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The Art Island of Inujima

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

The beautiful isle of Inujima is just a 10-minute boat ride off the coast of Okayama Prefecture, yet a world away from mainland Japan.

As one of the designated “art islands” in the area, Inujima breathes creativity and innovation, making it an inspiring trip for any fan of art or culture.

The island’s highlight is its selection of stunning pieces of contemporary art, each integrated into the village. Colourful, abstract exhibits made using modern materials can be found alongside traditional buildings and nestled within greenery. There is also a renowned art museum and numerous other cultural attractions, as well as a swimming beach and breathtaking ocean views.

Literally meaning “dog island,” the reason behind Inujima’s name is somewhat unknown. Some say it is got its moniker after early visitors found a large rock resembling a sitting dog. Legend, on the other hand, holds that an influential scholar, poet and politician of the Heian period (794–1185) called Sugawara no Michizane named it. It is said he got lost when leaving Japan’s then-capital, Kyoto, and followed the call of a dog to the island, from where he was saved.

Inujima has held many names over the years. It was once called the “island of rock” due to its plentiful supply of stone. In ancient times, high-quality granite was removed from its quarries and shipped all over Japan, including to Okayama and Osaka, where it was used to build castles.

Seirensho Art Museum

Part of the art rehabilitation project Benesse Art Site Naoshima, Seirensho Art Museum sits on the grounds of an old copper refinery that operated on Inujima in the early 1900s.

The refinery is designated one of Japan’s 33 Industrial Modernization Heritage Sites by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, so its remains have been preserved and incorporated into the structure. The result is a work of art. Smokestacks and bricks that were in use more than 100 years ago blend seamlessly with the modern glass roof and facade. Beautiful local materials have also been used, while the power is derived from solar and geothermal sources.

The dream-like exhibitions share the concept of “using what exists to create what is to be.” They include suspended wooden structures, dark and mirrored spaces, and pools of water, many by award-winning contemporary artist Yukinori Yanagi.

The refinery played a ground-breaking role in the industrialisation of Japan, At its peak, the industrial site employed an estimated 6,000 people, who lived on the island despite its small circumference of only 4 kilometres (2.3 miles). A sharp drop in the price of copper around 1920, however, forced the refinery to close, and people moved away. Today, the isle has about 50 inhabitants, most of whom are employed in farming, fishing, tourism or management of the art facilities.

The Art House Project

Also part of the plan to rejuvenate this once-thriving island through art, the Art House Project comprises five galleries and outdoor exhibits scattered throughout the village.

The galleries were designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kazuyo Sejima before artists began renovating them with their work. “Flora and Fauna,” a massive white, bubbly creation, fills one gallery while an untitled exhibit resembling a posy of giant flowers heaped on the floor fills another. Yet another features a series of mirrors designed to create countless reflections of the viewer.

The outdoor exhibits blend contemporary art with traditional townscapes. Modern and recycled items including colourful plastic, roofing tiles, acrylic glass and aluminium contrast with the settlement’s wooden homes, gardens and vegetable patches.

Other reasons to visit

The Doghouse is a unique art work and building on the east of the island. It is finished with porcelain tiles, antique ceramics and glassware added by 1,600 children, artists and volunteers from across Japan When adding to the mosaic, each participant was invited to write a wish on the tile they added. When the building is open, visitors can go inside and look out onto the landscape.

The Shizen-no-ie facility offers accommodation and activities including sea kayaking, stone craft, fishing and star gazing using its professional telescope. Nearby is also a swimming beach and campsite, and a few cafes offer lunch and snacks. There is also a quaint harbour.

Inujima may be less well-known than the “art island” of Naoshima, with its spotted pumpkins by legendary artist Yayoi Kusuma, but it’s art doesn’t disappoint. And a visit to Inujima means you are likely to avoid the crowds.

Find out more

For details on visiting Inujima, check out the webpage of Benesse Art Site Naoshima.

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