I’m sitting on a concrete ground watching water droplets as they skitter throughout the graceful floor. Round me, different folks appear equally transfixed. They stand in silent contemplation watching beads of water effervescent up from tiny holes within the ground, or lie gazing on the huge domed roof, the place two oval openings let pure gentle flood in. The slightest motion echoes across the house. I take a pen out to make some notes and a member of employees immediately seems at my aspect and signifies that I ought to put it away. Telephones are additionally a strict no-no.
Teshima Artwork Museum turns the usual concept of what a museum is on its head. For a begin it’s empty. Or to be exact, there’s nothing on show. As a substitute of taking a look at artwork works or objects, the customer is invited to ponder nature in its purest type: gentle, water, air. The impact is deeply calming. After 20 minutes, I virtually float out.
Exterior, the museum is simply as arresting. Curved and low mendacity, it appears to be like each other-worldly and one way or the other a part of the encircling panorama. However maybe the strangest facet of the museum is its location – subsequent to a rice terrace on a small island practically two hours from the closest metropolis, Okayama, in western Japan.

Teshima Artwork Museum blends in with the encircling panorama. {Photograph}: Noboru Morikawa
And it’s not the one arty attraction within the space. That is one among 18 museums, galleries, installations and initiatives throughout three islands that collectively type a singular rural artwork paradise.
The story behind the Benesse Artwork Website Naoshima, to provide the undertaking its full identify, is intriguing too. It began within the late 1980s when billionaire businessman Soichiro Fukutake started exploring the smaller islands of the Seto Inland Sea, the physique of water that separates three of Japan’s 4 fundamental islands. Fukutake needed to remodel three islands that had borne greater than their fair proportion of the nation’s fast industrialisation – refineries had been constructed on Naoshima and Inujima, and unlawful waste was dumped on Teshima – and had then been forgotten.

Time Uncovered set up at Benesse Home Museum on Naoshima. {Photograph}: Shigeo Anzai
He determined to do it by up to date artwork, and persuaded architect Tadao Ando, AKA “the king of concrete”, to collaborate on Benesse Home Museum on Naoshima. The museum signalled the size of Fukutake’s imaginative and prescient, which went past financial reboot to create a utopia showcasing not solely world-class artwork but in addition a less complicated, slower lifestyle, far faraway from “monstrous cities”.
Excessive on a hill overlooking the ocean, the museum is crammed with fashionable artwork greats: Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cy Twombly, however its most iconic piece is on the seashore under: a large yellow pumpkin by Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama, a surreal beacon jutting out into the ocean. One other, purple, pumpkin greets guests as they disembark on the harbour, good telephone cameras on the prepared – even the Naoshima ferry bears Kusama’s signature motif of dots. It’s near the wacky I Love Yu public bathhouse, a collage of junkyard scrap and neon indicators. Forgot your towel? You should purchase one from the merchandising machine outdoors.

Naoshima Tub, a ‘sento’ (bathhouse) for locals and guests. {Photograph}: Osamu Watanabe
Ando went on to create extra architectural masterpieces, together with Chichu Artwork Museum, a set of interlinked, half-buried buildings that home Fukutake’s private assortment of 5 Monet water lily work. For me, essentially the most hanging work at Chichu is the Walter de Maria room, a temple-like house with golden pillars mounted on the partitions and steps main as much as a large granite sphere. Right here, as in different museums, the reverence for artwork – amongst each the younger employees and guests – is palpable. And after some time I’m relieved to step onto the cafe terrace and reconnect with easier pleasures – the view of sea and distant land that appears prefer it’s been painted onto the horizon in shades of gray – and to decide on between a espresso or a shiny blue Sora-Iro Cola.
There’s sufficient artwork on Naoshima alone to fill two days. But most guests tick it off on a day journey as they whiz between Osaka, to the east, and Hiroshima, to the west. However it’s insanity to make the epic journey and never see Teshima and Inujima, too. It could take a little bit of planning to achieve all of the islands by ferry (see setouchi-artfest.jp for suggestions) however the reward is big. And this 12 months there’s much more motive to linger. The 2019 Setouchi Triennale artwork competition will ramp up the creativity with an astonishing array of artworks – 200 in complete, round half of them everlasting – throughout 12 islands and two ports, Takamatsu and Uno. In contrast to some artwork gala’s, the place glamour and wealth are on show as a lot as artwork and design, the Setouchi Triennale is firmly rooted within the historical past and character of the area. Initiatives will remodel deserted buildings, spotlight artisanship and contain locals, together with kids.

Teshima Yokoo Home, set in an outdated cedar-wood home. {Photograph}: Tadasu Yamamoto
After a flight to Osaka, two practice rides, and an hour’s drive, my first day within the area is a brief, intense dip into Japanese tradition at a serene ryokan, within the outdated city of Kurashiki on the mainland, an immaculately preserved cluster of 300-year-old picket homes on the banks of a canal. Dazed by lack of sleep I’m grateful for the light steerage of the kimono-clad employees, who appear to glide about as if on casters, and lead me by a marathon nine-course meal of beautiful dishes virtually too fairly to eat. Breakfast continues my immersion remedy, with a variety of rice, mackerel and a pickled plum that’s such a strong hit of salty sourness it immediately wakes me up. Throughout the canal from Ryokan Kurashiki is the Ohara Museum of Artwork, which was the primary in Japan to indicate western artwork when it opened in 1930 however we head for a really totally different museum.

One of many elegant dishes on Ryokan Kurashiki’s nine-course menu
We drive to Hoden port to catch the little ferry to Inujima. The massive draw of this tiny island, with a inhabitants of lower than 100, is Inujima Seirensho Artwork Museum, constructed throughout the ruins of a copper refinery. Coming into by an extended, darkish, mirrored hall appears like strolling by a dream, a sensation that the following room does nothing to dissipate: picket doorways and window frames of a deconstructed home are suspended from wires above a pool of water. The home had belonged to controversial Japanese novelist and nationalist Yukio Mishima, a fierce critic of post-war modernisation, who famously dedicated ritual suicide.
A brief stroll from the museum, a hamlet of conventional, clay-roof homes and small gardens is dotted with funky installations. Strolling amongst these easy houses is a glimpse of one other Japan, the flipside of the frenetic, high-rise, high-tech picture we’re extra conversant in.
“It’s one other nation,” Shihoko Nakano tells me as I sit down for lunch in Aruei, the restaurant she runs in her own residence. “It’s so quiet right here, and there’s so little visitors that it’s very totally different from the remainder of Japan.” She’s referring to Teshima, inhabitants 1,000, the place she lives, however her phrases apply to all of the islands I go to.
Because of its gentle local weather, the Seto Inland Sea is also known as the Mediterranean of Japan. Right here, olives, lemons, peaches and plenty of greens thrive, and Aruei’s easy set menu displays seasonal flavours: pumpkin with anchovies and basil; mustard spinach with a tofu dressing; almond and fig cake. Teshima strawberries are prized throughout Japan and past, promoting for greater than £40 a kilo in Tokyo. I pop into Ichigoya, a family-run cafe, and order a improbable ice-cream comprised of strawberries grown within the farm reverse. It prices about £2.

The White Dormitory. {Photograph}: Hiroshi Mizusaki
I spend the night time on Teshima on the White Dormitory, a three-room villa hidden down an alley, previous a barber’s store. Its minimalist ascetic is in line with a lot of the artwork, however Takamatsuya, a neighborhood minshuku (a easy B&B, from £44pp), offers a less expensive, extra genuine expertise. Within the morning I’ve breakfast with my interpreter, Tetsuhiro Murakami, in Kiyomamu, one other restaurant opened to cater for the rising variety of guests. We drink tea amongst cabinets piled excessive with crockery collected by the proprietor from close by empty houses.
In an “artwork paradise” you’re by no means removed from a inventive undertaking – and a brief stroll from Kiyomamu is Teshima Yokoo Home, combining galleries of artist Tadanori Yokoo’s daring, vibrant work and a riotous sculpture backyard dotted with purple boulders, inside an 80-year-old cedarwood home. A contemporary addition, an ominous wanting black brick tower, is lined inside with 9,000 postcards of waterfalls. I gawp at them, stumped.
The sheer quantity of artwork on provide within the space is overwhelming, but whereas Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima islands are the primary draw, the Setouchi Triennale, first held in 2010, has helped different islands foster connections with artists.

Particular supply … the Lacking Publish Workplace, an interactive art work, on Awashima. {Photograph}: Isabel Choat
My favorite undertaking, and the one which appears to encapsulate the essence of the world, is the Lacking Publish Workplace on Awashima. Tokyo artist Saya Kubota has turned a defunct submit workplace right into a dwelling artwork work overseen by an 82-year-old postmaster who labored the identical spot for 45 years earlier than retiring. Wearing a uniform designed by Kubota, his “job” now could be to greet guests – which he does with a large smile – stamp the postcards they write, anonymously, to anybody actual or imagined, previous, current or future, and deposit them in tin packing containers that grasp within the centre of the room.
The Lacking Publish Workplace can be a part of this 12 months’s triennale. Kubota plans to go to within the autumn. If she’s not on the submit workplace, you would possibly spot her across the island – she’s onerous to overlook. Driving a motorcycle in her postmistress uniform, wanting like a personality in a Wes Anderson movie, she’s the embodiment of all that’s fantastic about this extraordinary, uplifting vacation spot. • The Setouchi Triennale runs over three durations: 26 April-26 Could, 19 July-25 August and 28 September-Four November. The journey was supplied by the Setouchi Tourism Authority (setouchitrip.com)