Story of the Month - February 2017

Story of the Month - February 2017


Seto Inland Sea 


By Elton CHAN


Last month, I went to Japan for a week-long holiday. The highlight of the trip was my visit to Naoshima and Teshima, two small islands in the Seto Inland Sea—the large body of water between three of the four main islands of Japan: Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Like many designers and architects, Naoshima and Teshima have been on the top of my bucket list since my days as an architecture student. Therefore, it was great to finally visit the art museums designed by the famous Japanese architects Tadao Ando and Ryue Nishizawa. 


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Figure 1. On the Ferry to Naoshima. (Source: Author)

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Figure 2. Teshima Art Museum, Teshima. Designed by Ryue Nishizawa. (Source: Author)

Until a few years ago, Naoshima and Teshima, with a combined population of less than 5,000 people, were relatively unknown destinations to most overseas tourists due to their remote locations and lack of tourist attractions. Not unlike other parts of rural Japan, the islands in the Seto Inland Sea have been suffering from major aging and depopulation problems in recent decades, and one of the government’s strategies to combat such trends is to revitalise the area through art and cultural tourism. At the heart of the revitalisation programme was the development of the Benesse Art Site, a collection of privately-run art sites in and around Naoshima and Teshima, and the Setouchi Triennale, a contemporary art festival held every three years on the different islands in the Seto Inland Sea.

Having only started in 2010, the Setouchi Triennale is now one of the most successful and popular contemporary art events in Asia, if not in the world. Its impact can be felt even before I had arrived at Naoshima. The JR Uno Port Line, which links Okayama, the major transit hub on the Honshu side of the Seto Inland Sea, to Uno, the port city where the ferries to the islands depart from, had been turned into an art project and was rebranded in French as “La Malle de Bois”. While themed railway is a common sight in Japan, it was still a very surreal experience to see all the French signage and branding in the middle of rural Japan! 

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Figure 3. Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama — one of the most famous art pieces on the island. (Source: Author)

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Figure 4. Lee Ufan Museum, Naoshima. Designed by Tado Ando. (Source: Author)

Even though the Triennale had already ended when I was there, most of the art sites remained open and the islands, especially Naoshima, were still buzzing with art enthusiasts and tourists. In addition to the dedicated art museums and galleries where works of famous artists such as James Turrell, Lee Ufan and Rei Naito are exhibited, a large part of the Benesse Art Site is the preservation and conversion of traditional houses in the village into different art projects. These “art houses” are scattered around the two main villages on Naoshima, attracting many tourists to wander in and out of the villages. But despite the fact that the built environment remained largely intact, it was very difficult to envision what life was like in the villages before the art sites had existed. In fact, almost every “local” person I came across was in some ways connected to the art tourism industry and there were barely any signs of traditional industries left.

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Figure 5. Miyanoura, Naoshima. (Source: Author)

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Figure 6. City Branding — local bus decorated in Yayoi Kusama illustrations. (Source: Author)

While there is no doubt that the art festival and the art sites have been very successful in attracting tourists to the depopulating islands and reinvigorating the shrinking economy, it is important not to overlook the environmental and social impacts such revitalisation programmes have on the local communities. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether the existing infrastructure can cope with the fast growing tourist activities, and what will happen when the hype for art and cultural tourism eventually subsides.


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