This is the stuff of a Studio Ghibli movie. Seven months ago in June 2023, the Singapore architect/art fabricator/artist Sean Gwee and his wife Ashley Hong, a freelance TV producer, purchased a three-storey house located on the fringes of Okayama in western Japan, an idyllic city most famous for its postcard-perfect gardens. They could have turned the place – an early Metabolist-style holiday home that sits on verdant grounds spanning over a cool 21,000 sq ft built around 1968 – into their pied-à-terre. (The couple, who have a two-year-old daughter, still call Singapore home and shuttle between the two countries.) Instead, they had a far more benevolent idea.

Credit:Isle of Dreams

The artistic Singaporean couple Sean Gwee (left) and freelance TV producer Ashley Hong – both pictured here with their two‑year‑old daughter Luna – are behind Isle of Dreams: a house in Okayama, Japan, that they bought last year to not only use as a second home, but also provide others with a temporary space as well as resources to find respite and inspiration, and embark on small creative project.

Since September last year, people – originally only friends and acquaintances, but now strangers are welcome too – can stay on site for around two weeks or so at no cost. All Gwee and Hong ask for in return? That these guests spend the time there doing something that – get this – feeds into their creative daydreams. It explains the name that they’ve given to this heartwarming if unusual set-up: Isle of Dreams. Think of it as an artist residency if you will, except that interested participants need not necessarily be artists and there are no concrete expectations of works that are to be produced. 

Credit:Isle of Dreams

Located on a sprawling forested estate spanning more than 21,000 sq ft and yet is just 20 minutes away from Okayama’s main train station by car.

Says Gwee: “We see Isle of Dreams as a space where people can feel the safety and freedom needed to daydream a little bit. It’s not about building grand visions – the stakes here are lower – but I think it’s really important, healing and just enjoyable to be able to manifest some of your creative ideas and aspirations. Perhaps this stems from my art fabrication practice in which I work with people to chase their whims and pursue little wins instead of overthinking and trying to over-optimise results.”

Here, he and Hong share more about their romantic vision of art-making.

isle of dreams
Credit:Isle of Dreams

Isle of Dreams is housed in a holiday home that was built around 1968 and cost the Singaporean couple 9.338 million yen (about S$87,400) to acquire.

Isle of Dreams is an interesting if unexpected concept. How did it come about?

Sean Gwee (SG): “It’s something that I’ve been thinking about since 2018. That year, we helped an artist friend in Okayama renovate her house. Since then, the idea to carve out a space not just for ourselves, but also for others has been at the back of my mind, inspired by another friend who had told us that it felt like she hadn’t had the space to dream since she was 12. I started to explore the possibility of getting a place in Japan, which we frequently visit. I’ve also always been very interested in a hands-on approach towards making space, and this house afforded me that. There are of course some economic factors at play – it’s mostly a lot cheaper living here and acquiring materials for work than in Singapore, for one. And then the pandemic came, giving us the time and headspace to think about and invest into this project.”

isle of dreams
Credit:Isle of Dreams

With Isle of Dreams being a work in progress, guests who have stayed on site so far (as of now, they comprise friends of the family) have been helping with the development of the house as both giveback as well as to feed their own creative spirit.

Tell us more about the choice of location: Okayama, Japan.

Ashley Hong (AH): “We’ve always been casually looking at houses that were available in Japan and we narrowed it down to a few potential properties around this region. We eventually chose this particular house because Sean likes to live deep in the forest while I’m much more of a city person. When we found out that this house is just a 20-minute drive from the Okayama train station, it felt perfect for both of us. It’s buried in the forest so much so that one can bathe with the windows open. At the same time, it’s not too far from the conveniences of a city – there’s a supermarket just a three minutes’ drive down the hill.”

READ MORE: This Photographer Ditched The City Life To Build A Home In The Mountains Of Yunnan

SG: “We were also considering other locations, but what sealed the deal for us is the fact that there’s quite a strong DIY culture in Japan, even in the smaller towns or rural areas. This propensity for DIY means that there’s ready access to materials that I regularly use in my fabrication work. Take for example fibreglass, which can be bought from the average neighbourhood hardware stores as compared to Singapore, where one would have to go to a specialist to get ahold of it.”

isle of dreams
Credit:Isle of Dreams

Japan’s strong DIY culture means materials are a lot more accessible than in Singapore for the owners of Isle of Dreams.

Just how does Isle of Dream operate?

SG: “I don’t want people to come with very large expectations. It’s simply a space where we don’t mind hosting people and don’t mind helping them to manifest their creative dreams and pursuits. However there is a process of engagement and getting to know each other involved – it’s not an automatic approval process. Another factor to note is that we’re not in Okayama all the time. We shuttle back and forth between Japan and Singapore because there are still jobs in Singapore that I’m involved in.”

isle of dreams
Credit:Isle of Dreams

Isle of Dreams is housed in a late Showa‑era holiday home that was formerly owned by the president of a Japanese company and used as a corporate retreat.

AH: “People can reach out to us through the Isle of Dreams website (isleofdreams.space/) and they don’t necessarily have to be artists. We’re still ironing out details because we also have a two-year-old child with us and people need to be aware of that. We have a chat with interested applicants and try to understand what they’re hoping to get out of this and to see if we can try to meet their expectations and vice versa – to see if everyone is comfortable with each other. We generally like to invite people to stay for around two weeks or more because we feel that that’s a good amount of time for one to sink into a small project, or just unwind and get to know the place and its surroundings. Visitors are free to do whatever projects they feel like doing, be it painting a mural, tending to the garden, foraging in the nearby forest or just having the space to cook for their own pleasure without judgement.”

isle of dreams
Credit:Isle of Dreams

The hand‑sewn patchwork curtains that take pride of place in Isle of Dreams were created jointly by Singaporean artist/curator Berny Tan and the home’s co‑owner Hong.

Can you share some examples of what past guests have done during their stay at Isle of Dreams?

AH: “Kin Leonn (the Singapore artist and musician, and a friend) wanted to try his hand at gardening.”

SG: “The Singapore artist and illustrator Anna Dutoit contributed a mural of boars, witches and mountains, while the curator and artist Berny Tan (also Singaporean and a friend) worked with Ashley to create the pojagi – or traditional Korean patchwork – curtains that beautifully capture Okayama’s sunlight… There is a certain beauty and joy in this improvisational aspect of the entire experience which we’ve really started to enjoy: All these people helping us to create this dream project together.”

READ MORE: They Left A Fashionable City Life And Found A Spiritual Oasis In Koh Phangan

So the payback from guests comes in the form of helping you to develop the house?

SG: “At their core, these projects are artistic or creative in the sense that they deal with making and designing space and vibes to exist and immerse in. We are working organically with people on aspects of the Isle of Dreams house that interest them and it would be nice if you can help out, but it’s not a must.”

isle of dreams
Credit:Isle of Dreams

Isle of Dreams offers ample space for the creative duo and their guests to live and work on their creative projects.

This all sounds really altruistic.

SG: “I think altruistic isn’t the right term to use here. It’s more about creating a safe space and helping people to manifest their creative daydreams, sharing in whatever way we can afford to. This would explain our informal process: We have some resources (think the space, and some skill and tools) and are happy to share what we have… Obviously there are questionable people out there, which is why it’s important for us to first talk to interested guests and get to know each other. After all, they will be sharing a space with us for two weeks or so. For me, it’s a little bit risky not so much in terms of safety, but more of whether we all can vibe with one another. If anything, the main prerequisite for anyone who might want to come is that they would have to help take care of the house and respect the space. Ultimately it is about creating, maintaining and developing a safe space not just for people living within the space at that point in time, but also for others who come in future.”

isle of dreams
Credit:Isle of Dreams

The bar is decorated with vintage paraphernalia, creating a nostalgic atmosphere.

Can Isle of Dreams exist in Singapore? 

AH: “Space constraints in Singapore is obviously a key issue. At the same time – because I envisioned Isle of Dreams to be a gentle space in which people are able to do whatever they want to do –I find that one tends to have to extract oneself from the place you grew up to break away from all that ambient pressure. One thing I learned early is that when you want to do something in Singapore, there’s this general assumption or belief that it has to be a success. If it’s not going to, it’s seen as a waste of time and resources. Being physically located outside of the country gives one a bit more freedom to pursue your whims possibly because you aren’t surrounded by people who know you and might judge you.”

READ MORE: In Singapore, An Exhibition To Bid Farewell To An Artist’s Family Home

SG: “Much of life in Singapore is about getting things done quickly and efficiently. In order to challenge this notion, we don’t set any deadlines at Isle of Dreams… Another perennial question with art-making in Singapore is, ‘Where do we store the work that’s been made?’. The lack of space forces one to have this mentality that you need to have a destination or goal before you make the artwork. In Okayama, we have over 21,000 sq ft of grounds for people to have fun and just experiment in. I think that is super liberating.”