Naoshima, a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea, has gained a massive reputation as an "art island".
Went alighting from the ferry you wouldn't be the first to think it's just an ordinary old-town Japanese island. Authentic and atmospheric. Locals cycling with their shopping, no big chain stores and rickety old buildings. That is... if it weren't for the giant red pumpkin.
Designed by Yayoi Kusama, it's the first piece of art you'll see. It's out in the open, facing the sea and is just a hint of what is in store for you.
The island itself is like another world. Even the municipal buildings and schools on Naoshima were designed by modernist architect Ishii Kazuhiro. Furthermore, many of the art museums and surroundings were designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Tadao Ando. He has his own museum located in the hills of the island. He was employed by the Benesse Holdings Inc., who opened several museums on the island. His work includes the Chichu Art Museum, Lee Ufan Museum and the Benesse House buildings.
Firstly, pick up a tourist map at the tourist center, Marine Station Naoshima in front of the port. Near the Miyanoura port is a bath house, called “I Love Yu” which is a pun on “湯/yu”, which means “hot water” in Japanese. The bathhouse has artwork inside. It varies in the men’s and women’s bath areas and changes monthly. Nearby is an obscure James Bond museum, dedicated to “The Man with the Red Dragon Tattoo” novel. It’s one big, unstaffed room that you can enter for free.
From here you can venture into the depths of the island. Small installations are dotted around. Even if you get lost on your rent-a-bike (despite the hills and buses, its the best way to get around the island at your own pace) you're guaranteed to find works of art hidden at the side of the road or lining the beaches.
The other museums are spread around the island. The museums themselves blend into their surroundings; they dive deep into the hilly mountains and creep up on you. The line between art and the world is blurred.
The three main museums are close together high in the mountainside. The Chichu Art Museum is built mostly underground and uses natural light to illuminate the artwork. It contains a huge Water Lilies painting by Claude Monet and has a small water lily pond outside. The Lee Ufan Museum contains installations made of stone, concrete and iron and some paintings. Finally, the Benesse House museum is a quite big modern art museum overlooking the sea. It also has a hotel, spa, gift shop and restaurant, so perfect for taking a rest.
In front of the Benesse House, on the southern side of the island, sandwiched between two beaches, you can spot another of Yayoi Kusama's pumpkins; this one is bright yellow with black dots. Near Benesse House there are almost 20 art pieces tucked into the natural scenery.
There are overnight accommodations - pricey but with the unique chance to get free access to the museum after-hours I'd recommend the Bennessee House Hotel.
The last stop is the Honmura port, on the opposite side from the Miyanoura port. It has been developed as an "Art House Project". Abandoned buildings have been transformed into art installations to breathe new life into the sleepy port. One of these projects was turned into the Ando museum in 2013.
The main industry of the island is manufacturing. There's a peculiar dichotomy between factories churning out machinery to make money on the one hand, on the other is the art, simply existing peacefully alongside. Factory workers in overalls brush shoulders with art-enthusiasts and tourists.
Naoshima is not that easily accessible. The museums are quite spread out. This creates a relaxed, dreamy atmosphere; as if the island is deserted. It really feels like stepping into another world.
Whether you take the island on foot at your own pace, explore the museums or just the scenery, you’re guaranteed to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience on this clever and mysterious art island.
The essential information for travellers:
Naoshima has three ports, Miyanoura, Honmura and Seto port.
The best way is to go to Miyanoura port from Uno in Okayama prefecture.
From Okayama station take the JR Uno line to Uno station (Infrequent, 1 hour, 580 yen) From the station you'll be able to see the port where the ferrys leave. A regular ferry service runs about 13 times a day from Uno (20 minutes, ¥280).
You can walk around the island on foot, it is a really small place and you can really enjoy the atmosphere at such a slow pace.
There are rent-a-cycle shops near where the ferry alights. A regular pedal bike is around 300 yen per day and an electric-assisted bike will be 1,500 yen.
There are infrequent bus services from the port.
Also, Benesse Inc. runs a shuttle bus service from "Tsutsuji-so Lodge" to Benesse House Museum, Lee Ufan Museum or Chichu Art Museum.
The low down on the museums:
Most at closed on Mondays. If it's a national holiday they're open, but the following day will be closed instead.
Also, almost all the museums do not allow photography inside.
Western area (near Miyanoura Port):
I Love Yu, 2252-2 Naoshima, Kagawa 7613110 Japan
Tel. +81-(0)87-892-2626; Weekdays: 2:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. Weekend/Holidays: 10:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; 510 yen entry, children 15 and under 210 yen.007 “The Man with the Red Dragon Tattoo" Museum, 2294 Naoshima, Kagawa 761-3110;Tel. +81 (0)87-892-2299; 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Eastern area (near Honmura Port):
Ando Museum, 736-2 Naoshima, Kagawa; +81 87 892 3754; 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., closed Mondays; ¥510, free for children 15 and under.
Art House Project, Honmura, Naoshima, Kagawa; +81 87 892 3223, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., closed Mondays; 410 yen per house, or 1,030 yen for multi-site ticket for all six art houses.
Benesse House Museum, Gotanji, Naoshima, Kagawa; +81 87 892 3223; 8 a.m.-9 p.m. (last entry 8 p.m.); ¥1,030, free for Benesse House guests and children 15 and under.
Chichu Art Museum, 3449-1 Naoshima, Kagawa; +81 87 892 3755; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (last entry 5 p.m.), closed Mondays; ¥2,060; free for children 15 and under.
Lee Ufan Museum, 1390 Azakuraura, Naoshima, Kagawa; +81 87 892 3754; closed Mondays; ¥1,030; free for children 15 and under.