An Art Lovers Guide to Outdoor Exhibitions in Japan

Japan blends world-class art with some of the most striking natural landscapes on earth. Here are six of the best outdoor art exhibitions in Japan.

May 23, 2024By Matt Dursum, BA Geography and GIS Systems

art guide outdoor exhibition japan


For anyone who loves pristine nature and fine art, Japan is like nowhere else on earth. The country’s diverse natural beauty and lush terrain create a spectacular canvas for the merger of art and the natural world. The outdoor art exhibitions in Japan will invigorate your imagination and take you away to another world. To experience these exhibitions, you can be on any of the country’s four main islands. From the volcanoes and rolling subtropical hills of the southern island of Kyushu to the winter wonderlands of Hokkaido, each island adds a special touch to your experience.

6. Outdoor Exhibitions in Japan in Kirishima Open-Air Museum 

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Flowers of Shangri-La sculpture by Yayoi Kusama, Kirishima Open-Air Museum. Source: Discover Kagoshima


Deep in the forested mountains of Kirishima Kinkowan National Park in Kagoshima is the Kirishima Open-Air Museum. Surrounding it are natural hot springs, active volcanoes, and some of the most sacred sites in Japan. According to the Shinto religion, Japan was created in these mountains by the god Ninigi no Mikoto. Sacred places such as the Kirishima-jingu Shrine and Mt. Takachiho are believed to have special energy, attracting thousands of visitors and pilgrims every week.


Many people come to these mountains to experience art as well at the Kirishima Open-Air Museum. Since 2000, this beautiful and expansive space has hosted some of the country’s most celebrated sculptures and art pieces. At its entrance is the famous Flowers of Shangri-La sculpture by Yayoi Kusama, featuring the famous modern artist’s signature polka-dot design. After you enter, you’re immediately confronted with an open field of sculptures and a large rectangular exhibit building. Inside are revolving and permanent collections by esteemed global artists such as Yoko Ono’s Endangered Species exhibit.


benesse yayoi kusama yellow pumpkin
Yellow Pumpkin, Benesse Art Site Naoshima, photo by Yue-Ting Lin. Source: Unsplash


Outside, the fun and adventure continue. As you walk through the open grounds, you’ll come to find works such as Choi Jeong Hwa’s You Are The Art and Toribatta Yoshinobu’s piece Ancient Motherhood inspired by a bird’s nest. There are 23 outdoor sculptures that take you through the rolling fields and into the thick subtropical forest. The walk culminates in Dani Karavan’s inspiring In The Beginning. This iron structure allows you to walk out above the forest and look out at the endless wilderness while natural light pours in through gaps in the structure.

5. Hakone Open-Air Museum 

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Floating Sculpture 3 in Hakone Open-Air Museum, by Marta Pan. Source: Hakone Open-Air Museum

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Deep in the coastal forests of Hakone is the Hakone Open-Air Museum, Japan’s oldest open-air art museum. It opened in 1969 and has since grown to include around 2000 pieces both outside and inside its galleries. Surrounding the museum are lush forests and trails with small shrines and temples. Hakone is famous for its natural surroundings and religious structures, not to mention some of the most iconic views of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain.


The Hakone Open-Air Museum seamlessly blends the picturesque landscape and sacred natural surroundings of Hakone with some of the most renowned outdoor sculptures in the country. There are around 120 permanent outdoor exhibitions placed around the grounds. Following the trails, you’ll encounter inspiring pieces, all perfectly framed by the natural surroundings.


From the museum’s main gallery and art hall, which house a revolving collection of work from international artists, you’ll walk through trials that take you through landmarks, ponds, and forest sculptures. Each of these natural environments contains wonderful art pieces that work together with nature to create a visually stunning scene. At the far end of the space is the Picasso Pavilion. This two-story complex houses paintings, sculptures, and photos of the world-renowned artist Pablo Picasso. Further along the trail, you’ll come to the Symphonic Sculpture, a towering spiral staircase surrounded by colorful stained glass murals that play with the incoming sunlight.


4. Sapporo Art Park 

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Sapporo Art Park, Art Park Centre. Source: Hokkaido Guide


In the northern island of Hokkaido, just half an hour’s drive south from the island’s largest city Sapporo, is the Sapporo Art Park outdoor sculpture garden. This beautiful space expands along the forest and features 74 works by 63 artists. Since 1986, the park has expanded to include an outdoor sculpture garden as well as additional museums and event spaces. When you visit, it’s easy to spend an entire day here. There’s even the former home of the Japanese novelist Takeo Arishima on the grounds.


Within the surrounding forests, ponds, and hills are installations that will grab your attention. Children can even play on many of the outdoor pieces. You’ll get to explore shapes like pyramids and human figures, plus mobiles and pieces that manipulate the natural environment and water. To round off the stunning exhibits and well-run facilities are the seasons. From fall foliage, spring flowers, and summer greenery, to the thick layers of snow in winter, the park transforms into a unique destination that blends the natural environment with creative expression.


3. Utsukushigahara Open-Air Museum 

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Utsukushigahara Open-Air Museum. Source: Utsukushigahara Open-Air Museum


In the mountains of the Japanese winter sports capital of Nagano is the Utsukushigahara Open-Air Museum. This beautiful open space is the sister museum to the Hakone Open-Air Museum, and it shows. With over 350 sculptures that blend into the stunning open scenery, it’s hard not to fall in love with this space. The museum is located on the top of the Utsukushigahara plateau in the Japanese Alps of Nagano. If the sculptures don’t take your breath away, the altitude will. At over 6,500 feet high, you will feel like you are on top of the world.


There are two routes that will take you from the park’s entrance through the museum’s exhibits. You will wind through grasses, flowers, and alpine forests while gazing at towering structures like Alexander Liberman’s Iliad Japan and Susumu Shingu’s The Astral Compass. Utsukushigahara, meaning beautiful field, was founded in 1981 as the sister museum to the Hakone Open-Air Museum. Like its counterpart on the coast, it uses the natural environment to frame its unique and inspiring artwork.


In the spring and summer, over 200 species of wildflowers bloom throughout the plateau, creating a colorful scene that makes the artwork come to life. Just when you think it can’t get any better, you’ll have views of Mt. Fuji in the distance and the surrounding Japanese Alps encompassing you along your walk. Utsukushigahara Open-Air Museum is only open from April 29 to November 5 due to the harsh winter snow that covers the plateau. During this time, the surrounding mountains become one of Japan’s most famous winter sports centers.


2. Murou Art Forest 

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Murou Art Forest, Isle of Pyramid by Dani Karavan. Source: East Nara Narabi Tourism


About an hour southeast of Japan’s ancient capital Nara is the Murou Art Forest. Surrounded by thick maples and pines, the open manicured grounds blend into the surrounding natural environment and feel almost otherworldly. Completed in 2006 by Israeli artist and sculptor Dani Karavan, this sprawling open-air art museum showcases works by Karavan, neatly built into the peaceful terrain. The idea for an open-air sculpture garden in the tiny village of Murou was originally put out by local artist Inoue Fukichi.


The sculptures are made of a variety of materials and were built into the terrain to seem like they naturally flow out of the earth. Masterpieces such as the Spiral Bamboo Forest and the concrete Spiral Canal make you instantly stop to contemplate. Many people come here to enjoy the natural landscape, installations, and picnics. There’s even a popular hiking trail through the forest leading from the nearby Muroguchiono Station. However, if you do not want to hike, you can get here by car or by public bus from the town of Murouono and get off at Murou-ji bus stop.


A short walk away from the Murou Art Forest is Murou-ji Temple. After relaxing at the grounds of the open-air art museum, you can walk 20 minutes through the village to visit the temple and its famous five-storied pagoda. This mixture of religious architecture, nature, and beautiful sculptures and art installations makes this somewhat off-the-grid area well worth a visit.


1. Outdoor Exhibitions in Japan in Benesse Art Site Naoshima 

Matrix by Rei Naito, Benesse Art Site Naoshima. Source: Benesse Art Site Naoshima


On the shores of Naoshima Island in the Seto Inland Sea is Benesse Site Naoshima. To get here, you have to take a quick ferry from Takamatsu Port or Uno Port on the mainland. Once you arrive, you will feel like you are in a dream. Benesse Art Site Naoshima opened in 1992. Incumbent mayor of Naoshima, Chikatsugu Miyake, and Tetsuhiko Fukutake of Benesse Corporation, joined to create this wonderful space as a collection of indoor museums, open-air museums, and hotels where guests can immerse themselves in art.


The museum grounds and main buildings consist of four museums, an outdoor sculpture park, and two hotels called the Beach and the Oval. The hotels function like works of art themselves, featuring incredible architecture and unique rooms. A bonus for staying the night is having 24-hour access to the museum.


Throughout the grounds, there are several museums and galleries, plus outdoor sculptures. The most famous sculpture is Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin which was built in 1994. This unique sculpture overlooks the sea, resembling a yellow pumpkin or squash covered with dots. The art world was shocked when a typhoon in 2021 swept it off the pier and battered it under waves and heavy wind. Fortunately, a replica has now taken its place.

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By Matt DursumBA Geography and GIS SystemsMatt is a freelance writer and journalist from Michigan who’s currently living in South America. When he’s not writing, Matt is studying languages — so far Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and French — visiting museums, surfing, and traveling.