Words and Photos by Sarah Hiscock
Nestled in the Inland Sea between Uno Port, Okayama and Takamatsu Port on Shikoku lies an art appreciators’ haven. An island where polka dot pumpkins sit gazing out over the water, the sky transforms into a whole spectrum of colours and a village of yurts awaits your resting needs. An island that, over the last three decades, developed from one of many nondescript rocky islands on the Inland Sea to a place where you can experience canvases, structures and installations by some of the world’s most talented creators.
“What magical land is this you speak of?” I hear you all dying to know. This, my dears, is Naoshima…
Perhaps the most iconic image of Naoshima is Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin, a 7-foot high, yellow and black polka-dotted pumpkin, perched on the end of a small concrete pier at the Benesse Art Site. Catch the pumpkin early on a rainy season morning and the backdrop of misty islands jutting from the sea behind adds to the surreal feast sitting before your eyes. Although iconic, this pumpkin is merely the tip of a creative iceberg open to you on Naoshima.
Naoshima is only accessible by ferry. The ferry departs from Uno Port, near Okayama city, and takes you a short distance across the water to Miyanoura Port on Naoshima. Awaiting your arrival is another of Yayoi Kusama’s polka dot creations, Red Pumpkin. Red Pumpkin is bright red with black dots, and hollow. There are several peepholes set throughout the structure: fun for running around in, and great for comical photo opportunities.
The Marine Station Naoshima is also located at Miyanoura Port. Here you’ll find Cafe Ougiya, where you can rent bicycles to traverse the island. There are basic, upright mamachari styles with baskets, mountain bikes and a limited number of electrical bikes, all available to hire. When making your choice, bear in mind that although Naoshima is a small island, it is relatively hilly. If you don’t cycle often, a mountain bike or even an electric one may be a better fit for you. All of the bicycles are reasonably priced, from 500 and 2,000 yen per day. The Marine Station also stocks a detailed, bi-lingual map of the island.
Near the port there are a few great places to kick-start your Naoshima adventure. The 007 Museum is a must for any diehard Bond fans. The museum consists of a small room filled with paraphernalia from various Bond movies. It features screen shots and items from You Only Live Twice, the only Bond film ever set in Japan. But the real focus of the museum is Raymond Benson’s Bond novel, The Man with the Red Tattoo. Although Red Tattoo was never made into a movie, a portion of it is set on Naoshima. The 007 Museum celebrates Red Tattoo with images of potential movie scenes, and even a short film made by fans.
A brief stroll from the 007 Museum brings you to I ♥ 湯 (Yu) bathhouse. Designed by artist Shinro Ohtake, this sentou is known for both its practicality as a functioning public bath and an example of Ohtake’s scrapbook-style works of art. I ♥ 湯 is easy to spot. Its outside walls are covered in colourful tile mosaic, and palm trees stand on either side of the entrance. The silhouette of a female body graces the area above the door, lit by a neon red sign that reads “ゆ” (Yu). During my weekend stay on Naoshima in June, I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to venture inside and bathe amidst the unique objects that make up Ohtake’s interior design: an aircraft cockpit, the bottom of a ship, an elephant statue and various shunga erotic prints. But at only 500 yen to enter, I hear that I ♥ 湯 is definitely worth a visit.
Taking your bicycle west, over the rather hilly centre of the island, and then south, brings you to one of two main “Art Sites” on the island, the Benesse Art Site Naoshima. Here you’ll also find Tsutsuji-so Lodge, one of the few places on Naoshima where you can stay overnight. Tsutsuji-so Lodge has a range of different-style accommodations, including cabins, caravans and our lodging of choice, yurts! Our yurt slept four people, and belonged to a mini village of about ten yurts. All of the yurts are beach side, and close to the washrooms and the caretaker’s lodge onsite. At a reasonable price of around 3,600 yen per person, per night, this is definitely an experience I’d recommend.
Our yurt reminded me of a Romany gypsy caravan. We entered through an intricately carved and colourful wooden door, and stepped into an impressive and surprisingly spacious wooden beamed structure. There were four beds around the outer edge, each with its own lamp, a table in the middle and a convenient fridge, all of which made for a comfortable yurt experience. It was a rather fittingly artistic and unique way to spend a night on Naoshima.
There are three museums situated at the Benesse Art Naoshima Site: Chichu Art Museum, Benesse House Museum and Lee Ufan Museum. I visited the first two.
The Chichu Art Museum is a masterpiece of art in itself. Designed by the renowned architect Tadao Ando, the museum is situated on top of a hill, but built entirely underground, to avoid spoiling the natural landscape of Naoshima. The museum’s artworks are all lit and viewable by natural light coming in from above.
Notably, the Chichu Museum contains the magnificent 2 x 200x300cm canvasses of Monet’s Water-Lily Pond. As you walk into the expansive white-walled and -floored room containing Monet’s works, Water Lily Pond is the first piece that you see. Its vibrant purples and blues reach out and pull you towards it. Sunlight pours in through the intelligently designed ceiling, and highlights each and every colour brushed onto the canvas. In such a setting, you stand in awe of the sheer enormity of the work. I’m not a big Monet fan, but this painting, in the setting of this room, nearly floored me.
On Naoshima, there are five works by James Turrell, an artist who uses light itself as his medium. Having previously had a bad experience viewing light as an art form at The Tate Modern, I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy much of Turrell’s work. How wrong I was! The Chichu Museum hosts three of Turrell’s pieces. The first installation I saw, Afrum, Pale Blue, was a projection of a blue cube onto an empty wall. To be honest, it reinforced my initial prediction of my attitude towards Turrell’s works.
The second piece, however, did the exact opposite: Open Field absolutely mesmerised me. Open Field is an interactive piece; you walk up a short flight of stairs towards what looks like a projection of blue light onto a solid wall, but discover that the wall is not solid. You end up entering the void of blue light, to which you can see no beginning and no end. It was a full-on sensory experience that left me in a blissful state of slight confusion and wonder.
Turrell’s third installation at the Chichu Museum is titled Open Sky. Basically a square hole cut into a high ceiling, it made for a pondering experience during the daytime. If you can get tickets for the “Night Programme,” Open Sky manipulates the colours of the night sky to create a spectacular multi-coloured light show. But be sure to dress appropriately if it’s raining!
The second museum I visited, the Benesse House Museum, is part of a plush hotel complex, where visitors staying at the hotel can wander freely and look at the art pieces anytime. Non-residents pay a fee to view the works in the daytime. Benesse House Museum houses three floors of artwork, including pieces by Andy Warhol, David Hockney and James Turrell, and is definitely worth a visit. I found myself meandering along the spacious floors, gazing at ant farms, stone circles, Ultra man circles and, finally, lying on a massive piece of marble-like rock and gazing at the sky. My experiences were just a small selection of the intriguing pieces and installations on display there.
The other major art site on Naoshima is the Honmura Art House Project, located on the east side of the island in the small fishing village of Honmura. This area of quaint backstreets is home to funky cafes and old buildings, and has a calm and peaceful atmosphere. Situated among the old buildings are six houses that have each been turned into works of art. You buy a pass for the entire project and are given a map showing the location of each house. You can then stroll between the houses freely.
The Art House Project includes dramatically different styles of architecture and art, and is something you really shouldn’t miss. The buildings range from an old, converted temple sitting in a sea of white pebbles to a rickety, Ohtake scrapbook-style, two-floor building with flamboyant decorations and a towering Statue of Liberty reaching past the second floor. One of the houses, Minamidera, may involve a pre-visit to obtain a time allocation, followed by a later return. The Turell installation inside Minamidera is limited to a certain number of people at a time. In this installation, you first experience ABSOLUTE darkness, and then wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark until you can finally see tiny specks of light. I didn’t realise how utterly terrifying the dark could be until I experienced this first hand. It’s most definitely not for the faint hearted!
With shuttle busses running between each site and a good map available for those on foot, it is relatively easy to get around Naoshima without a bicycle, but definitely more convenient with one. There is only one, 9-seater taxi serving the whole island. Restaurants on the island tend to close earlier than you would expect, due to the general lack of overnight visitors, and the fact that the Benesse House hotel has its own exclusive restaurant for guests. Bear this in mind and be sure to plan your day, or days, wisely. This is particularly important if you plan to view the Turrell Night Programme at the Chichu Museum. Tsutsuji-so Lodge can also include meals, usually cooked out on a BBQ, and include the meals in your overall price. It’s something worth looking into if you stay there.
Naoshima truly is an island like no other. Along with the museums, art works and places detailed above, there are many other creative pieces that you may stumble upon while exploring the island. You can also spend time on the sandy beach, taking a dip in the sea. Or you might even enquire at Benesse House about the outside bath for hire by the beach – perfect for late night stargazing with a loved one.