Megijima: More Than Meets the Eye
By Jackie Enzmann
On a recent Saturday morning I found myself on a ferry bound for Megijima, a tiny island off the coast of Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku. As my ferry mates, mostly young Japanese couples and parents with small children, and I neared our destination, a long line of seagulls perched along the sea wall appeared in the distance. Perhaps, I mused, this island of only 200 residents couldn’t spare the manpower for a proper welcoming committee, so this well-organized flock waited to greet us instead. As the ferry pulled into the dock, the birds all seemed to shudder in unison and suddenly I realized my mistake. What I had seen weren’t even birds at all, but instead hundreds of individually mounted metal weather vanes spanning the entire sea wall, an art installation entitled “Seagulls Parking Lot” by Aichi Prefecture artist Takahito Kimura.
In a way, those seagulls proved an apt introduction to the dynamic fusion of art, nature and the Japanese landscape on Megijima, one of the many islands in a region that seems determined to become the ultimate destination for modern art in Japan. Currently, 12 islands in the Inland Sea between Okayama and Kagawa Prefectures are home to over 200 installations by artists from around the world as part of a seasonal art festival called the Setouchi Triennale 2013. This festival and the many other museums and permanent installations in the region are all part of an ingenious movement to use art to boost the economy and counteract the effects of the declining populations of these rural islands. The most famous of these art islands is undoubtedly Naoshima, with the Benesse House Museum and spotted pumpkins of Yayoi Kusama. (For more on Naoshima, check out Sarah’s article here.)
While Naoshima has become internationally known as a pilgrimage site for art lovers, the surrounding islands still maintain their relative obscurity, especially with foreign tourists. This gives Megijima and islands like it a special charm – the feeling when you’re there that you are one of only a precious few who managed to stumble upon this secret treasure trove of art tucked behind the facade of an ordinary island town.
Visitors to Megijima needn’t venture far to find traces of the festival. Take a right turn out of the visitor’s center and beyond the seagulls stands a grand piano, painted black and topped with the masts and sails of a ship, looking like a snapshot from a Salvador Dali painting. Dash across the street and follow the strains of piano music down a narrow gravel path to a concert hall called Megi House. At first glance, you couldn’t be faulted for assuming this dark, wooden room was the entryway to a ryokan. Step out onto the courtyard and you’ll see what appears to be a gramophone speaker designed for King Kong, but what is actually an instrument called “POPHORN.” If you’re lucky, a performance by the faculty of Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music will be scheduled that day. These are only a few of the installations on Megijima.
Even by foot, all of the attractions on the island can be seen comfortably in a day, making Megijima a fine place for a short venture from home or a day trip from one of the other islands. A seasonal passport to the festival costs only 5000 yen and gives you unlimited access to all of the art installations on any of the participating islands, making it a bargain for anyone planning to visit more than one island during the season.
Perhaps now would be a good time to make a confession. I didn’t make the trek to Megijima for the art. I was lured by the island’s original claim to fame, its reputation as Onigaishima, the demon-infested island conquered by Momotaro. The fact that an art festival coincided with my trip seemed at first merely to be an added bonus. I’ll admit now that I had it completely backwards.
That being said, the caves are still worth a visit even if only to say that you, like Momotaro and his animal friends, entered the oni cave and emerged unscathed. Buses regularly travel between the port and the cave, but the walk up to Washigamine Summit is pleasant and features sweeping views of the port and the seascape beyond. The Momotaro portion of your day is best enjoyed with children nearby, since they are more likely to find the lumbering demon statues scary rather than comical. I lucked upon a toddler shrieking in terror at the sight of a cluster of smiling plaster demons. His mother, unfazed, pulled the wailing child closer to the statues and smiled for a photograph.
The cave itself is a winding series of low-clearance tunnels, each leading to rooms populated by jolly demons depicting scenes from the Momotaro story. Entry costs 500 yen and tours depart whenever a busload of tourists arrives. The art festival has found its way into the caves as well, with a series of animations using LCD screens and projectors called “Snail Trail” glowing eerily in the dim caverns. The booming soundtrack of clanking machines that accompanies the installation adds to the ambiance, making it feel as if real danger lurks in the dark.
Perhaps you’re thinking that the oni cave and art festival are not enough to bring you to Megijima. From a distance, the island doesn’t look all that exciting. The streets are narrow, the houses dusty, and the elementary school empty. However, I’d argue that the feeling of discovery you get when exploring these islands makes the experience worth the trip. Step into that abandoned elementary school and you’ll find yourself in a neon-colored dreamscape of tile mosaics and palm trees. Peek inside that old-fashioned house and you’ll find a glittering Zen rock garden next to a café. The fun is in the “looking for” as much as in the “looking at.”
In this spirit, on the nearby island of Naoshima a friend and I once filled an afternoon wandering around and pointing at things – a pair of rowboats on a beach, a garbage can, a tree – and wondering aloud, “Is that art? You know, it might be art. Yeah, it’s definitely art!” We meant it as a joke at the time, but we realized much later and with an immense feeling of satisfaction that yes (at least in the case of the rowboats) it was art and had just been waiting for us to find it.