Unknown Japan; Setouchi Islands

The less-visited region of Setouchi, the largest inland sea in Japan, surrounded by seven geographically diverse prefectures, is a place whose beauty is hard to describe; still azure waters broken by rising rocky mounds, some covered in lush vegetation, others sheer as if forced up from the sea bed only yesterday. Tiny towns of wooden houses hug coastlines, dwarfed by vast ships, some complete, others in the process of completion, their constituent parts being tugged along the watery skyline to be fixed and fitted into a whole.

Yet it’s not only the natural scenery that impresses; Setouchi’s over three thousand islands bathed in year round sun, whose citrus trees dapple the land in infinite shades of orange and white sand beaches that seemingly appear as though plucked straight from nirvana, is only one aspect of the region’s appeal; the new creative scene the other. In particular, the art and culture lovers amongst us should be tempted by the certain tiny ‘art islands’ of the Seto Inland Sea; an unexpected home for works by Monet, Hockney, Warhol, Kusama, Yanagi and a host of other world-class artists.

Amongst the most prominent of these art islands, Naoshima, whose fame came thanks to a billionaire benefactor who founded the Benesse Art Site here in 1992, has made this and neighbouring islands Teshima and Inujima, somewhat of a worldwide draw for those wishing to pay a visit to their clutch of highly unusual but outstanding museums.

Now though, it seems the even smaller and more exclusive islands of Momoshima and Ōmishima and the mainland cities of Onomichi and Okayama are fast becoming the new hot-list for lovers of Japanese contemporary art and design. It helps, perhaps, that they happen to sit alongside some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen in Japan; pristine waters punctuated by little fishing boats, the owners of which haul in their catch daily, offering it up to those locals that are left behind. For it is the fate of these islands, as with much of rural Japan, that they are all but abandoned, young residents opting instead for bright lights, big city living, leaving the land and its old to become older.

Spreading from Okayama and Kagawa, along through Ehime and Hiroshima, the Setouchi islands can be reached from both Shikoku and Honshu, with the Honshu side offering the ease of numerous bullet train station stops (Okayama, Onomichi, Hiroshima etc.) to make exploring the area even easier. The second-to-none public transport system in Japan can deliver you to almost any of the picturesque ports that nestle the innumerable shorelines, beckoning to those of us with even an iota of an investigative spirit. Knowing that Setouchi is filled with a dynamic abundance of incredible islands, too many to write about, yet indeed even explore, here I’ll introduce a few of my off-the-beaten path favourites, which along with the more mainstream Naoshima, Inujima and Teshima, should offer a great base for visiting this fascinating cluster of islets… and if any of you should unearth new treasures, be sure to let me know.

Kasaoka islands

Each of the 31 islands that sit off the Honshu shore between Okayama and Onomichi, known as the Kasaoka islands (named after the mainland town that sits closest to them) rise in wave of verdant green and rocky peaks. All are equally stunning, though Manabeshima and Shiraishijima are the pair of beautifully untouched isles that most peaked my curiosity. Much the same as the other Kasaoka Islands, Manabeshima and Shiraishijima have been hard hit by dwindling population numbers and an exodus of young people to larger cities. With resident numbers now ranging from 100-1000, the government and remaining locals have been long working to rejuvenate the area and attract young families and tourists to laud over the beauty of the area.

Zig-zagging stone streets of wooden and corrugated-iron tenements are now sprinkled with the odd cute café and guesthouse, thanks to a government initiative offering funding for these types of projects. On Manabeshima, Inn the Camp is one such project. Set up by a young family who, enamored by the uninterrupted charm of Kasaoka, opted for a fresh start setting up a camping themed guesthouse and modern Motoe Café whose dark and concrete interiors wouldn’t be amiss in the midst of a big city, yet manages to retain a quaint loveliness reminiscent of the encompassing island. Not only do they offer a rich and delicious drip coffee, they serve sweet and succulent cakes, lunches and even make daily bento boxes for older residents who can no longer cook for themselves that they whizz around the island’s tiny alleys in an almost comically-sized one seater car.

For a more traditionally Japanese stay and setting, Santora on the other side of the island, is an inn accessible only via a footpath through the hills or their private jetty. It has the freshest seafood restaurant overlooking the bay and simple accommodation with a basic but beautiful onsen looking out onto the calm, clear waters. On Shiraishijima, the International Villa offers comfy rooms with an outlook on the island’s best white sandy beach (only a 5 minute walk away) where in the summer months, bars, cafés and restaurants buzz with activity. If you’re planning on staying in the off-season, contact the management in advance and they’d be happy to arrange a reservation at one of the island’s restaurants who will open for advance bookings, or make use of the communal kitchen to cook up some of the local produce.

The islands are an unspoiled image of Old Japan; the isolated appeal of an ageless place that must be celebrated and saved from dereliction. I completely fell in love with these islands (and their cats, particularly on Manabeshima where the resident felines bask in the sun on the port until intrepid travelers appear offering a break from the norm and the opportunity to vie for some much-needed attention).

Momoshima

An island situated in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea and only accessible by boat, the most convenient being a direct ferry from Onomichi which takes around 20 minutes, is isolated and without any bridges. The population of 350 live in a barely touched natural environment that’s home to thousands of Japanese citrus trees, various vegetables, ancient shrines and now ART BASE, founded by Japanese contemporary artist Yukinori Yanagi, who wished to halt the decline of such a unique time capsule of rural Japan.

Sitting beside Momoshima’s 350 residents, ART BASE, housed in a number of the island’s abandoned buildings (including a former junior high school and 1950s movie theatre) hosts special exhibitions and events showcasing Yanagi’s own unconventional work and a plethora of other artists. Their aim of promoting cultural and artistic engagement in the local community, whilst offering the chance to showcase works that are deemed unsuitable for larger city galleries, including exclusive pieces by artists whose works have been previously displayed at The Tate Gallery in London and MOMA in New York, is also to provide the opportunity for up-and-coming artists to move into renovated, disused houses on the island for their Artist in Residence programmes, ultimately producing special seasonal exhibition pieces.

Yanagi’s work addresses many political issues, from movement and immigration, land reclamation, military oppression, mythology and mass consumption. From his ‘Wandering Mickey’, a car (symbolising America’s mass consumption) continuously running in a hamster wheel surrounded by brightly painted oil drums, to ‘Hinomaru Illumination’, a neon board atop a body of water that changes from the Nisshoki (flag of Japan) to the Kyokujitsuki (Japanese prewar military flag) and eventually to the Black Sun (referring to the mythology of Japan), Yanagi also creates many works with ants forming pathways in sand across flags and bank notes representing the free movement of people.

ART BASE aims to develop art tourism to Momoshima and increase the population by stimulating immigration of the creative class, revitalizing the island, pushing innovation and reclaiming what was almost lost. Absorbing the unique ambience of the island is encouraged, visitors will be soon be able to stay overnight at the guesthouse-come-art-installation by ART BASE, and a new art-based boutique hotel, both opening towards the end of the year. The juxtaposition of art and the untouched beauty of Momoshima is captivating, engaging and thought-provoking and perfect for anyone who’s looking for something unique yet beautiful on their next trip to Japan. Plus, it’s far less unknown that Naoshima so much more exclusive.

Ōmishima

Another small and relatively unknown island located in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea is Ōmishima. With its population of around 6000 making it the fifth largest in the region, it is connected to neighbouring islands and to both Shikoku and Honshu, by a network of roads and magnificent bridges, called the Shimanami Kaido. Rising from the churning azure waters of the Seto Inland Sea and falling back into verdant green hills, it’s bridges give way to coastal roads that skirt scenes of far off island outlines broken only by boats. The route is cyclable, offering incredible views of the island scenery below.

The year round warm climate makes it a perfect place to farm citrus, vegetables and grapes, but it is now its ties to design that have earned the island the reputation as a trailblazer of contemporary architecture. In the main thanks to Toyo Ito, one of Japan’s best known architects, who founded the country’s first architecture museum, the Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Imabari (TIMA), a branch of which opened on the island in 2011 after Ito visited the site and fell head over heels for the special power the place holds.

The mission for Ito, aside from the museum, was to promote social impact; sustain the island’s unique appeal and improve the lives of residents whilst also attracting travelers to help boost the local economy. Discussions with local people led Ito, along with two renowned Japanese architecture schools, to embark upon Project Ōmishima; a network of collaborative enterprises, from a cooperative workspace ‘Everyone’s House’ that has renovated a traditional wooden machiya into a shared space encouraging both tourists and residents to meet, work and interact, to the establishment of a boutique winery, brewery and a sustainable, design-led hotel, Ōmishima Rest House, that has repurposed an old elementary school. The spirit of past generations fused with the foresight of Ito’s project has triggered not only a circular economy, but a respect for both the ancestral and modern way of life that has rebuilt the story of the island.

All-in-all the Setouchi Islands are a remarkable distraction from the regular tourist trail in Japan. Breath-taking scenery, bountiful natural resources, affable locals and a sense of community. In my opinion it’s a destination unrivaled and I’m already longing to return.

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