Aerial view of Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, an island of the Seto Inland Sea of Japan. A permanent collection of artworks by Claude Monet, Walter De Maria and James Turrell are installed within the building, which was designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Courtesy Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation, Naoshima.

Museums of the Inland Sea


In the past two decades, a growing number of striking museums and intimate site-specific installations have been established on Naoshima and other small islands in Japan’s scenic Seto Inland Sea. Located far from the center of contemporary art activity in Tokyo, between the western cities of Setouchi and Takamatsu, these seven islands can only be reached via local trains and ferries. Although they are remote and home to small fishing communities, they attract a growing number of visitors in search of a relaxed and intimate experience of Japan’s visual culture—370,000 people in 2009.

Soichiro Fukutake, the CEO of Benesse Corporation, an academic publishing house that aims to foster the arts, initiated the attempt to reinvigorate Naoshima’s moribund economy with contemporary art in 1989. Talking with ArtAsiaPacific in March, Fukutake explained that after spending some years in Tokyo, which he found “too busy and overflowing with information,” he became preoccupied with the idea of “how to live well.” The corporation takes its name from the Italian word benessere, or “well-being,” and Fukutake’s vision for Naoshima and the region is to achieve a sustainable balance between architecture, art and nature, and to cultivate exchanges between artists and the island’s residents. The revival and preservation of “traditional ways” such as agriculture and sento (“public bathhouses”), also forms part of his philosophy for “a new way of life.” When asked how these ideas were born he answers, “I am always thinking in my bed! I am intrigued by the fact that two poles always compete—the metropolis and the local city, contemporary and tradition, Japanese and foreign.”

Naoshima’s reinvention as a destination for art tourism began in 1992, with the opening of Benesse House, a museum and hotel complex designed by acclaimed architect Tadao Ando. Located near the town of Honmura, the museum displays the Fukutake family’s art collection, including paintings by Jackson Pollock and David Hockney, and commissions, such as a Yayoi Kusuma pumpkin sculpture and a series of black-and-white photographs of the sea by Hiroshi Sugimoto, have been installed in and around the complex.

For Fukutake and his colleagues, the participation of the island’s residents in art projects is a key objective. Since 1998, the Art House Project has overseen the restoration of a handful of abandoned houses in the heart of Honmura that have been given over to permanent site-specific installations, such as Tatsuo Miyajima’s Sea of Time (1998), a pool of water with red and green digital counters scattered in it. The speed at which the numbers count—up and down, between 1 and 99—was decided by residents; each counter represents an individual’s rhythm of choice. In 2009, residents collaborated with Shinro Ohtake, donating items such as fishnets and anchors to incorporate into the artist’s idiosyncratic renovation of a sento, now adorned with items as diverse as Thai record sleeves and a stuffed baby elephant.

The growing success of Benesse House and the Art House Project led the corporation to commission Ando to build the Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima. Opened in 2004, the museum is a warren of slanting corridors constructed almost entirely underground, and was purpose-built for the works of three artists who integrate nature into their creations: Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes as they enter a serene white room where a monumental series of five Monet water lily paintings seems to float mysteriously, gently lit by natural light diffused through channels in the ceiling. The latest project on Naoshima is a soon-to-be-opened museum entirely dedicated to the work of Lee Ufan. Approached through a sculpture garden, the semiunderground structure, also by Ando, will present the Korean-born artist’s minimal paintings and sculptures dating from the 1970s to the present.

There is more to discover on neighboring islands, only a short distance away by boat. On Inujima, for the new Art Project Seirensho, architect Hiroshi Sambuichi renovated the site of an abandoned copper refinery to house Hero Dry Cell (2008), an installation by Yukinori Yanagi. Inspired by the late writer Yukio Mishima, the work features sliding doors and windows from the author’s house on the island. Dismantled and exposed, they seem to hover in space along with words from his novels.

On the verdant and hilly Teshima, the Rice Project was initiated three years ago. Rice cultivation was resurrected on abandoned paddy fields with the help of experienced locals who participated in the planting and harvesting, and the terraced paddies are now open to visitors. Amid the rice fields is a new building by Ryue Nishizawa, a co-founder of the renowned architectural firm SANAA. Due to be completed later in the year, the building, which will be shaped like a drop of water, will evoke the natural springs that run through the island. Also under construction is a seaside building designed by artist Christian Boltanski that will contain an archive of recorded heartbeats made accessible in listening rooms. Visitors will be encouraged to add their own heartbeat to the collection in recording stations. As on Naoshima, an Art House Project is also planned for the island.

This year is shaping up to be the busiest in the history of the islands’ renaissance: three new museums will open and preparations for the first Setouchi International Art Festival are underway. Taking place from July 19 until October 31 on all seven islands, the diverse festival will include new works by more than 70 international artists, Bunraku and Kabuki theater performances, and a series of concerts and bonfires on the beaches.

Fukutake’s revival of the region has been overwhelmingly successful, though as the project expands in scope, the Benesse Corporation will face the challenge of preserving the harmonious balance between the quiet of the local neighborhoods and the growing number of visitors in search of a new, but peaceful, frontier for contemporary art.