Tokyo is packed with some of the world’s top museums and galleries, but further afield in Japan are even more fantastic art hubs.

From art islands to immaculate gardens, these are some of Japan’s best art destinations — and four biennales and triennales not to be missed.

Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima (Kagawa Prefecture)

Three islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea – Naoshima, and to a lesser extent Teshima and Inujima – are contemporary art wonderlands. All three are easy to explore on foot or by bike, which you can rent just outside the ferry terminal. Seeing enormous art installations dotted throughout the rural island landscape is wonderfully surreal.

Highlights include Yayoi Kusama’s giant, colorful kabocha pumpkins on Naoshima, the stunning Teshima Art Museum, and the quirky Inujima Art House Project. Visit Benesse Art Site for information on the art islands and the Benesse House hotel.

Read more: Naoshima, the Art Island

Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Mure, Shikoku, Japan
Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Mure, Shikoku

Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan (Kagawa Prefecture)

A short ferry ride from Naoshima, and just outside the coastal city of Takamatsu, you’ll find The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan.

Noguchi worked here in Mure, a small town just outside of Takamatsu, for six months of the year for the last twenty years of his career. The museum is a result of Noguchi’s wish that his studio in Mure be made into a space like his New York museum. The museum has 150 sculptures, but because many of remain unfinished, the space feels more like a true artist’s studio than a museum.

Adachi Museum of Art (Shimane Prefecture)

A surprise to many, one of Japan’s most renowned gardens does not date from hundreds of years ago, but is in fact just a couple of decades old.

The Adachi Museum of Art, located about 40 minutes from the city of Matsue, is home to a garden many consider the best in Japan. The garden beautifully blends with the landscape, yet is just one reason to visit Adachi Museum, which also houses an impressive collection of modern and contemporary Japanese paintings, ceramics, and wood carvings.

Museum founder Adachi Zenko, himself a keen gardener, was a champion of the late painter Yokoyama Taikan, and visitors will find Yokoyama’s works all over the museum. Don’t miss his vibrant Autumn Leaves painted on a pair of six-panel folding screens.

Miho Museum (Shiga Prefecture)

About an hour and a half southeast of Kyoto, the Miho Museum is named for textile heiress Mihoko Koyama.

The museum houses her private collection of Asian and Western antiques, which comprises more than 2,000 pieces, though you’ll find about 250 on display. The museum, three quarters of which is underground, was designed by I.M. Pei, who used the same French limestone found in the Louvre’s reception hall. Make sure to enjoy lunch at the Miho Museum’s cafe, where meals are prepared including produce grown on the museum’s grounds.

Note: The Miho Museum’s exhibits are frequently changing, and the museum is closed for a large part of every year, so check the calendar (link above) before you go.

Echigo-Tsumari Art Field (Niigata Prefecture)

You truly have to traverse the expansive Echigo-Tsumari Art Field to believe it exists.

Picture a verdant 760 km2 field covered in 160 art installations made by artists from around the globe, beautiful even when covered in snow (see some wonderful photos here). Those behind the Art Field work with the local community to encourage tourism and bring visitors to this quiet area a couple of hours north of Tokyo.

Visiting Echigo-Tsumari Art Field and exploring the surrounding villages is a unique and delightful way to see the Japanese countryside. If you time your visit right, you’ll be there for the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale (see below).

Arte Piazza Bibai (Hokkaido Prefecture)

Located about an hour north of Sapporo, Arte Piazza Bibai is a stunning sculpture park filled with works by Kan Yasuda, himself a native of Bibai.

The tranquil park, surrounded by Hokkaido’s lovely nature, features 40 sculptures in all in white marble and black bronze.

Hakone Open Air Museum (Kanagawa Prefecture)

By train and bus, Hakone Open Air Museum is two hours and 20 minutes from Tokyo, making a day trip possible.

The museum’s name comes from the 100 outdoor art installations, by modern and contemporary masters, dotting its huge garden. On permanent display outdoors are 11 sculptures by Henry Moore, who once said, “Sculpture is an art of the open air.” Indoors are 300 Picassos on display in the Picasso Pavilion, as well as more sculptures from masters like Brancusi.

While in Hakone, also pay a visit to POLA Museum of Art (and read more about why we love Hakone).

"100 Live and Die" by Bruce Nauman at Benesse House, Naoshima, Japan
“100 Live and Die” by Bruce Nauman at Benesse House, Naoshima (photo by skrytebane CC BY)

Japan’s Top Biennales and Triennales

Setouchi Triennale

The fantastic Setouchi Triennale covers 12 islands of the Seto Inland Sea plus the city of Takamatsu and the town of Uno. Setouchi Triennale runs in three sections – March-April, July-September, and October-November — totaling 108 days. During the triennale you’ll find art installations in galleries and public spaces throughout the region (including, of course, Naoshima), as well as a variety of related events. You’d need weeks to see most of the exhibitions in the Setouchi Triennale (2013’s show had 150 pieces), but fortunately some of the installations are set up year round. Getting between the islands is made simple by the inexpensive ferries that run regularly. Once you’re on the islands, walk, cycle, or hop on the shuttle bus.

Nakanojo Biennale

The Nakanojo Biennale started in 2007 and takes place in Nakanojo, a town in rural Gunma Prefecture (about 150 km north west of Tokyo). The 2015 Nakanojo Biennale saw 132 artists from Japan and around the globe descend on Nakanojo. The exhibitions, featuring installations, paintings, photograph, multimedia work, and videos, are set up in two onsen (hot springs) towns – Shima Onsen and Sawatari Onsen – and in Nakanojo’s town center in public and disused spaces, such as a former wooden schoolhouse. If you’re without a car, the best way to explore the Nakanojo Biennale is to base yourself in Shima Onsen, where you can stay the night in a ryokan.

Yokohama Triennale

Less than an hour south of Tokyo, the water city of Yokohama plays host to one of Japan’s most impressive art events. The most recent Yokohama Triennale, held in 2014, featured a whopping 444 pieces of artwork by 79 artists. Past Yokohama Triennale themes have included “Art Fahrenheit 451: Sailing into the sea of oblivion,” and “Our Magic Hour.” Talks by the artists, film screenings, workshops, and children’s activities round out the program.

Echigo-Tsumari Triennale

Since 2000, Echigo-Tsumari Art Field (also featured above) has hosted the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, with artwork spread throughout the rural region. Beyond the pieces themselves, there’s a performance art element to Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, with performances held in the local villages.

Japan's best art destinations include art islands, open-air art installations in the countryside, fantastic biennales and triennales, and unique museums.
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About Sophie Friedman

Sophie is an American journalist based in Shanghai and New York. She writes for Conde Nast Traveler, AFAR, Forbes Travel Guide, and Fodor’s guidebooks. Her favorite things to do in Japan are eat and get lost in stationery stores. Find Sophie at @sophiefriedman.