The Seto Inland Sea (瀬戸内海), surrounded by Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, is a veritable treasure trove of adventure. You can take the longest suspension bridge in the world, Akashi-Kaikyō, to Awaji Island to feast on onions. From Awaji, or Shikoku’s Tokushima prefecture, there are the turbulent Naruto whirlpools where Japan’s fastest currents make one fear the rise of a Kraken. Those of sturdy legs can challenge themselves to cycle the nine bridges of Shimanami Kaidō between Hiroshima and Ehime, whilst a more leisurely trip could see you dining on Shodoshima’s renowned olives, or admiring the art galleries of Naoshima. And of course nothing says Japan quite like Miyajima’s impressive tori gate. But it’s not just the big names you should be visiting; make time for island hopping in the Seto Inland Sea and you will discover a plethora of character, charm and a fair few surprises.
One such surprise can be found on Inujima, a tiny dot on the map just off Okayama. With a coastline of just 3.6km and a population of 50, this little island is a peaceful escape, a short 8 minute boat ride from the mainland. If on arrival you hope to be greeted by puppies galore, as with the rabbits on the so-called ‘bunny island’ in Hiroshima, you will be disappointed. The island is named for the large dog-shaped rock which goes by the name of Inuishi-sama. Don’t be too disappointed though, the island still has a lot going for it and there’s the bonus of no rabies!
Inujima has a long industrial history which started with the use of its high-quality granite, Inujima mikage, for building the castles in Osaka and Okayama in the Edo Period and Osaka Port in the Meiji Period. In 1909 a copper refinery was built on the island which brought work for more than 3000 people until the decline of the quarrying industry. It is the old refinery which still now, in a new guise, is the centre of the island’s attention.
The island’s new lease of life comes through art, and whilst neighbouring Naoshima houses big names like Monet, Inujima’s art scene is well worth a side trip from Okayama. Here there are no classic gallery spaces; instead you dive into artists’ reimaginings of the local houses and industrial spaces. As on Naoshima, you can visit Art House Projects of which Inujima boasts five. The island’s centre piece is more of an adventure though, hidden as it is within the crumbling copper refinery. The red brick exterior is quite beautiful against a blue sky, and piecing together a floor plan of the half-demolished refinery is a fun puzzle whilst walking round. The real intrigue, however, is deftly hidden within the tumbledown building, for which you need a sense of adventure: the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum.
Not an art museum in the classic sense of the word, Inujima Seirensho is truly an art experience. Together, artist Yukinori Yanagi and architect Hiroshi Sambuichi have brought new life to what would otherwise be yet another dilapidated industrial building. The refinery itself is the very bones of this huge art instillation. As well as using the pre-existing architecture, natural energies such as solar and geothermal are used to create a sensory and otherworldly experience as you explore the building’s remains. Harnessing energy from the environment means that you can both experience how a man-made structure is affected by nature and that each visit to this museum will be different with the weather, for example, drastically affecting the lighting thanks to a series of cleverly positioned, and disconcertingly hidden, mirrors.
Entry into the installation is only in small groups, with all cameras to be put away. As you move through the installation’s different phases, guides direct you where to focus your attention and what senses to employ for full dramatic effect. This truly unexpected and ingenious gem of an art museum is well worth a visit if you are in the area. It is a prime example of how modern thinking and artistic inspiration can revitalize an industrial relic.