We recently went to visit what has become one of my favorite places in the world – Japan’s Seto Inland Sea and the Setouchi Art Festival held on many of its islands.
Setouchi stands out among the world’s art destinations as it’s a wide ranging living art vacation experience. It’s all about slowing down and really experiencing what’s there. While Art Basel and Miami are about the scene and what’s new and hot, buying and selling, surface glitz, Setouchi gives you cutting edge international modern art in a setting conducive to contemplation and reflection. In that way it’s really more about the art than the show.
Some history: “As Japan’s population aged and became increasingly urban the islands of the Seto Sea saw their population dwindle and economies decline. In the mid 1980’s a plan was developed by architect Tadao Ando and others to transform the islands (at first Naoshima, later others) into a cultural and educational area, and by the 90’s it had become a center for modern art installations by Japanese and international artists. Currently there are installations and museums on 12 islands and in 2 ports on the mainland.”
On this trip we visited 3 islands in 3 days – the 2 main islands of Naoshima and Teshima, and Inujima, one of the smaller islands. The guides say 1 day per island is enough but with the morning ferry ride and all the activity of exploring an entire (hilly) island 2 days on the bigger islands would be better to get a real sense of the place and see all the art, museums and local life. That and not worrying about where you are at the end of the day to catch the last ferry.
Some tips: don’t rely on public transport on the islands, rent bikes (or a car on the bigger islands) and if funds allow charter your own ferries. Too much time is wasted waiting for buses and the amount of local life and scenery one can take in on a bike is amazing. If you like luxury and high end modern accommodations/museums/architecture spend time on Naoshima and stay at the Ando designed Benesse House. If you like local life explore the smaller islands. Treat it as an art vacation. Don’t rush. You can splash out on a sandy beach immediately after experiencing Christian Boltanski’s “Les Archives du Couer” on the far end of Teshima, contemplate the white organic lumps of the Teshima Art Museum from a sunny hill overlooking the sea, or end your day at Naoshima’s Public Bath with a relaxing soak before jumping on the last ferry.
The local food is fantastic, there’s a line before lunch at Shima Kitchen even on quiet days (the women there only make 3 dishes/day, all are excellent), the nature and scenery are beautiful, calming and inspiring, and the local people are friendly and open.