“Pumpkin” by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, an outdoor exhibit at Benesse House Museum in Naoshima. // © 2015 Creative Commons user kaba
Feature image (above): “100 Live and Die” by Bruce Nauman, also located at Benesse House Museum. // © 2015 Creative Commons user johsgrd
Any visit to Japan usually starts with the “must-see” destinations: Tokyo’s electric urban hyper-density, Kyoto’s ancient imperial architecture and gardens, iconic Mount Fuji and the snow monkeys of Nagano Prefecture. But for travelers interested in understanding the vast cultural, artistic and historic legacy of modern Japan, Seto Inland Sea should be the first port of call.
This one-time industrial region, known by its collective name, “Setouchi,” has benefitted from recent promotional efforts by the Japan National Tourist Organization. At its heart is Seto Inland Sea, which touches three of Japan’s major islands, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, and runs about 450 kilometers from east to west.
A short flight from Tokyo to Okayama is the best way to begin a visit to Setouchi. The city of Okayama is home to some of Japan’s finest centuries-old artistic and craft traditions. For fans of Samurai culture, Bizen Osafune Token Village should be the first stop. Visitors can view the process of sword making as it’s been done for centuries, starting with the precise hand forging of the steel blade to sharpening and polishing the blade, attaching a handle and creating the intricate filigreed details of the sword guard.
Another traditional craft unique to this region is Bizen pottery. The name Bizen comes from the village of Imbe in Okayama Prefecture. Dating back more than a thousand years, Bizen is Japan’s oldest pottery technique, identified by its unusual appearance, hardness and absence of glaze.
Bizen’s appeal owes much to the unique clay used, which is only found in this region. Also notable is the pottery’s slow kiln firing process, which occurs only once or twice a year, requires 10 to 14 days and uses enormous amounts of wood.
The island town of Naoshima in Kagawa Prefecture is a short boat ride away and is home to several of Japan’s most innovative contemporary art museums. Start with Chichu Art Museum, designed by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando.
Open since 2004, Chichu Art Museum is notable for not only its collection of Western art, which includes several Monet pieces, but also for its location underground. Amazingly, Ando’s underground design of the museum uses only natural light for the exhibits.
One of the highlights of any visit to Naoshima is Benesse House Museum, a part-museum and part-hotel that was also designed by Ando. Guests staying overnight are invited to wander the museum and encounter various installations at different times of day. These installations are scattered throughout the grounds, not limited to galleries and intended to be pleasant surprises. One such installation is the yellow-and-black spotted “Pumpkin” by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, located at the end of the nearby pier.
From Naoshima, visitors can take another boat ride to a new destination: Teshima island, which is home to Teshima Art Museum.
More of a permanent conceptual installation, this concrete museum resembles a water droplet measuring about 131 feet by 197 feet. A collaboration between architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito, Teshima Art Museum challenges visitors’ perceptions of space, dimension and sound.
And perhaps, that’s the essence of the Setouchi’s appeal: visitor participation. The art of the Setouchi is neither static nor passive. It invites visitors to join in the experience, whether working a ball of clay to form Bizen pottery, donning the garb of a 16th-century samurai or being astonished at how sight can be easily deceiving when we step inside an optical illusion.
Setouchi’s blend of traditional craft and experiential art will reinvigorate the sense of wonder in travelers of any age.