The Setouchi Triennale: Exploring the Art and Soul of the Seto Islands

By Laela Zaidi

Every three years, a contemporary art festival draws thousands of Japanese tourists and foreign visitors into the sparsely populated islands resting in the sea between Honshu and Shikoku. The Setouchi Triennale, also known as the Setouchi International Art Festival, began just nine years ago in 2010, but it has already garnered acclaim as a top destination in the contemporary art world and as one of the most unique events to take place in Japan. Whether you’re an art lover or an island adventurer (or both!), the Setouchi Triennale offers something for every kind of Shikoku explorer. As JETs in Ehime, we are extremely lucky that the Setouchi Triennale happens in our backyard. Here’s a short guide to the festival, general background and visiting information, and a brief snippet on one of my favorite islands of the area. 

What is the Setouchi Triennale? How does it work?

The Setouchi Triennale is a contemporary art festival which takes place every three years across more than one dozen islands in the Seto Inland Sea. The festival began as a way of curbing depopulation in these islands, revitalizing the neighborhoods and landscape, preserving cultural heritage, and providing a venue for showcasing contemporary artwork. Many of the islands, especially Naoshima, are famous for having art exhibits and museums open year-round. However, the Setouchi festival is a special time as many new and temporary art works are revealed, smaller islands are more accessible via ferry, and admission is significantly cheaper with the help of a Setouchi passport ticket.

The Setouchi Triennale is not a year-round event: it takes place over three separate sessions in spring, summer and fall. Each session lasts about four to six weeks. During this time, art installations and works are open for the Setouchi passport ticket. Interestingly, the exhibits are mostly hosted in old homes or buildings that have been specifically repurposed into art exhibits for the festival. Much of the contemporary art is installation based, so the spaces consist of immersive digital or visual surroundings and/or sculptural works.

As someone who has visited art museums across the world, the Setouchi Triennale is by far one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in terms of art engagement. The artworks are diverse and difficult to describe without an in-person visit, but all of them manage to speak to both local island geography and history, as well as international and humanistic concerns. Local materials are used in most works, for example, but the artistic themes tend to reflect local and international inspiration. The festival allows this small, isolated region to become a springboard for humanistic and international ideas. Even if art isn’t your thing, the chance to explore local geography and history, and witness one of Japan’s most internationally-recognized events, is worthwhile. In fact, the New York Times listed this year’s Setouchi Triennale as one of its top recommended destinations in 2019

Access: Getting there, Ferry-hopping, and Ticketing

Visitors can access nearly all Setouchi art sites using a  Setouchi “passport.” For a one-time cost of 4,800 yen, the passport grants access to most of the Setouchi sites without an additional ticket for all three sessions. You can use the passport for an unlimited number of times during each session, but you can only use it once per site for admission. The three-session passport is only 800 yen more than the one-session passport, so it’s definitely worth the money.

Considering that there are dozens and dozens of exhibitions across more than twelve islands, you cannot expect to see all of the artworks in one trip. Some islands may require two trips as well. With this in mind, it makes sense to invest in a ticket that will allow you to come back throughout the Triennale year during the session weeks. Also, watch out for sites that are owned by the Benessee Foundation—these are permanent art museums open year-round that sometimes require an additional cost to get in, though in some cases the admission will be discounted for passport holders. In the passport, these sites end with “B” and it will specify either on the Setouchi website or within the passport itself whether or not an additional fare needs to be given. It’s best to refer to websites for the Benesse art sites in terms of opening times and ticketing information. Outdoor sculptures and artworks are typically free to enter (and the islands are full of them!).

Getting between the islands is also made simple with a three-day unlimited ferry pass. During the Triennale, there are a greater number of ferries and routes available to visit the Seto islands. With a 2,500 yen ferry pass (only available during the Triennale), you can use these routes an unlimited number of times within a 3-day period. Keep in mind that, during weekends and holidays, congestion on the islands for ferry departures is heavy. There is no system for advanced reservations—unlimited ferry pass holders (and non-pass holders) line-up for ferries and tickets are handed out 30 minutes prior to boarding. The last ferry is always the most crowded. Make sure to line up more than 30 minutes prior to boarding during the most crowded times of day!

On the islands themselves, public transportation information can be found upon arrival. Expect to walk between sites, but there are public buses between major neighborhoods of the islands in most cases. As buses can also become crowded during peak times, many people use bikes and electric bikes. Although it sounds a little difficult to navigate around the islands, walking and biking is one of the best aspects of visiting the Seto islands, whether it is during the Triennale or not. These islands have breathtaking views of oceans, mountains, and forests. Exploring the local neighborhoods provides context for the art, and vice versa, which is why the Triennale is such a fascinating event for both art lovers and outdoorsy folks.

Most visitors use Takamatsu as a base since more islands have a direct route to the city than to the other islands. For a short visit, using Takamatsu as a base is handy. However, for longer visits, one can stay in a hostel or guest house on Shodoshima and Naoshima. Keep in mind, however, that the islands do not have many grocery stores, nighttime public transit networks or bars. If you want to experience art by day and some city adventures at night, then Takamatsu is the best place to visit. During Golden Week, I stayed on Shodoshima and Naoshima, but during my shorter trips to the festival in summer and fall, I plan on using Takamatsu as a base.

Top Picks for Setouchi: Teshima and Shodoshima

Each of the Seto islands has its own draw and strengths. Naoshima by far is the most well-known and is filled with tourists year-round. However, during the festival time, Naoshima does not seem to house new Setouchi artworks. Shodoshima has many new artworks for the Triennale 2019, but the island also includes plenty of non-art related tourist sites that are worth visiting. Smaller islands are basically only accessible during the Triennale sessions, thus making the festival access via ferry and passport all the more convenient.

By far, my favorite spot to visit during my Golden Week trip to Setouchi was Teshima. After many years of suffering from environmental contamination and depopulation, the island has become a beautiful place once again, this time with tons of thought-provoking art and fantastic views. It’s a pleasant place to walk and bike around, but it is quite rural. Only 808 people live on the entire island! 

View of Teshima and the Teshima Art Museum

Teshima includes an amazing number of Triennale highlights, including Storm House, a quiet house that is designed to feel as though a typhoon or hurricane is passing through it using audio and visual design. Although it costs extra to visit, the Teshima Art Museum is by far one of the best permanent art sites in the Seto Inland Sea (make sure to reserve a ticket online in advance during the Setouchi period). Another artwork, Needle Factory, is centered around a renovated ship hull that was found and brought in from Uwajima, Ehime. Overall, the best part of Teshima was renting an electric bike and taking in the scenery, stopping at a beautiful café with ocean side views, and visiting some of the festival’s best artworks. Teshima has already become a hot spot for the Setouchi Triennale, so it may be best to visit this place before it’s completely overrun by tourists in the coming years! 

Needle Factory on Teshima Island

I hope all of you Ehime JETs have the chance to visit these beautiful islands during your time here, whether it is during the Setouchi Triennale or during the off-season. Each of my visits to these islands have given me a new perspective of Japan, the Seto Insland Sea, Shikoku, and humanistic concerns and ideals. Please enjoy your time, and don’t hesitate to reach out to me with your questions! 

Laela Zaidi is a 2nd year ALT living in Ozu, Ehime. She is originally from Missouri, USA. Her hobbies include traveling, writing, and playing tennis. Reach out to her at laelazaidi@gmail.com for any Setouchi-related questions or advice for traveling to the Nanyo B area.

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