol, and Gerhard Richter. [Official website]

“Narcissus Garden” by Yayoi Kusama at Valley Gallery. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Valley Gallery
Naoshima’s newest gallery opened in 2022. It’s a small Tadao Ando-designed space that is open to the elements, nestled in a valley behind a small pond. Currently its angled walls host Yayoi Kusama’s infamous Narcissus Garden artwork, originally conceived in the 1960s. Hundreds of polished steel spheres not only fill the gallery but spill out onto the surrounding grounds and float whimsically in the pond. Also on display is Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s Slag Buddhas 88 installation, featuring holy figures cast from industrial waste. Admission is complimentary for Benesse House Museum visitors. [Official website]

Miyanoura Gallery 6. The gallery is the site of a long-term project by artist Motoyuki Shitamichi. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Miyanoura Gallery 6
Formerly the island’s lone pachinko parlor, the vacant space was converted into a gallery by architect Taira Nishizawa, and since 2019 has been the site of an ongoing project by artist Motoyuki Shitamichi. Shitamichi’s project, titled Setouchi “ “ Archive, is a living laboratory and a unique example of socially engaged art on Naoshima. Rotating exhibits document aspects of the region’s history, with past iterations focusing on tourism, industry, and local photographers. [Official website]

Naoshima Bath “I♥湯”. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Naoshima Bath “I♥湯”
Take a bath with the locals in one of the weirdest and most-cherished pieces of art in the region. The creation of artist Shinro Ohtake, I♥湯 is a public bathhouse near the island’s main port in Miyanoura. The title for the facility is pronounced “I Love Yu,” with yu the Japanese word for hot water. The building’s exterior is a riot of clashing elements, including entire chunks of other buildings that were brought in and stuck on top of the existing structure. Inside, a large elephant statue peers at bathers beneath a high ceiling painted by the artist. Be sure to brush up on bathing etiquette before you go. [Official website]

Naoshima Pavilion by architect Sou Fujimoto. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Other art sites
Other art sites on Naoshima include the Lee Ufan Museum, the Ando Museum, the Hiroshi Sugimoto Gallery, and outdoor artworks across the island including Yayoi Kusama’s red and yellow pumpkins as well as Naoshima Pavilion by architect Sou Fujimoto.

Other islands

Thanks in large part to the Setouchi Triennale, there are now twelve islands in the eastern Seto Inland Sea featuring artwork. Here are four that you can easily reach from Naoshima, including two (Teshima and Inujima) that have museums accessible most of the year, and two others (Ogijima and Megijima) that have less art on non-Triennale years but are worth a visit regardless.

(Please also check out David Billa’s blog Setouchi Explorer for in-depth articles about all of the Setouchi “art islands.”)

F Art House on Inujima with an installation by Kohei Nawa. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Inujima

A tiny island off mainland Okayama Prefecture, Inujima’s Seirensho Art Museum is the spectacular result of a collaboration between artist Yukinori Yanagi and architect Hiroshi Sambuichi. The island also features “art houses” with rotating installations by other significant artists like Olafur Eliasson and Kohei Nawa.

Teshima Art Museum (in the background). Photos are not permitted in the museum but interior views are widely available online. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Teshima

The Teshima Art Museum is another artist-architect collaboration (Rei Naito and Ryue Nishizawa), a breathtaking exercise in restrained simplicity set against seemingly-impossible engineering. Other art sites on the island include an impressive installation by Shinro Ohtake, a museum dedicated to the artist-designer Tadanori Yokoo, and a theater operated by the experimental duo Usaginingen. At Shima Kitchen, diners join an ongoing relational art project that brings together tourists, elderly residents, and young volunteers.

The installation “Terrace Winds” (2013) by Yasuyoshi Sugiura on Megijima. Photo: Meng Qu

Megijima

The first in a pair of islands off Takamatsu Port that host a collection of intimate art installations, including outdoor works and converted, previously-empty homes. Megijima’s sites of interest include a theater built in an old warehouse by artist Yoichiro Yoda.

Artwork by Rikuji Makabe on Ogijima. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Ogijima

Next to Megijima, Ogijima’s small village, perched on the side of a mountain, includes a winding labyrinth of sometimes nearly-vertical streets. Ogijima Library, a community-built project, is a meeting place for creative minds from around the region. A growing collection of creative small businesses by recent migrants gives the little island an exciting atmosphere.

When to visit

Summer is the busiest season on the islands, with lots to see and do. If you don’t mind the heat and the occasional crowd, it’s a fun time to explore the sights, swim at the beach, or just hang out by Yayoi Kusama’s Red Pumpkin and watch the sun set behind the Great Seto Bridge. Summer visitors should book accommodation as early as possible, as rooms regularly sell out.

Tourists queue for photos with the yellow pumpkin in the summer of 2020. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Spring is beautiful on the islands, particularly if you come when the cherry blossoms and mountain azaleas are blooming. Except for the national Golden Week holiday, it’s often less busy than the summer.

In the fall, when the weather cools, you might be lucky enough to catch the autumn festival on Naoshima, which occurs throughout October and features taiko-drumming boys carried around on wooden palanquins.

The autumn festival on Naoshima in October 2019. Photo: A. D. McCormick

Unlike many of the other art islands, Naoshima’s museums are open year-round, except for a short maintenance period in the winter. This is also true for the main attractions on Teshima and Inujima, though maintenance periods vary by island. This means that winter can be a great time to check out popular sites like Chichu Art Museum; on weekdays you might even have the place virtually to yourself.

Before committing to an itinerary, be sure to check the official Benesse calendar to see what’s open.

A. D. McCormick is the director of Art Island Center and has lived on Naoshima since 2019. This guide was adapted from one he created for the Art Island Center website. To help plan your trip, the full guide also contains information on transportation, lodging, and food. You can also follow A. D. McCormick on Twitter and Instagram.

--

--

A. D. McCormick

A. D. McCormick is the director of Art Island Center on Naoshima.