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Ultimate Guide to the Most Popular Japan Art Festival: Setouchi Triennale

Advice from a local expert on how to get the most out of Japan's No. 1 scenic art destination.

By 20 min read

If you’re into Japanese art and culture, both contemporary and traditional, and want to discover a remote part of Japan studded with scenic views and fresh seafood, the 2019 Setouchi Triennale is the event you don’t want to miss this year.

While the festival happens on multiple and mostly remote locations, our guide will go through how and why each locale is special, so you’ll be ready to confidently get to and enjoy each one.

Here is what’s included in the following guide:

Why go?

One of the biggest art festivals in Japan, the Setouchi Triennale takes place on 12 small islands and two ports of the eastern part of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.

You’ve probably seen photos of the Yellow Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama at least once or twice without knowing where it really resides. The giant polka dot-covered sculpture has become a symbol of the fantastical art-and-island experience the Setouchi Triennale holds, but it is just one of the around 200 mysterious artworks, installations, and events from artists from all over the world that you can discover there.

Angel Road at Shodoshima, one of the islands in the scenic Setouchi area.

While a contemporary art festival, the Triennale deals with art in the widest possible meaning, also including architecture, traditional crafts, food, performing arts and more. Its unique setting really makes it an essential experience of “real Japan.”

You can visit during three seasonal sessions in 2019:

Spring (April 26 - May 26)
Summer (July 19 - August 25)
Autumn (September 28 - November 4)

Where is it located in Japan?

Photo:
Takamatsu, Kagawa, is marked on the map. The festival happens mostly in the small islands above this point in the Seto Inland Sea.

The Setouchi Triennale happens every three years in the eastern part of the Seto Inland Sea in Western Japan, that is mostly in Kagawa Prefecture — as well as Okayama Prefecture for two locations — roughly halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima. It is centered around the city of Takamatsu, one of the main cities of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands and its least populated.

The main islands taking part in the Triennale are Naoshima, Teshima, Shodoshima, Ogijima, Megijima, Oshima and Inujima. The festival also includes Takamatsu and Uno Port in the city of Tamano. Add to these Shamijima in the spring and Honjima, Awashima, Takamijima and Ibukijima in the fall.

Photo:
Up close: You can see the islands of Naoshima, Teshima, Shodoshima and more in the Seto Inland Sea between Shikoku Island and mainland Japan.

Why it is located there?

The Seto Inland Sea from Kagawa.

The purpose of the festival is to revitalize the Setouchi region which was at risk of simply dying in a couple of decades when the festival started because of intense depopulation. It aims at bringing life back to these islands through art in the widest meaning of the term, contemporary art, but also architecture, traditional crafts, food and more.

The Seto Inland Sea area is blessed with beautiful sunsets, seascapes and secluded nature that foreign visitors and city dwellers sometimes forget exist in Japan. The festival remains a full-blown art-and-culture carnival that offers the excitement of remote islands, captivating artwork and a first-hand look at life in a unique region.

These stunning landscapes along with a perfect mix of large-scale art installations and more intimate ones in local spaces has become an undeniable recipe for success since the very first edition in 2010. That year, while the organizing committee hoped for 300,000 visitors, more than 700,000 showed up. And for the following two editions, the milestone of 1 million visitors was reached. In 2016, 13.4% of those visitors were from overseas, as opposed to 2.6% in 2013, according to out-going traveler surveys. Suffice to say, you do not want to miss out!

Guide for major festival locations

The main reason to go to the Setouchi Triennale will obviously be visiting the small islands and experiencing the artworks. Before we delve into this, keep in mind to not overlook your surroun­dings and the parts of the islands that don’t have art. Pay special attention to nature and beautiful landscapes. They are why you’re there as much as the art.

With that being said, let’s see the main highlights each site has to offer:

Naoshima

Yellow Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama in Naoshima.

Do not miss the Chichu Art Museum, a very unique museum where the building itself is the main attraction.

While you will most likely also enjoy the Art House Project and Benesse House Museum’s indoor and outdoor art, don’t forget Hiroshi Sanbuichi’s Naoshima Plan that renovates various public and private buildings, blending the natural elements with traditional and contemporary architecture.

Note that a common misconception about the Setouchi Triennale is that it is centered on Naoshima. It is not. And while it is the most famous island in the area, it also has the fewest festival-specific artworks.

So, if it is an unmissable destination outside of the Setouchi Triennale, paradoxically, it’s the least “special” island during the festival. In other words, don’t miss it if you’ve never been, but if you have, or if you have the opportunity to return when it’s less crowded, you can easily skip it and devote more time to the other islands.

Here is a quick guide to the art museums on Naoshima you’ll find on the island year round.

Travel tips

  • All artworks are closed on Mondays (unless it’s a holiday). Except for the art in the Benesse House Museum.
  • Reservations are needed for the Chichu Art Museum (ahead of time) and Minamidera (same day and on crowded days only). When you arrive in Honmura village, go to the Honmura Lounge first to get your appointment for Minamidera, then you can schedule your visit to the village and other Art Houses around that appointment time.
  • Get an electric bicycle. They are available for rent at each port. They usually cost ¥1,000 for four hours, paying extra for longer.
  • Kinza requires reservations sometimes weeks ahead of time (especially during the Triennale) as only one person can visit at a time.

 

Teshima

Photo:
Wonder and intrigue on Teshima…

Its name means “Island of Abundance” and it’s justified as the island has plenty to offer, both in nature, food and art. The two main attractions are the Teshima Art Museum and Shima kitchen. The former is simply one of the most amazing buildings you will ever visit with its otherworldly shape and serene atmosphere. The latter combines a wonderfully original building with delicious food designed and prepared as a collaboration between the islanders and the chefs from Marunouchi Hotel in Tokyo.

Travel tips

  • Arrive as early as possible to the island, visit Teshima Art Museum first or last, that’s when it’ll be less crowded. If first, go straight to Shima Kitchen afterward. You can arrive on the island on one port and leave from another, which will give you more time to visit the island (Caveat: if you rented a bike you need to return it at the same port.)
  • Get an electric bicycle. They are available for rent at each port. They usually cost ¥1,000 for four hours, paying extra for longer.
  • All artworks are closed on Tuesdays (unless it’s a holiday).

 

Megijima

Photo:
Mecon by Shinro Ohtake at Megijima.

Mostly known locally for its beach and its tacky “Oni cave,” Megijima now has a real movie theater designed in the style of the ones that could be found in New York during the Golden Age of Hollywood. You should also experience Leandro Erlich’s Presence of the Absence, but the less you know about this double-installation ahead of time, the better.

The artist/chef named Eat & Art Taro will stay in one of Megijima’s restaurants for the duration of the festival, and you really should pay him a visit. He will delight you as well as feed you.

 

Ogijima

Photo:
Seppuku Pistols perform at Ogijima.

Ogijima is the island to make sure is on your itinerary. Even without art, it is one of the most picturesque islands of the region, with its cute village perched on the side of the hill. Upon arrival, you will be welcomed by Jaume Plensa’s Ogijima’s Soul, an ethereal and almost surreal building that should leave a lasting impression. If it doesn’t look too special at first, Onba Factory may be one of the most important artworks of the Triennale as the project takes concrete action in revitalizing the island while respectfully drawing from its culture and identity.

As you climb the steep streets of the village, make sure to visit Mayumi Kuri’s Memory Bottle, a moving homage to the island, as well as Oscar Oiwa’s Room inside of the Room, a playful and disorienting space.

 

Shodoshima

Photo:
Shodoshima’s The Star Anger in Sakate shot in Nov. 2018.

The largest of the art islands, Shodoshima is a big island, and a small world in itself. It’s mostly known in Japan as one of the only places in the country where olives can grow — but soy sauce really is its specialty. While it has a lot of very diverse art, its “art buildings” stand out the most, whether it is Wang Wen-Chih’s bamboo house, the surprising Shiomimi-so near the island’s southern tip, Phantasmagoric Alleys in the town of Tonosho, or Beat Shrine, by Kenji Yanobe and Takeshi Kitano.

Travel tips

  • While buses are frequent along the south coast of the island (there are day bus passes), they can be quite rare in other parts. Plan accordingly. Renting a car is advised if you really want to enjoy different parts of the island and have limited time. (This may mean planning accordingly before you get to Japan by getting your international driver’s license, etc)

 

Oshima 

Photo:
A 2019 feature called the Blue Sky Aquarium on Oshima.

Oshima has a bit of a morbid past. It used to be a sanatorium (an open-air prison, really) for people suffering from Hansen’s disease (formerly known as Leprosy). Today, the island’s inhabitants (all formerly affected by the disease) aim at raising awareness about this dark part of Japan’s recent history. For that reason, a lot of the art you will find on this island is intimately linked to it.

Travel tip

  • You can take a guided tour about the island’s past provided by volunteers.

 

Inujima

Photo:
An airy piece seen on Inujima.

Inujima is located off the coast of Okayama. Inujima’s landscape has been greatly damaged over the centuries.

First, its hills were leveled by several stone quarries that provided stones for most of the castles in Western Japan. Then, during the country’s industrialization, a copper refinery that only stayed open a few years polluted large parts of the island. The ruins of that refinery were recently turned into the Seirensho Art Museum. While the island is somewhat isolated and hard to reach, this amazing large scale installation makes the trip worthwhile. Plus, there are some small cafes, a campground and, well, one bed and breakfast.

Travel tip

  • All artworks are closed on Tuesdays (unless it’s a holiday).

 

Shamijima and Seijima

Photo:
Oiwa Island 2 by Oscar Oiwa at Shamijima.

Sitting on each side of the Great Seto Bridge, Shamijima and Seijima on mainland Kagawa are not actual islands anymore.

They were attached to Shikoku by land reclamation a few decades ago. Oiwa Island 2 is making a comeback, moving there from Shodoshima. This “island” is actually a giant drawing and visitors literally enter it. One of the must-see artworks, in the spring only.

 

Awashima and Honjima 

Photo:
Kanrin House by Rikuji Makabe at Honjima.

If you come in the fall, make sure to also visit the western islands. Artworks like Kanrin House, or Bottom Sky on Honjima (which lies between Okayama and Kagawa) as well as Contours of Thinking on Awashima (southwestern of Honjima) are two more one-of-a-kind local islands.

 

Takamatsu

Photo:
Beyond the Border – the Ocean

Takamatsu is not one of the islands but the main city of Kagawa and a great home base for travelers at the Setouchi Triennale. The port city is famous for its hearty udon noodles and was the main entry point to Shikoku until 1988 with the opening of the Seto Ohashi Bridge.

Of course, when you’re in the city of Takamatsu, you must see Lin Shuen-Long’s Beyond the Border – the Ocean another improbable and wonderful structure in the port.

Plus, be sure to check out the various events taking place throughout the festival. Keep an eye on the official calendar for many kinds of artistic and cultural experiences (tea ceremony, theater, concerts, and more). If you are there at the right time, don’t miss the Seppuku Pistols, a band that is best described as Edo-Punk (!) and that has been one of the most popular recurrent events of the past Triennale. (They will play several times in different locations).

 

How much time to spend visiting each island

Four days really is a minimum to get a good grasp of the Setouchi Triennale and being able to mix bigger and smaller islands, more famous ones and less famous ones. Limiting yourself to only the famous spots would defeat the purpose of coming to the area.

Here is an estimate of the time you’ll need to visit each island. Keep in mind that the smallest number is the minimum time to really enjoy the place, the biggest number is the ideal time.

Naoshima: 1 day to 2 days
Teshima: 1 day to 2 days
Megijima: 2-3 hours - half a day (or maybe more this year as there is a lot of new art)
Ogijima: half a day to 1 day
Shodoshima: 1 day (limiting yourselves to a few parts of the island) to 4 days (to see all of the art on the island)
Inujima: between 2 and 4 hours
Oshima: between 2 hours and 4 hours
Shamijima: between 2 hours and 4 hours
Honjima: 1 day
Awashima: about half a day
Takamijima: a few hours
Ibukijima: about half a day

New artwork and features at the 2019 Setouchi Triennale

If you’ve attended the festival before and want to know what is new, worry not, here is a small preview of new art installations that should be some of the highlights of this year’s Setouchi Triennale.

  • Megijima seems to have a lot of interesting new things this year, especially Kouryou’s Ebune: Drifters, as well as the Little Shops on the Island Project that will house as many as eight installations of various kinds.
  • Ogijima’s art is often linked to the island’s culture and identity and it’s the case again this year with Team Ogi’s new project, Takotsuboru, (you won’t miss it, it is right on the port when you arrive) or Sarah Westphal’s video installations: The Sea Within – the See Within. Both will draw from the fishing traditions of the island. Starting this summer Gregor Schneider’s still mysterious project could be one of the most impressive new artworks this year.
  • Shodoshima has a lot of new art that is spread out all over the island offering a mix of almost intimate art (Saya Irie’s Fisherman’s Dream for example) up to gigantic structures such as Lin Shuen Long’s Beyond the Border – Wave, an impressive follow-up to his beautiful and moving project on the same spot three years ago.
  • In Takamatsu, this summer, do not miss Kitahama Creator’s Studio gathering various artists from around the world, both newcomers (Nicolas Floc’h) and Triennale veterans (Takashi Nishibori).

There are many more new installations to discover, but a lot of them are kept under wraps before the opening day. For even more insight into the artwork in each area, you can check the 2019 Setouchi Triennale official website.

How to navigate the Setouchi Triennale

Visiting the Setouchi Triennale for the first time may seem a little daunting, but everything is well organized (this is Japan after all).

Keep in mind that due to the nature and geography of the area, you will most likely not travel from island to island, but rather have a base from and to which you’ll commute every day.

Photo:
On Teshima, here is the Red Silk of Fate.

This base should be Takamatsu city. It is the only practical option as it is a real city with numerous accommodations. Also, Takamatsu really is the hub for the Setouchi Triennale, as it is the only place that has direct access to most if not all islands.

From Takamatsu, you will take the ferry to the island of your choice for the day and return to your hotel at night.

On each island, get a map at the welcome center. Wander as you please on the island. If you’re afraid of getting lost, just follow the numbering of the artworks, they will provide a good path to follow for your visit.

Weather

Spring is usually warm (20-30C or 68-86F) and sunny.
Summer can be very hot (35-40C/95-104F degrees) and sunny (be extra careful with heat strokes and dehydration: wear hats, drink lots).
Autumn is usually very nice (20-25C or 68-77F) and sunny, with the exception of a possible typhoon or two.

How and where to buy tickets

Passport and tickets

While you can pay for each artwork individually (¥300 to ¥510 each), it’s much wiser and cheaper to buy a Triennale Passport. A three-season passport will cost you ¥4,800; a single season one will be ¥4,000. There is a reduced price for high school students, and it’s free for junior high school students or younger.

Note that if you buy your three-season passport before April 26 (the Triennale’s opening day), you will get a ¥1,000 discount.

The Triennale Passport cannot be bought online, but it can be purchased at many locations within Japan (for example, most konbini (convenience stores), many travel agencies, etc). It can also be bought upon arrival at the main Setouchi Triennale Information and Welcoming Center by Takamatsu Port. (Map)

The Triennale Passport allows one free entrance for most paying art sites. Some venues require extra fees. The Chichu Art Museum and the Teshima Art Museum are not included in the passport.

Ferry Pass

You can also buy a Three-Day Ferry Pass for ¥2,500 (¥1,250 for children) that covers eight ferry routes. During the Triennale, ferry passes can be purchased right there at related ferry ticket counters and at the Triennale information centers in Takamatsu, Tonosho Port and Uno Port. (Purchase not available online.)

Be aware that with either the Triennale Passport or the Three-Day Ferry Pass you will not have to pay for each visit or boat trip, but you will have to wait in line to enter the art site or ferry. They are not priority access tickets in any way.

Where to stay

As previously mentioned, it’s wiser to base yourself in Takamatsu as the city has all kinds of accommodations for all budgets and tastes.

Island hopping is possible, but it’s quite inconvenient (you will have to carry your baggage around a lot, not all islands have lockers in their ports) and requires a good capacity of organization, not to mention good Japanese skills. Naoshima and Teshima are more used to foreigners, but Shodoshima has more hotels.

On the smaller islands, the only places to sleep are minshukus (small bed and breakfast inns) managed by locals and they only speak Japanese (or even sanuki-ben, the local dialect).

With that being said, spending one night on one island is something you may want to do as it will add to the experience. In that case, as Teshima and Naoshima are more used to Westerners, you may find places where English is spoken there.

Photo:
You never know what you’ll find on Naoshima.

Getting there

As a reminder, Takamatsu is your best home base. Here is how to get there, plus ferry guides for the islands.

By train: get off the shinkansen at Okayama and take the Marine Liner to Takamatsu Station.
By plane: Takamatsu airport has many daily flights to and from Tokyo.
There are also several international flights to and from Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul and Shanghai so you can arrive directly from your own country to Takamatsu via one of those hubs without having to make a detour to Tokyo.
By train (option 2): the Sunrise Seto is a direct train from Tokyo to Takamatsu and one of the few sleeper car trains in Japan.

Access to and from the islands

The sunsets are part of the beauty of ferry travel.

Regular ferries are big (can carry motorized vehicles) and will rarely get full. Fast boats are obviously faster but smaller and will quickly get full on busy days. They can’t carry vehicles, and they’re more expensive.

You can find a timetable of all the ferries on the official Triennale site.

  • Naoshima
    • From Takamatsu and Uno (both fast boat or regular ferry)
    • Teshima (fast boat only)
    • Inujima (fast boat only – a few a day)
    • Shodoshima and Ogijima (once a day, during the Setouchi Triennale only)
  • Teshima
    • Uno and Shodoshima (regular ferry and fast boat)
    • Takamatsu, Naoshima, Inujima (fast boat)
  • Megijima
    • Takamatsu and Ogijima (regular ferry)
  • Ogijima
    • Takamatsu and Megijima (regular ferry)
    • Oshima (fast boat, during the Triennale only, just a few a day)
  • Shodoshima
    • Several ports
    • Regular Ferry: Takamatsu, Teshima, Uno, Okayama, Himeji, Kobe
    • Fast boats: Takamatsu, Teshima, Uno, Inujima (during the Triennale only)
  • Inujima
    • Teshima
    • Shodoshima, Naoshima: Triennale only
    • Various ports in Okayama: Hoden, Ushimado, Kyobashi
    • All boats are fast boats
Don’t forget to visit the beaches for sunsets and swimming in the summer.
  • Oshima
    • Takamatsu (fast boat, free of charge)
    • Ogijima (fast boat, Triennale only, just a few a day)
  • Shamijima and Seijima
    • Not actually islands anymore, attached to Shikoku in the 1960s by land reclamation.
    • Accessible by car or bus (from Sakaide Station)
  • Honjima
    • Marugame (regular ferry or fast boat)
    • Kojima (fast boat)
    • Takamijima and Awashima (fast boat, during the Triennale only)
  • Takamijima
    • Tadotsu Port (and Sanagijima, regular ferry)
    • Honjima and Awashima (fast boat, during the Triennale only)
  • Awashima
    • Mitoyo City (fast boat to Suda Port and Miyanoshita Port)
    • Takamijima and Honjima (fast boat, during the Triennale only)
  • Ibukijima
    • Kan’onji

General festival travel tips and advice

Photo:
The Black Sea Bream of Uno by Yodogawa Technique.

We end this guide with a few pieces of insider advice that will help you get the most out of your trip.

  • Take it slow. Do not try to see as many things as possible, it would defeat the purpose of the trip. Enjoy your time on the islands, slow down. On most islands, there is much more to discover than just the art.
  • Respect the locals. Islands are places of life, not just open-air museums and galleries, and definitely not amusement parks. Respect private properties and any other rule you may encounter. While most enjoy the activity brought by the Triennale, a lot of the islanders are elderly and the festival is somewhat disruptive to their quiet lifestyle. However, do not be afraid to communicate with them (at least a simple konnichiwa), they’re some of the nicest people you will meet and most of them love having people discovering their islands.
  • Hot summer temps. From mid-July to late August, be mindful of heat strokes and dehydration. Bring lots of water. Wear hats and sunscreen.
  • Bathroom breaks. Go the restrooms when you see some. The next ones may be several hours away.
Photo:
Le Banc by Niki de Saint Phalle at Naoshima.
  • Keep it clean. Keep your trash with you, the islands can’t and won’t sustain all the trash generated by the visitors. Big trash cans will be available when you return to Takamatsu Port at the end of the day.
  • Be flexible with your plans. The ferry to the island where you want to go may be full, but the next one to another island won’t be.
  • Give yourself enough time. Make sure you arrive early enough at the port. Especially at the end of the day when you want to return to Takamatsu. On very busy days, be near the port around up to an hour before your departure time. You can visit the port last while keeping an eye on the waiting line.

More Shikoku area sightseeing highlights

In Kagawa Prefecture

Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu, Kagawa, is one of the most famous Japanese gardens.
  • Ritsurin Garden: considered by many to be one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan.
  • Shikoku Mura: a great “ecomuseum” showcasing various traditional buildings from all of Shikoku. Also includes an art gallery designed by Tadao Ando. (In 2019, it will actually host some art within the Triennale, Ram Katzir’s Suitcase in a Bottle.)
  • Marugame Castle: one of the 12 original castles of Japan.
  • Many shrines and temples, especially Konpira-san, and some Shikoku Pilgrimage Temples (especially numbers 75, 81, 82, 84, 85, 88).

In Okayama Prefecture

Okayama Castle in autumn.
  • Kurashiki and its historical district that will bring you back to the late Edo period.
  • Okayama Castle and Koraku-en Garden: A beautiful and strikingly black castle and its castle garden is one of the “Three Great Gardens” of Japan.
  • Kojima Jeans Street: Where Japan-made jeans were born and an ultra funky shopping experience awaits.
  • Kibi Plain: an area named after the Kibi Kingdom, an ancient clan that ruled the region during the 4th Century. See remnants of their kingdom.

In the rest of Shikoku island

Photo:
Nikobuchi is a scenic spot that showcases Kochi’s pure blue Niyodo River water.
  • Matsuyama Castle: another one of the 12 original castles in Japan.
  • Dogo Onsen: one of the oldest and most famous hot spring bathhouses in Japan. One of the inspirations for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
  • Imabari and the Shimanami Kaido: another part of the Seto Inland Sea with wonderful seascapes and islands.
  • Iya Valley: one of the most remote parts of Japan, one of its most beautiful valleys too. Hotel Iya Onsen is a fantastic accommodation to consider while there.
  • Whirlpools of Tokushima: The Naruto whirlpools are tidal whirlpools — a natural wonder seen between Naruto in Tokushima and Awaji Island.
  • Niyodo River: one of the mighty and pristine rivers in Kochi Prefecture that has one of Japan’s bluest and most unique waterfalls.

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