On an Art Scavenger Hunt in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea

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Produced by Meg Felling and Sebastian Modak

It was gray and rainy when two new friends and I walked into a coffee shop on the Japanese island of Shodoshima. Plastic chandeliers hung from a pale-peach ceiling and plush seats were dyed in clashing colors. Beakers and flasks holding bubbling coffee lined the counter. An elderly couple sat at the bar talking to the apron-clad woman who ran the place. An even older man in a wool sweater and reading glasses stared at us, bemused. Behind a plastic screen, another man read the newspaper while puffing on a cigarette. I wondered if they were all here to escape the excitement happening just beyond the doorway.

The Setouchi Triennale is a once-every-three-years art extravaganza that takes place on a dozen small islands in the Seto Inland Sea, a pocket of water that separates the larger islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. It started in 2010 as a way to revitalize these wooded and mountainous specks of land, which were feeling the brunt of Japan’s demographic crisis: plummeting birthrates, and the migration of young people from villages to the big cities. Over time, more and more islands were brought into the fold. As a celebration of the region — participating artists are asked to reflect the culture and geography of the Seto Inland Sea in their work — the triennial has also injected new creative energy into the fading fishing villages.

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Spread over three “seasons,” the Setouchi Triennale takes over the islands for nine months, transforming abandoned homes into psychedelic dreamscapes and galleries full of thoughtful statements on the natural world and the plight of the country’s more remote communities. “Passport” in hand — visitors can buy all-access passes to the artwork — I joined the other travelers, collecting entry stamps like I was on some kind of scavenger hunt.

I based myself in Takamatsu, the capital of Kagawa Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku. Ferries left from the port daily, on time to the second (because this is Japan), making it an ideal starting point every morning. In addition to the Triennale art along its harbor, the city offered a refreshing perspective on life in a small Japanese city. On the covered shotengai, or shopping streets, teenagers crammed into the arcades and cooed at the kittens up for adoption on the side of the road. After dark, salarymen in matching white-on-black outfits filled the city’s izakayas, casual bars that serve late-night food, eating plates of freshly caught sashimi and washing it down with ice-cold beer.

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Away from the port, I often looked around to realize that I was the only foreigner. At izakayas and udon shops — Kagawa is famous for its Sanuki noodles, a type of udon with a firm-but-not-stiff texture — I played Japanese roulette, pointing at menu items and hoping for the best. Later, at Busshozan, one of the city’s only onsens, or hot spring baths, I watched carefully — but not too closely, since tradition dictates that guests bathe naked — to make sure I wasn’t committing any major faux pas as I moved from pool to pool.

After eating, soaking, and wandering aimlessly, I reached Ritsurin Garden, an expansive space established by a feudal lord in the 17th century. Two hours turned to three as I wandered through the immaculately maintained gardens. Shaded clearings gave way to winding paths and bright red bridges over gentle streams. I had spent one full and fulfilling day at the Setouchi Triennale and I had not even seen any art yet.

The next day, on Megijima, one of the smaller islands participating in the Triennale, I ventured into “Hair Salon Kotobuki,” an installation by Aiko Miyanaga, a Kyoto-born artist. “A hair salon by the sea. This is a place where one prepares oneself for tomorrow,” read the inscription at the entrance to the small, square room.

Inside on a shining wooden floor stood a single barber chair facing a rectangle window, which looked out onto the sea. I took some photos and then, wondering if I was way out of line (maybe this was just art), I asked the smiling woman who was tidying up an already tidy corner if I could perhaps get a haircut?

She tapped the barber chair — an invitation to sit — and started cutting. We chatted, but mostly I just looked out onto Megijima’s quiet coast, not looking into a mirror until it was all done. Hiroko, as I learned was her name, took a Polaroid selfie, had me sign it, and I was off to the next art stop.

I spent that night on Megijima, staying in a small tatami room on the top floor of Umiyado, a family-run guesthouse on the beach. Right around sunset, when the last ferry of art-hunters departed, I watched the city transform into what it must be like when there isn’t an internationally celebrated art festival taking place. I walked along the shoreline as an all-consuming quiet set in. I could see through a lit-up window into one woman’s home, where she ate alone looking at a flickering TV set.

While touring the neighboring island of Ogijima, I befriended a Singaporean couple who were also making their way across the islands, collecting stamps. The following day, I joined them on Shodoshima, one of the region’s largest islands. In a rental car, we drove from place to place under continuous rain. Much of Shodoshima’s artwork — like the monumental “Love in Shodoshima,” by the Taiwanese artist Wang Wen-chih — looks like it’s sprouting straight from the ground itself. The giant bamboo hut, under the steady rain, appeared to grow even larger in front of my eyes.

Winding our way toward the coast we reached a pair of trees, joined together by a wooden footbridge: a treehouse with an unobstructed view of islands beyond. This was “Eyes of Nature (From the Earth),” a living sculpture by Julio Goya, born and raised in Argentina but with familial roots on the island of Okinawa. When we pulled up, he was outside waiting for visitors under an umbrella and wearing a pair of heavy-duty rain boots. We walked through the tree house, ducking between gnarled branches tamed into living walls and a roof. Then, Mr. Goya invited us into his home for coffee, a large one-story house where he was living alone for the duration of the Triennale.

“It’s quiet,” he said, with the unmistakable singsong of Argentinean Spanish. “All these houses are long abandoned,” he continued, pointing to the neighboring homes.

“I came to this island last year, saw those two trees and had this idea. I wanted to make something that feels like it came from the ground to look at the nature around it.”

He brought us into his attic, where he had repurposed an old fishing boat into its own art piece, its nets strewn across the ceiling, holding up little sculptures of wire that resembled mermaids.

“No one was using the boat,” he reasoned with a shrug.

  • While Takamatsu and the islands of the Seto Inland Sea offer a lot for visitors anytime, if you’re thinking about coming to the next Triennale, in 2022, it’s never too early to start planning and booking. A month out, accommodation was hard to come by, and I ended up having to move between mostly forgettable hotels three times — a pity in a country where hospitality is an art in itself. For the full experience, try to snag a room at the Benesse House Museum, a Tadao Ando–designed museum you can sleep in that’s set on a cliff overlooking the sea.

  • If you like udon, you’re in luck; if you don’t, get ready to fall in love. Don’t leave Kagawa without trying kamatama udon, a bowl of noodles with a raw egg, a dab of butter and a sprinkle of soy sauce. Think carbonara, but better. My favorite was at Udon Bakai Ichidai, just east of downtown Takamatsu.

  • For a break from udon, also in Takamatsu, join the line outside Ikkaku. Don’t let the short menu deter you — you’re here for chicken, grilled in a mouthwatering blend of spices and dripping with delicious grease. Make sure to order some onigiri (rice balls) to dip into that chicken grease once you’ve eaten every last shred of meat from the bone.

It was only on my last day that I made it to Naoshima, arguably the star of Japan’s “art islands.” Starting in 1985, Fukutake Publishing Co. (now Benesse Holdings), an education giant, worked with the mayor at the time to turn the island’s southern coast into a cultural hub — and, over the ensuing decades, they helped create a world-class art destination. In fact, riding around the island on a rented electric bicycle, it almost felt like the Triennale was a bonus add-on and not the main event.

I rode first to the Chichu Art Museum, which houses works by Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria in an underground space designed by Tadao Ando. (Mr. Ando’s architecture, found all over the island, is just as much of an attraction as the artwork it houses.)

At the Lee Ufan Museum, I walked through a passageway built out of giant concrete slabs before entering the museum housing the minimalist works by the namesake Korean-born, Japan-based artist.

With the sun just beginning to set over the Inland Sea and with a stomach full of udon, I found myself drawn to the museum’s periphery. Walking across a field where Lee Ufan’s sculptures play with the environment, I reached a beach. The sky was beginning to fill with a rosy haze as ferries and cargo ships drifted between islands. I was alone and I looked back in amazement at the crowds taking photos of the art not realizing that this was right in front of them — with art pointing the way to it: one of Lee Ufan’s sculptures is a giant metal arch positioned like a frame around the sea, or a portal to it.

I stumbled upon Voice Bar on one of my first days in Takamatsu, and I returned almost every evening when I would get off the ferry. The bar is small and brightly lit, and vinyl records fill the shelves. The first time I entered I was the only patron, and on successive nights the crowd never exceeded three people. I had come with a stack of postcards, ready to send some correspondence to friends I have made on this journey so far, but it quickly became clear that I was about to make another one.

Shiro, the bartender, used to own a record store and opened the bar as a way to make some extra cash and “pass the time.” We talked about music, and he told me stories of his love of jazz, salsa and boogaloo — how he had been to New York decades ago and made a pilgrimage to Harlem’s Apollo Theater. He lived alone, with two cats. He showed me a printed-out photo of them, one ginger, the other black, cuddling in a kind of furry yin-yang. Our game of “have you heard this song?” went back and forth for hours until it progressed into conversations about other things: art, travel, spending time alone.

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Solo drinking, cats and a deep dive into obscure records? By my third visit, I was sure I had stepped into a Haruki Murakami novel.

On my last night, Shiro brought out a can of Sapporo as soon as I — already a regular — entered. I pinpointed an emotion that had been bubbling within me since arriving in Japan. It set in while sitting at a counter slurping udon noodles prepared by a white-haired woman behind the counter; while coasting down hilly roads on Naoshima; while spending an hour on Megijima’s beach after dark, doing nothing but watching the lights of passing boats and listening to the waves. Was this melancholy or was this peace?

I had come looking for contemporary art, but left having found a feeling that came from the spaces and moments in between. But then again, maybe that’s the point of the art in the first place.

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