Go art and about at the Setouchi Triennale in Japan

A unique event that unfolds around a clutch of quiet islands in the Seto Inland Sea every three years puts the spotlight on a region often overlooked by tourists

Beyond the Borders — the Ocean, Lin Shuen Long

Beyond the Borders — the Ocean, Lin Shuen Long

On the island of Teshima in Setouchi, a region of Japan that spans the Seto Inland Sea, I’ve just come from celebrating the annual Teshima rice harvesting festival, a morning of — as the name suggests — donning rubber boots and harvesting rice with the locals. Now, I’m sitting inside a 40×60-meter concrete water droplet. This is Teshima Art Museum, less a conventional museum than a single permanent installation. Through large holes carved into the structure, I’m watching the trees and listening to the birds sing as, all around me, real drops of water appear on the floor as if by magic.

Setouchi Girls’ Theater company 2 Ogijima’s Soul, Jaume Plensa
Setouchi Girls’ Theater company 2 Ogijima’s Soul, Jaume Plensa

The experience is hypnotic. Other visitors sprawl on their backs, spread-eagled; or sit up straight, eyes closed, seemingly deep in meditation. The collaborative effort of artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa, this concrete structure is among the most impressive works in the region — a bold statement considering how remarkable the art is here in the Setouchi islands, one of Japan’s best-kept secrets.

A group of thousands of islands in the Seto Inland Sea, Setouchi includes parts of the main Japanese islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, and is near enough to the cities of Okayama, Takamatsu, Hiroshima and Kobe to make its bright beaches a tempting option for short getaways. And yet, in the last several decades, Setouchi has suffered from depopulation as the younger generations move to Tokyo, Kyoto and other more developed, metropolitan cities.

Ojima's Soul, Jaume Plensa
Ojima’s Soul, Jaume Plensa

“The region is more famous among international artists than it is inside Japan,” says Mika White, who lives in the region and, as part of branding and PR company Chapter White, does marketing for Setouchi’s tourism board. Setouchi’s international reputation is mostly thanks to the Setouchi Triennale, an international art festival that takes place every three years and spreads over 12 of Setouchi’s 3,000 islands. The Triennale’s goal is to revitalize the island communities by bringing in contemporary art and, in turn, tourism, and to honor the traditions of each island.

The previous Triennale, in 2016, contributed over a million tourist arrivals to Setouchi’s annual total of 2.68 million visitors. As a result of increased tourism and an improving economy, families with children are returning to the islands. On Ogijima, for example, the nursery, elementary and junior high schools have reopened after closing 14 years ago.

feel feel BONSAI, Masashi Hirao x Setouchi Cogeiz
feel feel BONSAI, Masashi Hirao x Setouchi Cogeiz

“The selection process is very competitive,” says Koi Okamoto, managing director at Art Front Gallery and a project manager of the Triennale, adding that fewer than 10% of the artists who apply are chosen. In 2018, the Setouchi Triennale distributed an international call for site-specific art projects. That is, they were seeking projects that would utilize the local resources of each island. Artists paid the ¥1,000 (P470) application fee and applied in any of six categories: site-specific work; site-specific performance and events; projects facilitating interaction and exchange; food projects that make use of local ingredients in collaboration with locals; projects that promote local culture; and “other”. Reviewed and selected by Fram Kitagawa, general director of the Setouchi Triennale, each chosen artist met individually with the festival’s curator and went to Setouchi last November to visit the island on which they’d be exhibiting. They will be paid for production costs: ¥500,000 to ¥2.5 million (P235,000 to P1.18 million) per project.

Untitled work by Xiang Yang 4 Onba Factory on Ogijima, Onba Factory
Untitled work by Xiang Yang 4 Onba Factory on Ogijima, Onba Factory

The fourth Triennale will begin on April 26, and a million visitors from all over the world are expected to descend on the region once again. The Triennale’s permanent collection is not, as one might think, a smattering of interesting art by locals; in fact, it comprises art from around the globe, ranging from under-the-radar to world-famous. Inside a cave, you’ll find yourself surrounded by five paintings from Monet’s Water Lilies series. You’ll experience a couple of mess-with-your-mind light experiments by James Turrell, including a pitch-dark house you’ll feel your way through until your eyes adjust and a surprise appears (no spoilers here, you’ll have to see it for yourself). You’ll also get to see a Basquiat painting and stroll through Christian Boltanski’s La forêt des murmures, a forest of trees whose branches are adorned with 400 wind chimes. Beyond the permanent collection, you’ll see pieces by the more than 200 artists who were chosen to exhibit temporarily.

Onba Factory on Ogijima, Onba Factory
Onba Factory on Ogijima, Onba Factory

“Part of the process is finding artists whose work is relevant to each island,” says Koi. A piece called Onba Factory on Ogijima — a work from a collaborative team of artists by the same name — is a prime example: The road on that island is steep and hilly, and locals use these small carts called onba to transport their belongings. For the 2010 Triennale, the Onba Factory artists interviewed the residents about the carriages, their lives and the kind of art they’d like to see in their surroundings. Then, they painted the people’s carriages, making each one unique, and returned them to circulation.

Corridor of Time, Takashi Nishibori
Corridor of Time, Takashi Nishibori

Another example: Performance artist Anahita Razmi, who is participating in the 2019 Triennale, has a work connected with Iranian-Japanese food. “The number of Iranians in Japan began to increase significantly in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” Anahita says. “Many Iranian youth, mostly male and unemployed, left Iran for Japan hoping to find high-paying jobs. But in 1992, prompted by worsening economic conditions, Japan terminated the visa-free agreement with Iran and began serious efforts to deport illegal overstayers.” Anahita’s project seeks to uncover lost culinary possibilities. During the Triennale, she’ll invite visitors and locals to taste and prepare Iranian-Japanese snacks, and discuss this part of Japan’s recent history.

Distant Memory, Chiharu Shiota
Distant Memory, Chiharu Shiota

The Setouchi Triennale brings more richness and beauty to a region that is already rich and beautiful. It also brings visitors to a place where they can see a world of art, but also experience much more than just that. Most of the islands offer scenic hiking trails and views of the sea. You can taste Kenran beef, which is even rarer than Kobe beef and never exported. “Five years ago, no one in Japan knew Setouchi at all,” Mika tells me. “Then one day, the weathermen started reporting our weather,” she says. “It was a big deal. All of a sudden, we were on the map.”

Cebu Pacific flies to Tokyo from Manila and Cebu. cebupacificair.com

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Dream of Olive, Wang Wen-Chih
Dream of Olive, Wang Wen-Chih

How to get there

You can fly to seven different destinations in the Setouchi region, including Hiroshima. If you’d rather travel by bullet train, that’s easy too, and there are lots of stations, including in Kobe: From Osaka, take the Sanyo Shinkansen line. From Nagoya, the bullet train to Kobe takes only an hour and four minutes. From Tokyo, the Nozomi train will get you to Kobe in under three hours.

Where to Stay

There are great hotels, hostels and ryokans all over the Setouchi region. Here are a few special ones:

  • The Royal Park Hotel Takamatsu is a peaceful oasis found between alleyways filled with restaurants and boutiques. Relax and explore.
  • An absolutely-not-to-be-missed ryokan is the beautiful Hagihakkei Ganjima Besso. Your bathroom will include a big wooden box that is actually a bathtub, with a window from which you can watch the sun set over the Matsumoto River.
  • Check out the new Peanuts Hotel in Kobe. Each of the eighteen rooms is dedicated to a different comic, and each floor has its own theme (“Happy”, “Love” and so on).

What to eat in Setouchi

Oysters. Oysters harvested from the waters off Hiroshima are left to grow for at least three years. The result? Extra-large mollusks offering more meat served fresh at oyster huts. If you walk through the streets of Miyajima, you’ll see them everywhere. Stand at any of the open windows and order oysters to enjoy as you walk. Or hit Shimada Fisheries Oyster Hut and cook them yourself at your table.

Kenran beef. The product of breeding two types of cattle — one local and another imported from Europe, Kenran beef is every meat-lover’s dream. Famous for its marbling and tenderness, Kenran beef is much rarer than the likes of Kobe beef. To taste Kenran beef, go straight to the source: Amiyaki Restaurant Kenran. You’ll get to cook it at your table. If you’re not a big red-meat eater, the area is also famous for its seafood, so cook up some shrimp and scallops instead.

Fugu. Fugu, or blowfish, is famous for being both a delicacy and a killer. If it’s not prepared by a certified chef, those who eat it run the risk of ingesting its poison. If you’re adventurous enough to try fugu, hit Shinoda for torafugu (tiger pufferfish) — the highest-quality fugu and the only one served there. Or go to Fuku Kitagawa, among the oldest and most famous fugu spots in the region.

This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Diana Spechler

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