Originally dotted by small fishing and farming communities the Japanese Art Islands are now also home to galleries, coffee shops and art installations. The main islands, Naoshima and Teshima are about 3 hours from Kyoto by train and ferry. Visiting this area does require a bit of planning, mostly to coordinate transport, but it’s so worth it. Let me tell you why!
In just two days, you can explore traditional Japanese villages, marvel at unique architecture and art installations, go for walks along the beach, visit an onsen, sleep in a yurt and eat everywhere from a factory workers’ café to a vintage diner.
Exploring the art islands was one of the highlights of my 2-month trip to Japan last year (although let’s be real, it was all amazing). It’s somewhere a little different and a fun addition to any Japan itinerary.
Ok, let’s go!
Morning: cycle around Teshima
Catch the morning ferry from Takamatsu or Uno to Ieura port, the main town in Teshima Island. Pick up a map, drop off your luggage at the coin lockers and hire electric bikes (it’s very hilly). If you don’t feel like cycling, there’s also a bus that goes around the island.
Cycle over to the Teshima Art Museum passed rice terraces and farms, stopping to take in the island views. Shaped like a drop of water, the art museum combines nature and concrete to beautiful effect. In many of the galleries, you’re given slippers to wear and talking isn’t allowed. There’s a calm, almost meditative, atmosphere.
Afternoon: old meets new
Eat lunch at the nearby Shima Kitchen, a traditional community kitchen designed by architect Ryo Abe. Make your way back to Ieura and visit Teshima Yokoo House, an old timber farmhouse that’s been converted into a fun and colourful gallery.
Walk around the quiet streets of the fishing village, and have a coffee at Il Vento, a drink also buys you entrance to the gallery.
Drop off your bike and catch the 4 pm ferry to Naoshima. You can pick up island maps and tips from the tourist information centre at Miyanoura port.
Evening: settle into your yurt by the sea
Go for dinner at Shioyu Diner, run by a Tokyoite with an Americana obsession, think vintage interiors, a big popcorn machine and burgers and sides.
Catch the bus from the port to the last stop, Tsutsujiso Lodge, and settle into your Mongolian yurt or cabin by the sea for the night. We visited in winter (it snowed!), and even then the heater and heavy blankets kept our yurt cosy.
Morning: art and pumpkins
After a traditional Japanese breakfast of fish, rice and miso soup at the lodge, take the coastal road to the Benesse House Museum. Stop for photos at Yayoi Kusama’s polka dot pumpkin and explore the rest of the art on the beach.
The Benesse House Museum, designed by Tadao Ando, is a bright and airy gallery that’s surrounded by outdoor installations. There’s also a cafe with sea views (get the chocolate cake, seriously).
Follow the road onwards, by bike, bus or on foot, to the Chichu Art Museum, another concrete masterpiece. It’s mostly underground, but has been designed so that it’s full of light. Only three artists are displayed here, but the gallery space alone is worth visiting for (and the Monet room is a dream).
Afternoon: explore Naoshima’s traditional side
Make your way to Miyanoura. There are trendy cafes and galleries alongside traditional houses and a fishing community that has lived on the island for generations. Check out the public bathhouse full of art or the tiny James Bond museum.
Opposite the Mitsubishi factory is an udon noodle shop where the workers go for lunch. A bowl of noodle soup will set you back $2 and you can watch the noodles being made by hand behind the counter.
Catch the bus to Honmoura, the other settlement on the island. Have a look around the Ando Museum to find out more about the architect’s vision for the galleries. Walk up to the shrine with views of the island, and have a drink at one of the traditional cafes on the main street. Look out for the fun details around the village, like the fire hydrants with faces.
Evening: dinner in a cosy living room
Walk to the seafront for a home-cooked meal at Cafe Konnichiwa , a small makeshift restaurant in someone’s living room.
This isn’t a town that stays up late, so head back to Tsutsujiso Lodge and spend the evening on the beach or cozied up in your yurt, before getting the bus back to the port the next morning.
There are lots more art islands in the Seto Inland Sea, if you’re lucky enough to have longer than 48 hours, Shodoshima and Inujima look great too.
Do you have any other tips to share for the Art Islands in Japan or travel in Japan in general? OR if you’re heading to Japan soon, check out the other articles in our Japan-section, for example our three-week itinerary.
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This is a guest post by Yasmine Awwad.
Yasmine is an editor from London who’s been travelling the world for 2 years and blogging about her adventures at Peeking Duck. She’s trekked with Hmong villagers in Vietnam, camped on top of a volcano in Indonesia and shopped at a witchcraft market in Mexico City. But Japan is still her favourite. You can follow her travels on Instagram.