You don’t have to travel far in any of Setouchi’s seven prefectures to find modern visitors galvanised by the region’s rich culture. They could be paying homage to age-old traditions: the solo straw-hatted, white-clad henro (Buddhist pilgrims) trudging down Shikoku roadsides visiting the island’s 88 sacred temples. Or they could be admirers of contemporary design, say, foreign tourists in Naoshima uploading shots of Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin to Instagram.
As for artists and writers, they’ve been inspired by the region and its beauty for centuries. The calm waters and mystical forests of the Seto Inland Sea have appeared in Japanese literature since the eighth century, particularly medieval classics such as The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Heike. More recently, Setouchi’s mist-shrouded islands formed the eerie backdrop to films by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, as well as the James Bond flick, You Only Live Twice, and the warrior epic The Last Samurai.
Shikoku impressed Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi so much that he set up a studio and residence in Yashima in 1970 (today, it’s the serene Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum). Meanwhile, French illustrator Florent Chavouet was so inspired by the island of Manabeshima, which has more cats than people, he produced an eponymous book on it.
Outsiders aren’t the only ones bewitched by Setouchi; its inhabitants have been producing exquisite culture and handicrafts for generations, not least Matsuyama-born poet Masaoka Shiki. Regarded as the godfather of modern haiku, he’s credited with reviving the dwindling art form in the late 19th century (find out more at his hometown’s Shiki Memorial Museum).
Setouchi is particularly famous for its ceramics. The translucent glaze and subdued pastels of hagi-yaki (Hagi ware; produced in the town of Hagi) are revered around the world. Yet its origins are somewhat gruesome. During the 1590s, notorious feudal warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi abducted entire families of Korean potters during the 1590s to meet the demand for superior ceramics as the tea ceremony grew in popularity. Many of them settled in Hagi; their descendants produce ceramics in much the same way today as they have for generations.
Puppetry also thrives in Setouchi, its roots stemming from the farming and peasant communities of Shikoku in the 17th century. Today, all-female puppet troupe Naoshima Onna Bunraku stage plays using these methods. Traditional performances can also be seen at the Awa Puppet Theatre in Tokushima, the former residence of Samurai Bandō Jūrobe, whose life story (he allowed himself to be executed without a charge) is told in puppetry play Keisei Awa no Naruto.
The calming installations sprinkling Naoshima may have secured its reputation as one of the planet’s premier modern arts hubs, but ordinary locals are also producing art to reflect their environment. The exodus of young people from the Shikoku mountain village of Nagoro means there are only about 30 residents left, most of them elderly. One woman, Tsukimi Ayano, decided to repopulate the village by creating hand-sewn dolls to represent those who have left. You can see them dotted around Nagoro ‘Scarecrow Village’, huddled at bus stops or perched outside the now-empty school. Yet another reason to make a pilgrimage to this endlessly fascinating region.
Five of the best… places to learn about Setouchi culture
Bizen Osafune Sword Museum, Bizen
Watch swords being forged by expert craftspeople. The weapons have been produced here for more than 1,000 years; its Samurai-style katana blades are particularly majestic.
Ai No Yakata, Tokushima
Learn how to dye fabrics with Japan’s fabled indigo — the Shikoku-developed hue that typified the Edo period — at this hands-on workshop.
Rural Toy Museum, Kurashiki
In an old kura (rice storehouse) in scenic Kurashiki, this museum exhibits playthings such as dolls, masks, kites and masks — all providing a spellbinding insight into rural Japan.
The oldest surviving kabuki playhouse in Japan, replete with basement trapdoors and a rotating stage. Performances are still held here.
Hiroshima City Manga Library
Manga is taken as seriously as art in Japan. Find out more at this bijou library…
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