In a dark room by a little beach on the island of Teshima beats the heart of one Mark Footer, from Hong Kong.

Among the 46,038 (and counting) heartbeats that boom in the Heart Room of Les Archives du Coeur, one at a time, each beat illuminating ever so briefly a naked light bulb, is also that of Christian Boltanski. The French artist has been storing heartbeats, recorded on-site and elsewhere, here since 2008; it is one of a number of sites of artistic interest on Teshima (population: 1,000) and other islands in Japan's Seto Inland Sea.

In a region of heavy industry, the Inland Sea - a 450km-long body of water that separates Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, three of the country's four main islands - has long been used for maritime transport. It became polluted as a consequence of Japan's rapid industrialisation, which affected livelihoods on many of its smaller islands. As the population has aged across Japan, many of these islands have depopulated and some of their villages fallen into neglect.

The process is being reversed on a handful of islands under the patronage of Benesse Holdings. The Japanese company focuses on correspondence education and publishing but has brought together art, architecture and nature in projects on Naoshima - the epicentre of the grand experiment - Teshima and Inujima, home to the Seirensho Art Museum, which perhaps best represents the motto of Soichiro Fukutake, president of the Benesse Art Site: "Use what exists to create what is to be".

Naoshima and Teshima, until 1990 an illegal dumping ground for industrial waste, fall within the maritime boundary of Kagawa, Japan's smallest prefecture, as do nine of the other 10 islands that will co-host the third Setouchi Triennale festival of art, next year.

The artistic overhaul of Teshima includes a whitewashed, 40 metre by 60 metre droplet-shaped concrete shell that is surrounded by paddy fields and looks out over the sea. Within the Teshima Art Museum is seemingly nothing except a few tiny white "stones", out of which drops of water are pushed. That doesn't sound like much, but standing inside the apparently empty space, which is unsupported by any pillar, listening to the wind blow through the trees outside - in the ceiling, are two large, oval openings - and watching the drops coalesce on the gently undulating floor into small pools, which then break again, sending what look like bugs and snakes running hither and thither, is an immensely powerful experience, and it leaves me in need of an ice cream.

An influx of art lovers is helping to support a number of commercial enterprises on Teshima, such as the Tada Farm Strawberry Shop, which sells ice cream and other treats made from berries grown on the island as organically as possible, and Shima Kitchen, a restaurant that was constructed in an abandoned house.

According to manager Megumi Fujisaki, much of the work at Shima Kitchen, including the creation of the menu, is undertaken by local ladies of a certain age, and 70 per cent of the ingredients originate in Kagawa, rice and fruit being grown on Teshima itself. However, says Fujisaki, although the revival of the island is attracting young Japanese looking for a way out of the rat race, few Teshima-born youth, like her, have yet to be tempted home.

Picture in your mind a "James Bond island" and it's unlikely you'll be thinking of windswept Naoshima. Nevertheless, the island, a few kilometres to the west of Teshima, is home to the one-room 007 Museum, which is full of memorabilia, fan art and storyboards. You won't have seen Connery, Moore or Dalton striding across the island, but it was one of the settings in the 2002 Bond novel The Man with the Red Tattoo. Apparently, "the government and people of Kagawa" are hoping to bring attention to Raymond Benson's book, and thus convince a movie studio to fly Daniel Craig in for a bit of derring-do and, if the museum centrepiece is anything to go by, some leaping out of a huge model of a human heart.

Other attractions on Naoshima are in a different league altogether, and many - including Benesse House Museum (which includes what I make the mistake of calling a boutique hotel; the management insists it is instead a part of the museum that functions as a hotel) - are shaped by the concrete slabs of architect Tadao Ando. Perhaps most interesting is the Art House Project, under which old houses and unused ground have been repurposed as works of art. Enter Minamidera, an Ando construction on the site of an old temple, and you'll believe for a few minutes you're blind. As your eyes adjust to the dark, you begin to become aware of artist James Turrell's Backside of the Moon, a piece that plays with the viewer's perception of light.

Historically, Japan has been hostile to European influence, but on Shodoshima, the second largest island in the Inland Sea and a few kilometres to the east of Teshima, they have (unlike Brussels, nowadays) a soft spot for the Greeks.

In 1908, olive cultivation took root on the island, and Shodoshima, also renowned for its soy sauce, now produces about 350 tonnes a year, from 30,000 trees. Some years later, when the mayor of the Greek island of Milos was visiting, he was so reminded of home, the islands were joined as "sisters", which explains the windmill, Doric columns and faux Orthodox church at The Olive Park, a part-orchard, part-theme park where as many as 2,000 trees are tended by hand. A large statue of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, points the way to the gift shop, the result of imaginations allowed to run riot: inside is everything from hair oil and moisturiser to delicious green chocolate, all made with olive oil.

In 1950, the Japanese emperor visited the park and planted the only tree that is not regularly pruned. Olives from this tree are still sent to the imperial family. Had the Nijushi no Hitomi Movie Village existed in 1950, it's probably fair to assume the emperor would have given it a miss.

On this film set-cum-museum, the movie Twenty-Four Eyes was filmed - twice. The original, which follows the lives of a schoolteacher and her first class of students as Japan militarises in the 1930s and then goes to war, was made in 1954, and a colour version was filmed in 1987.

For obvious reasons, most of Kagawa's finest history predates the second world war but standing in the warm sunlight, in the dusty schoolyard of the movie set, beneath a fluttering "circle of the sun", you can almost believe the push for a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere could have had a positive outcome.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies daily from Hong Kong to Haneda Airport, in Tokyo, from where Japan Airlines flies several times a day to Takamatsu, the capital of Kagawa prefecture. From there, ferries run regularly to Teshima, Naoshima and Shodoshima. Bikes can be hired on Teshima and Naoshima. Country Holidays (www.countryholidays.com.hk) runs bespoke tours on which you can visit not just the main sites, but also places a non-Japanese visitor would be unable to find, such as the family-run factories of soy sauce and sake makers that have been in business for hundreds of years.