Islands of inspiration

An unlikely art trail in a remote corner of Japan has Danielle Demetriou captivated.

I am standing in a dark, windowless room resonating with the sound of a human heartbeat, each pulsating thump accompanied by a strobe-like flicker of light.

This is not because I am in the bowels of an underground nightclub in Tokyo. Nor am I detained in a mental institute (despite the presence of a woman in a clinical white outfit just the other side of the door).

My location is a wooden building on a forest-fringed beach on a tiny fishing island in Japan - and I am inside a modern art installation.

The appreciation of contemporary art usually takes place in a gallery. But things are done differently in Japan - in particular, in the Seto Inland Sea area. Scattered with 3000-plus islands, this idyllic expanse of blue water is dubbed the Mediterranean of Japan on account of its temperate climate and olive trees.

It is in this region, about 640 kilometres south of Tokyo, that hundreds of artworks - the heartbeat house included - have been installed across rice fields, beaches, shrines and old houses as part of an unusual project to revitalise ageing communities.

Setting off to explore this unlikely art trail, my journey from high-tech Tokyo to rural fishing islands covers the transport spectrum - a short flight to Takamatsu city, a bus to the port and finally a boat to my destination: Naoshima island.

My first double-take occurs before the 50-minute ferry has hit dry land. Approaching Naoshima, with its neat, low-rise wooden houses and dense green hills, I squint at something large, red and shiny next to the sea - a giant spotted pumpkin. The sculpture is a fitting introduction to Naoshima, an island that despite its diminutive size - just 12.9 square kilometres - and off-the-radar location has a contemporary art haul that would turn the Tate Modern green with envy.

In 1992 a Japanese publishing magnate set about transforming Naoshima from sleepy fishing island to international art centre with the launch of the first of a string of galleries.

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During the past three decades, more and more art projects have sprung up across Naoshima, and the region's status as a major art hub was confirmed in 2010 with the launch of Setouchi Triennale, a three-yearly art festival across 12 fishing islands with the goal of boosting the quality of life of its elderly residents.

The first place I explore is Honmura, the old town on the island's east coast, where narrow streets are lined with wooden houses complete with tiled roofs, neat gardens and cotton noren curtains fluttering at the entrance - and, it seems, not many people.

The antithesis of urban Tokyo, the only signs of life are sleeping cats and quietly whirring vending machines - until I spy a telltale blue sign outside a building indicating the presence of an artwork. Venturing inside the courtyard of the centuries-old house - feeling more intruder than art aficionado - I am fortunately greeted by a smiling girl who guides me to slip my shoes off in the wooden genkan (entrance) and enter a darkened room.

Here, I find a dark pool illuminated with coloured LEDs, scattered like electronic water lilies, each counting at different speeds beneath the surface of the water - an installation by the artist Tatsuo Miyajima.

The next few hours pass in a creative blur, as I head to the Chichu, a cleverly designed underground concrete museum that disappears into the landscape, housing a capsule collection of five Monet water lily paintings and a contemplative James Turrell skylight framing a patch of blue.

Back in Honmura, I stumble across a place that may or may not be an artwork but is striking either way: a makeshift cafe housed in a garage complete with loud music, vintage furniture, animal murals and a young Japanese man with an afro. After preparing a mountainous fishburger - the only item on the menu - pausing only to serve two grannies who pop by to collect a takeaway, he stops to ponder island life. "It used to be very quiet here," he says. "But it's changing, particularly over the past five years. Many people come to see the artworks. It's a good thing for the island."

Later - after a quick dip in the local bath-house alongside a kitsch elephant sculpture and the local grannies - I meet Ishii san, a friendly pensioner who owns the family-run minshuku (inn) where I'm staying. Sitting in his bustling restaurant, filled with wooden counters and large moon-like paper lanterns, we chat while his smiling, elderly wife chops vegetables and fries fish he caught at sunrise.

Asking him what the elderly locals think of all this modern art, he smiles as he admits it wasn't his cup of tea at first, before launching into a passionate description of his favourite Naoshima artwork, a meditative museum by the Korean artist Lee Ufan. "You are surrounded by walls and - Zoom! Zoom! Zoom! You feel the power of the space, like a meditation, like the universe, from all sides!" he says.

The following morning, I jump on a short, briny boat trip to nearby Teshima, a rocky fleck of an island with a population just brushing 1000.

Arriving at the port, I note the island's steep landscape and hesitate before a row of immaculate mint-green electric bicycles - until the middle-aged owner, as if reading my mind, says, "A 78-year-old cycled around the island on one of these yesterday. No problem."

Convinced, I jump on, press a button - and celebrate the joys of Japanese technology as I'm propelled up a steep hill with minimum effort, savouring the rush of fresh air as I pass tiered rice fields and dense forests.

Curiosity rather than exhaustion results in a string of stops along the road (fortunately one of only a handful on the island, making it impossible to get lost). There are strange, circular globes hanging like bubbles in green bamboo forest; an atmospheric white installation that resembles a cross between a spaceship and a single drop of water; lunch in a stylish restaurant run by local mama-sans wearing headscarves and cooking delicious island vegetables - and, finally, the heartbeat house, by the French artist Christian Boltanski.

The small wooden building, set at the end of a bumpy path, has the pristine ambience of a medical clinic at the front, complete with a nurse-like receptionist in white uniform, and a dark room at the back eerily lined with mirrors where the recorded heartbeats of previous visitors (35,633 at last count) are played one by one in flickering light.

Leaving an unusual personal mark on this remote corner of Japan, I enter a small compartment containing a computer and a stethoscope and record my own heartbeat to be incorporated into the artwork.

Back on Naoshima island, I make my way to Benesse House for my final night. Despite its stylish concrete design and impeccable service, it is clearly more a gallery sleepover than a hotel. Not only are there works of art in each guest room (mine is a minimalist 1970 aluminium painting by Frank Stella), but during the brief walk from my room to the five-star restaurant, I count no less than 14 artworks along the corridors, including sculptures, photographs and paintings by celebrated artists ranging from Hiroshi Sugimoto to Yayoi Kusama.

The following morning, as I set off for Tokyo beneath cobalt blue skies, I am surprised to feel a tinge of sadness at leaving. But standing on the ferry deck as the red-spotted pumpkin gradually disappears from sight, I feel reassured that I will be back - particularly having left behind my heartbeat.

The writer travelled as a guest of Inside Japan.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

A fare to Takamatsu is about $1920 low season return from Sydney including tax.

You fly from Sydney to Tokyo Narita airport (9hrs with Qantas) and then transfer to Haneda airport (own expense) for the 80-minute flight on Japan Airlines to Takamatsu.

Melbourne passengers pay about $50 more and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect.

TOURING THERE

Inside Japan offers a 15-night self-guided Arts Trail tour, including two nights on Naoshima, as well as art spots in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagoya, Hakone and Matsue.

See insidejapantours.com.

MORE INFORMATION

setouchi-artfest.jp; benesse-artsite.jp/en

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