Art in Japan: 6 Setouchi Triennale tips

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Only swinging around every three years, art lovers eagerly count down the days until the next Setouchi Triennale. Not least of all travel consultant Michael Trombold; after being lucky enough to visit Japan’s famous art islands recently, he shares his top festival tips.

Setouchi Triennale

Every three years the Setouchi islands between Honshu and Shikoku host a spectacular art festival that draws in visitors and artists from around the world. After four visits to the art islands under my belt – twice during a Triennale season and twice during a normal season – I’ve compiled a list of 6 tips to help maximise your time at the festival!

1. Give yourself enough time to explore

Setouchi Triennale

Outside of the Triennale, Naoshima and Teshima can be done as a shorter day trips from Okayama or Takamatsu. During the Triennale, however, crowds will slow you down and you might find yourself missing exhibits if you only have part of a day there. During this peak season, dedicate at least one long day to Naoshima (though two would be better), a full day for Teshima, and a half day for the smaller islands.

Unless you visit all three seasonal exhibitions (Spring, Summer, and Fall) and have at least half a month to spare, you are going to have to push your FOMO aside and accept that you won’t be able to see it all. Fortunately, the islands are chock full of art, so you will definitely get your fill! Even walking around the streets you will find random pop-up exhibits!

2. Get a Triennale Passport, skip the ferry pass

Setouchi Triennale passport

The Triennale is so vast, that entrance fees can add up on the day. If you plan to visit two islands, a passport will not only be more convenient but help you save a pretty penny. It covers entry into most exhibits and has the added fun of collecting stamps for the various exhibits. It also helps you keep on track so you know you aren’t missing anything.

You can also purchase a three-day ferry pass, which is very tempting and can be economical in some situations – it only covers ferries and could limit your on-the-day flexibility. High-speed passenger boats reduce your commuting and give you more time to explore, but these must be purchased on the day.

3. Make reservations for exhibits and transportation

Setouchi Triennale car hire

On Naoshima and Teshima, advance reservation will save you the headache of zipping around the islands trying to obtain timed entry tickets for specific exhibits. Tickets for the Chichu Art Museum can and SHOULD be purchased in advance. On my most recent visit, same day tickets were only available for the last slot of the day. The Teshima Art Museum has open reservations during the Triennale. Yes, tickets can be purchased on the day, but why risk it?

Bikes can be rented on the day, but many places have started taking advance reservations, so I strongly recommend pre-booking one. If available, an electric bike will be your legs’ best friend. If there’s nothing left, do as I did and rent a car on the day, but keep in mind these are very limited, parking can be tough, and you’ll need an international driving permit. The car was quite adorable though.

Some exhibits, like Turrell’s Minamidera, have timed entry tickets which can only be obtained on the day. Arriving to Naoshima at 11:30 in the morning, the next entry was at 14:45. This is one exhibit you won’t want to miss.

If you are traveling with us, ask your consultant about tickets for the Chichu Art Museum and a Triennale Passport, they will make your trip run even more smoothly.

4. Avoid island holidays

Setouchi Triennale, Naoshima, Yayoi Kusama pumpkin

Naoshima is closed on Mondays, and Teshima and Inujima on Tuesdays. When I say closed, I mean it. You’ll feel like you are in a ghost town. Ok, the Seven Eleven and Benesse House will still be open, but that’s about it. Though, it is the perfect time to get a photo with the outdoor exhibits with no tourists…

If possible, avoid Naoshima and Teshima on the day the other island is closed. When Naoshima is closed where do you think everyone else goes? Teshima. That’s where.

5. Have a game plan and start early

Setouchi Triennale, ferry

Get up as early as possible to catch one of the first boats to the islands. Passenger boats have very limited space and can fill up quickly. Tickets don’t go on sale until 30 minutes before departure, so line up before then for the best chance to get a spot. There’s nothing more disheartening than waiting an extra hour and a half to board a ferry.

An early start gives you much more flexibility to see more of the islands, grab a rental bike if you didn’t reserve one, and secure early spots to exhibits you can only get on the day.

If you are on a ferry and find yourself with no reservations, wait by the draw gate to make sure you are one of the first off the boat. This will give you the best chance at getting a rental vehicle or catching a bus.

Setouchi Triennale, ferry

6. Be flexible and have a back-up plan!

Weather is unpredictable and can easily throw a wrench in your plans. After a solid week of sunny days, on the day we planned to go from Naoshima to Teshima, a storm started, and all high-speed passenger boats were cancelled for the day. As a result, we had to take a rather inconvenient route. Rather than the 20-minute high-speed boat ride, I had to take a 20-minute ferry to Uno port, wait an hour, and board the 50-minute ferry to Teshima. It wasn’t ideal, but we were determined! Fortunately, Uno Port had a couple of exhibits for us to keep occupied.

Setouchi Triennale on a stormy day

All in all, the Setouchi Triennale can seem overwhelming, but if you love modern art, want to see a unique part of Japan, and don’t mind a couple of crowds here and there, it is 1000% worth it.

Modern art fan? To avoid waiting three years until the next Setouchi Triennale, give our travel consultants a call and plan your 2019 trip. If this year seems a little ambitious, check out our Japan Arts Trail Self-Guided Adventure

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