Known as Japan’s ‘Art Island’, Naoshima Island is well off the beaten track, but it is worth the effort to get to this sleepy island in the Seto Inland Sea renowned for its contemporary art. With a population of just over 3100 inhabitants, Naoshima Island is the complete opposite of bustling and frantic Tokyo, a refuge away from the constant sounds of the pachinko parlours and neon flashing lights and a step back in time to rural Japan – albeit one with a modern twist. Art museums and unique installations are dotted throughout the tiny Japanese art island and there is a contemporary art house project that takes empty spaces in the town and turns them into works of art.
Naoshima Island itinerary
After a morning of travel, my husband and I finally arrived on Naoshima Island at the Miyanoura Port to be greeted by one of Yayoi Kusama’s famous spotted pumpkins. This was our introduction to the Japanese art scattered around the island and what an introduction it was: who knew spotted pumpkins could make you so happy?
As we were staying at the Benesse House (and the site of the Benesse House Museum), there was a complimentary shuttle bus operating from the port that took us to the hotel.
We checked into the impressive Benesse House designed by famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando (and who basically designed the entire island), and had our first encounter with a James Turrell artwork in our room before exploring the rest of the grounds. We went for a walk in search of the other art installations peppered around the island designed by the likes of Walter de Maria and Niki de Saint Phalle among others. It was like going on a scavenger art hunt, never knowing what may be uncovered around the next corner, while enjoying the island’s tranquility against a backdrop of palm tree fronds and secluded sandy beaches.
The real reason why I wanted to travel to Naoshima Island, however, was for a pumpkin – a specific pumpkin.
From the moment I saw an image of Yayoi Kusama’s giant spotted pumpkin perched at the end of the pier, I knew that I wanted to see it for myself in real life and, fortunately, it’s not far from the Benesse House complex. It’s funny how little things can provide the inspiration for your next travel adventure.
I’m certain I took photos of the pumpkin from every possible angle, but what I enjoyed the most was sitting on the grassy knoll with my partner watching the sun set over a sky filled with swirls of grey, pink and blue. We watched as each group or couple walked up to the pumpkin to take their token selfie shot and yet it still felt like we were in our own personal haven.
Before we knew it, it was dinner time. We had read that there were limited eating options on the island and had made a dinner reservation at the Museum Restaurant Issen in the Benesse House Museum. There are only 32 seats and dinner reservations need to be made in advance; however, the restaurant is also open for breakfast and lunch. There is a traditional kaiseki menu (multi-course Japanese dinner) and we were treated to an assortment of fresh Setouchi seafood and other seasonal ingredients, all presented beautifully in typical Japanese fashion. It’s a fantastic experience and well worth the splurge, particularly if staying at the Benesse House.
Entrance to the Benesse House Museum is free for all Benesse House guests, so after dinner, we took the opportunity to explore the museum after hours. The modern architecture of the museum, and the Benesse House for that matter, is spectacular and the deliberation in bringing nature, art and architecture together in harmony is truly astounding. The museum houses works from a range of artists, architects, photographers and sculptors including Tadao Ando, Andy Warhol and Hiroshi Sugimoto.
After frolicking around the museum, we took a small monorail up to the Oval House to the Oval Lounge part of Benesse House, normally only open to Oval House guests, where we enjoyed some cocktails before calling it a night.
Our second day was dedicated to exploring the numerous art museums and projects on the Japanese art island including the Chichu Art Museum and the Lee Ufan Museum.
The stand-out for me was the Chichu Art Museum and, in my opinion, it is possibly the most extraordinary art museum that I have encountered, despite only holding a few select works. The sleek building is itself a work of art, nestled underground and delicately balancing the elements of light and the natural environment to create a concrete masterpiece.
Some of the exhibits within the Chichu Art Museum are particularly mind-boggling and have to be experienced in person – particularly as photography isn’t allowed – such as the incredible sci-fi-esque Walter De Maria room installation. It will feel as though you’ve entered into some strange parallel universe, or walked on to the movie set of a space odyssey film.
It is also at the Chichi Art Museum where I was first exposed to James Turrell’s installations and his uncanny ability to manipulate light and space, and you can find other examples of James Turrell’s work throughout Naoshima Island including the Art House Project. Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series is also found in the Chichu Art Museum.
The Lee Ufan Museum is a 10-minute walk from the Chichu Art Museum and it is dedicated to the works of Korean-born contemporary artist Lee Ufan. Ufan’s installations focus on materials such as iron, stone and concrete, aligning with the island’s ethos of integrating art and the natural environment.
Afterwards, we ventured into the Honmura district to find a place to stop at for lunch and inadvertently stumbled upon the Cafe Salon Nakaoku. It is a restaurant housed in a dark rustic building, which had a convivial atmosphere, serving traditional local food. The service was impeccable, but that’s hardly a surprise when travelling through Japan.
With full stomachs, we set off on the Art House Project trail, a project where artists have converted abandoned houses in the town into art installations. There are 7 houses to explore: Kadoya, Minamidera, Kinza, Go’o Shrine, Ishibashi, Gokaisho, and Haisha. The most memorable installation for me was James Turrell’s Minamidera, but I won’t spoil it for you – you’ll have to come experience it for yourself. Also, check out the Statue of Liberty in the dilapidated-looking Haisha installation.
Walking through the Honmura district was an opportunity to see the residential areas on Naoshima Island and to get a feel for local life. It was while wandering through this area that I could get a real sense of the opposing yet congruent forces of tradition and modernity on the island, particularly after staying at the ultra contemporary Benesse Hotel.
In the evening, we returned to the Chichu Art Museum for the James Turrell Open Sky night viewing which occurs on Fridays and Saturdays at sunset and should be booked in advance as the group size is limited to 35 people. The Open Sky viewing involves sitting in James Turrell’s Open Sky installation at the Chichu Art Museum gazing upwards as the sky changes from dusk to nightfall through the open ceiling. Your perception of colour will be challenged as the sky seemingly fades from grey to pitch black but then turns to shades of pink and blue in correspondence with the sophisticated light projection show. It was a fantastic experience and a must-do if you happen to be staying on Naoshima Island for the weekend.
Later that night, we ordered room service for dinner. The staff came in to set up our table and the meal, and, again, we were blown away by the quality and the presentation of the food.
The next morning we rose early in order to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Along the way, we stopped to look at the quirky, mish-mash exterior of the I Love Yu bathhouse, which is both a public bath house and an art installation. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open so we didn’t have the chance to go in the bathhouse – next time!
While waiting for the ferry, we played around in Yayoi Kusama’s red pumpkin located by the Miyanoura Port. It is an interactive installation and hollow so that you can walk inside it. There are also holes to stick your head out of – perfect for creating those unique family portraits.
How to get to Naoshima Island
Naoshima Island can be tricky to get to depending on where you are coming from within Japan and it will likely require a couple of train connections before catching the ferry across to the Japanese art island.
Naoshima has two ports: Miyanoura and Honmura, and most people arrive at Miyanoura Port, which is also where you’ll find the information centre. Honmura Port has less ferry connections than Miyanoura.
As we were coming from Hiroshima, we departed from Hiroshima Station before transferring at Okayama Station (the exchange point for the Shinkansen) to the JR Uno Line to Uno, where we then caught the ferry to Miyanoura Port.
Things to do on Naoshima Island
- Chichu Art Museum (and the James Turrell Open Sky night viewing at sunset)
- Benesse House Museum
- Benesse House
- Art House Project
- Ando Museum
- Lee Ufan Museum
- I love Yu bathhouse
- 007 Museum – dedicated to the James Bond novel The Man with the Red Tattoo which is partially set on Naoshima Island
- Art scavenger hunt: find all of the installations Japanese art island including Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkins
Naoshima Island Accommodation
Benesse House is the most obvious choice of accommodation on Naoshima Island – and also the most expensive. However, it does allow an immersive experience, being attached to the Benesse House Museum, to be surrounded by amazing works of arts and incredible architecture. In my opinion, it is worth the price tag and the service and the experience that you get is second-to-none. Read about our stay at Benesse House.
There are, however, cheaper options available on the island and a list of budget accommodation can be found here.
Getting around Naoshima Island
There are many ways to explore the island including walking, catching the town bus or renting a bicycle.
Approximate walking times are listed below (from the Benesse House website):
Miyanoura Port → Honmura: appx. 30 min (appx. 2.5 km)
Honmura → Benesse House Museum: appx. 30 min (appx. 2.5 km)
Benesse House Museum → Lee Ufan Museum: appx. 9 min (appx. 500 m)
Lee Ufan Museum → Chichu Art Museum: appx 9 min (appx. 500 m)
Chichu Art Museum → Miyanoura Port: appx 30 min (appx 2.5 km)
The town bus operates from the Miyanoura Port (I Love Yu bathhouse, 007 Museum) and stops in Honmura (Art House Project, and Ando Museum). You can also take a free Benesse Art Site Naoshima shuttle bus to continue to Benesse House (Benesse House Museum, Chichu Art Museum, Lee Ufan Museum).
Bicycles and electric bicycles (which may help with the hilly roads) can also be rented at the Miyanoura ferry terminal.
Want to extend your trip beyond Naoshima Island?
There are 12 islands in the Seto Inland Sea: Naoshima, Teshima, Megijima, Ogijima, Shodoshima, Oshima, Inujima, Shamijima, Honjima, Takamijima, Awashima and Ibukijima, allowing the unique opportunity to island-hop.
The Benesse Corporation also has art projects on the Teshima and Inujima islands, and you may want to consider exploring these islands if you have more time.
Every 3 years, the International Art Festival, ‘Setouchi Triennale‘, which is a contemporary arts festival, is held across the 12 islands. The festival is being held in 2016 across 108 days during the spring, autumn and summer.
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