Far from the madding crowd: modern art museums in rural Japan.
I just spent 21 days on holiday in rural Japan, my third time there. 31 million people visited Japan in 2018 and most will stick to the shinkansen (fast train) that connects the large cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima) or areas like Nara, known for its temples and pilgrimage, but I’m much more interested in its rural modern art museums and generally the wanted to share my favorites in the hope to inspire visitors to get off the beaten track.
Art Sentouchi Triennale, Takamatsu (pop. 420K)
Takamatsu is a harbour town in the Kagawa prefecture, about 3h away from Osaka. Every three years, it is the host to an enormous art fair which takes place across town and the islands around it. It’s huge. Think Venice but over six islands. Seasonal tickets can be purchased online and you’ll queue for ferry tickets but it’s entirely worth it. The most known island is Naoshima which has some great architecture by Tadao Ando including the Ando house. Teshima, a smaller island, has an Art Museum which I didn’t manage to get to as tickets for the day were almost sold out by the time my ferry arrived. Shodoshima, the largest and most industrial island has an olive garden with some sculptures by Isamu Noguchi & a public park right next door with a Greek Windmill and more outdoor sculptures. Basically, you can stay for a week in Takamatsu, and take ferries every day to different islands, taking buses or renting bikes once on the island and it’ll be grand. The next art fair is in three years though, so save up for 2022.
Back in Takamatsu, there is plenty to keep you busy, including the excellent modern art museum which was moved from the Ritsurin garden into a former bank. Take a 30 min bus east and book a visit to the Isamu Noguchi studio (with his grave) and drop by the Shikoku Mura museum, an outdoor architecture museum with a Tadao Ando gallery at the top of it. It’s a hike up a hill, but if you have the energy, entirely worth it.
Shimane Art Museum, Matsue (pop. 206K)
I spent five days in Matsue and absolutely loved it. It’s quiet, beautiful, has great cafes, restaurants, craftsmanship and lots of things to do. There’s a castle, a really good samurai house and the Lafcadio Hearn museum which I loved. The Shimane Art Museum, located on the banks of a lake, had a great photography show on. The museum also boasts being one of the best places for a sunset and have a viewing gallery for visitors on the top floor. Matsue is also connected to other super interesting more isolated museums like the Shoji Ueda museum in Houki. I had to walk up a hill for 45 minutes before getting to it and they have no food on site, but the building is something else. The Adachi Museum of Art was a shuttle bus away from a train station and was an interesting example of ‘gardens as art’. You couldn’t walk around them but look at them from afar. Their collection of japanese art from the early 20th century (the Meji era) was good though.
Tottori Prefectural Museum, Tottori (pop.193K)
Tottori isn’t exactly worth more than a day but it’s good. It’s known for its sand dunes but if you take the loop bus and stop a little before it you’ll hit on this perfect example of derelict modernist architecture. The prefectural museum was designed by Kunio Maekawa who had studied under Le Corbusier. It’s a beautiful building but badly managed, not particularly championed and right next to the absurd french style folly Jinpukaku.
Museum of architecture, Kanazawa (pop. 465K)
Kanazawa is a strange town. For the last three years, a fast-ish train line connects it to Tokyo so the tourism feels extreme. But walk outside the ring road (and the loop bus circuit) and you’ll discover the brand new Museum of Architecture which champions the work of architect, author and urban conservator Yoshiro Taniguchi and his son the architect Yoshio Tanaguchi. Really interesting and worth the hike up the hill or if you’re smarter than me, the walk along the river and the back entrance to the building.
The Site of Reversible Destiny, Yoro (pop. 29K)
Take a couple of regional trains from Nagoya (not covered by your JR pass) and you’ll end up in the sleepy village of Yoro in the Gifu prefecture, host to the surreal Site of Reversible Destiny. It’s basically a sculptural folly built by artist Shusaku Arakaw a philosopher Madeline Gins between 1995 and 1997. It takes a couple of hours to walk around the whole thing and it’s not for the faint hearted as it’s all mostly either on slopes or on uneven ground. It’s really a mad place but if you have kids, they’ll love it.
Rural Japan is of course worth it for lots of other reasons other than museums. The quiet yet urban context, cities that are meant to be cycled in, interactions with the locals who are genuinely impressed you’ve bothered to take the time and some of the best food you’ll have (western and local).
November is also turning out to be the perfect time to go as the maple trees become blood red, the persimmon & apples that line the roads are ready to be picked and the weather hovers between 15 and 24. Go, you won’t regret it.
P.S.: Want more details? Here’s my Google Maps with all the recommendations.