Japan Travel

A Trip to Naoshima, Japan’s Art Island

June 7, 2016

Back in 2012, I went to London’s Tate Modern and discovered the works of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.  I immediately became a huge fan of her funky style.  Her pieces are iconic and distinct so when I stumbled across a photograph of a giant, polka-dotted yellow pumpkin sitting on a jetty, I knew it was a Kusama and I knew I had to find it.

The polka-dotted pumpkin is one of two on Naoshima, a small island in the Seto Island Sea of Southern Japan.  Over the last 20 years, this remote, sleepy island has gained quite a reputation among the art community with its “Art House Project” and award-winning museums featuring the works of Tadao Ando, Lee Ufan, Claude Monet and James Turrell among others.  The interaction between art and nature is a common theme on the island as the architecture and many exhibitions play with concepts of light and distribution of space.  

My adventure began at Honmura Port, one of the two ports on Naoshima.  I decided to skip the Art House Projects for the sake of time and hopped on a bus for the Museum Area.

Yellow Pumpkin

First stop was Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin-viewing at Tsutsuji-so.  

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From there, I walked ten minutes to Benesse House Museum, arguably the most famous of the three main museums on the island.


Benesese House

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The Benesse campus opened in 1992 and is comprised of a museum and hotel.  According to their official pamphlet, the space and concept of the facility, which was designed by Tao Andao, seeks to offer visitors a place to relax and contemplate how to better their own lives through “the coexistence of nature, art and architecture.”

Among the works in the museum, you have Bruce Nauman’s “100 Live and Die,” a 1984 piece with words and phrases expressing human feelings, emotions and thoughts about life and death.  After snapping this photo, I was told I could only take pictures outdoors and was told to put my camera away.

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There is also Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Time Exposed,” an outdoor exhibition featuring photographs of seas all around the world juxtaposed with the actual view of Japan’s Seto Island Sea.  The “Seascapes” series poses the question, “Is it possible for people today to see the sea in the same way that those of the past did?”  Because this was outdoors, I was able to safely take this photo without being a rule-breaker.

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And in the yard in front of the cafe/gift shop, there is Shinro Ohtake’s “Shipyard Works Blow with Hole,” a piece created with actual ship molds.  From what I gather, Ohtake was inspired to create this for Setouchi Triennale, an art festival which has operated under a consistent theme of “restoration of the sea.”  His art served as a nice photo opportunity to play with perspectives and angles.

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The museum also has a great gift shop.  I was tempted to buy Yayoi Kusama Washi Tape and these awesome multi-colored, Monet dot-inspired crayons, but I’m proud to say I held back.


Lee Ufan Museum

After Benesse House, I briefly popped into Lee Ufan Museum, but ultimately decided against buying an admission ticket.  I wanted to make sure I had ample time to check out Chichu Art Museum and after looking through the pamphlets and postcards at the entrance of the museum, I determined Lee Ufan may be a bit too abstract for my taste.

I didn’t leave without snapping a few photos though.  Here’s the entrance of the Lee Ufan Museum – playing with the concept of the coexistence of nature, space and architecture to create art.  Or maybe it’s just a big rock sitting on a bunch of little rocks and a tall pole in a garden.

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The walk way to the ticket booth was actually really cool.

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Chichu Art Museum

The Chichu Art Museum experience begins with a beautiful pond filled with water lilies, the scenery which inspired many of Claude Monet’s paintings.  My admiration of Monet began as a child when I received a coffee table book with paintings and stories about his life.  I even did a book report on his works when I was in High School, I believe.

The museum has a Monet exhibition with five of his “Water Lily” series paintings hung in a room using only natural light.

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The Walter de Maria and Tadao Ando exhibitions were interesting but my favorite was the only one I definitely couldn’t sneak a photograph of.  It was a stimulation art piece by James Turrell called “Open Field” where you go up a short flight of stairs and basically enter a big, blue-lit box on a slope.  When you look back up to where you entered, you see an orange square.  I can’t really explain it, but it was an out of the body experience that temporary strips subjects from reality.

I can’t decide whether I liked Benesse or Chichu Art Museum more.  I think it’s a tie.

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Exploring the Island

The Miyanoura Area (where the second port is located) is about a 30 minute walk down from Chichu.  After three weeks of non-stop running-around, it was nice to slow down for a bit and take in the nature and serenity of Naoshima.  The Japanese word that comes to mind when describing this island is “nonbiri,” meaning slow or leisurely.

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Red Pumpkin

Once I made it down, I spotted the second Kusama pumpkin.

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Miyanoura Area

While waiting for the ferry, I enjoyed a cone of locally-made vanilla and salt-flavored soft serve.  Before art, Naoshima’s economy relied on fishing and salt.  

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All the travel blogs I read about Naoshima recommended two things I really would have liked to do if time permitted –

1.) staying over night at the Benesse hotel

2.) spending a day at the port-side public onsen (bath house) I Love Yu

While I didn’t use their facilities, I still went to I Love Yu to see what it looked like from the outside.  The onsen’s claim to fame is that it offers patrons an opportunity to literally bathe in artwork.   The facade is a piece of artwork too – very colorful and happy!

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My last stop before hopping on the ferry was Sou Fujimoto’s Naoshima Pavillon.  It’s a stainless steel mesh polyhedron you can walk into it.

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If I could do it all again, I would have loved to spend a night on Naoshima at the Benesse House.  Hotel guests have access to private exhibitions and pieces and there is apparently interesting artwork in the rooms.   While I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, I would not recommend this trip to someone who is not especially into art / art museums or is in Japan for their first time and on a super tight schedule.  Naoshima is remote and getting there is a time-sucker.  It’s great for major art devotees who ideally can spend a night or second/third-time visitors who are seeking an adventure off the beaten path.

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