You have no idea how excited I am for this installment. I’m brimming with delight. Just brimming. I try not to use that phrase more than once a week, but this is an absolutely necessary time to use it.
It was my great pleasure to spend about 24 glorious hours between Wednesday and Thursday afternoons on the small island of Naoshima near Japan’s least-traveled large island, Shikoku. Centered around the celebration of art, architecture, and nature, it seemed like a dream to an artsy little alien like me. To boot, I was shockingly able to book a room at the the sumptuous Benesse House on the southern tip of the island, whose company sponsor is responsible for much of the art on Naoshima. I’ve never stayed in a hotel that literally looks like it walked out of my most splendid home design-dream, so this alone was a treat.
While Naoshima itself is mostly marked by sea-worn, antique Japanese-style buildings, the Benesse House hotel and the surrounding art museums (the Benesse House Museum, Lee Ufan Museum, and the Chichu Art Museum) lay in stark contrast with imposing, concrete facades. Each one proudly displays some incredible modern art from names like James Turrell, Walter de Maria, and Ufan Lee. I was able to visit Benesse House Museum and the Art House Project (see below) on my first day and saw Lee Ufan and Chichu the morning before I left. I sadly did not get to see the Ando Museum, which is near the Art House Project.
Scenes from the Benesse House Museum.
Front of the Lee Ufan Museum.
The garden on the walk from Lee Ufan to Chichu.
A beach view the looks deceptively like Hawaii.
To add some fresh ebullience to the atmosphere, the grassy area surrounding my hotel was marked with large, cartoonish sculptures characterized by random colors and patterns. One such sculpture is the famous Naoshima pumpkin, created by the famous Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama (also awesomely nicknamed the “Polka Dot Lady” for her trademark technique).
On the eastern side of the island, you’ll find the Ando Museum and the Art House Project, the latter of which was my personal favorite site. In this unique and aptly-named exhibit, patrons must use a map to find the small abodes in the area housing (pun totally intended) various artists’ works. The whole affair takes about an hour and a half, but due to my time of arrival (around 3:30) I didn’t get to see two of the six houses on display. However, the four that I did see were all incredible creative and provoking, so I think I accidentally chose quite wisely.
There’s also a cat cafe called Nyaoshima (nyan is the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a cat makes) in this area, but it was closed by the time I found it at 4:30 after my Art House stint. I had to simultaneously fight back tears of sadness that I missed going there and rejoice in how awesomely it was painted at the front. More motivation to come back, I say!
Overall, Naoshima struck the loudest chord of almost any place I’ve visited for vacation. I found it at once tranquil and jarring. Rustic and futuristic. Small-world and urban. I definitely had cut my time way too short.
Observations and Tips about Naoshima:
– Getting here is not ridiculously easy, as you need to take a train to Okayama, followed by two local trains to Uno port. You then have to take a ferry from Uno to Miyanoura port on Naoshima, followed by a bus to Benesse house if you’re staying there. I strongly recommend at least staying overnight in Okayama or Uno if you’re only staying on Naoshima for a day or overnight, as you will run out of time trying to do everything there is to do on the island. If you are able to be efficient and get there early on the day, you *might* be able to see everything, but bear in mind that most of the museums close at 4:30 pm.
– Coming here, I had expected to be one of the few non-Japanese tourists staying at Benesse. The opposite was true. About 70% of the people who checked in at the same time as me, who I saw at dinner, and who I saw walking around, were European with the occasional American couple sprinkled in. Because of this, English is more widely spoken by staff here than it is anywhere I’ve been in Tokyo, Kyoto, or elsewhere.
– The island is three miles wide and long, roughly, so traversing it on foot is not impossible, just time-consuming. There are also rental bikes at the main port of Miyanoura, which could prove helpful. If you’re staying at Benesse house, however, there are constant shuttles going to all of the main attractions, so there’s not really a need.
– Accommodation on Naoshima is limited in general, so do not go all Last-Minute Lucy like I did. I got lucky. Book in advance!
Things Done/Places Seen:
Day 1: The Benesse House Museum (approx. 30 minutes to 1 hour to view the grounds and all of the art). A short ferry from the “Park” section of the hotel, where the Issen restaurant and the “Oval” section of the hotel are also located.
Also Day 1: The Art House Project (approx. time 1-2 hours). The hotel offers a complimentary shuttle that takes you 10 minutes away to Honmura port, where the Art House Project and Ando Museum are. Most of the exhibits do not allow photographs (other than the shrine above).
Dinner: Issen Restaurant (Japanese restaurant within the Benesse House Museum, dinner from 6:00 to 10:00). I preordered a 12-course kaiseki meal that was quite artful and impressive – and a LOT less expensive than I expected (about 10,300 yen, which is pretty reasonable with the current exchange rate). You can’t beat that sunset, either.
One of the courses was an egg custard with cod milt. Contrary to what it looks like, “milt” is not brains or intestines like I expected. It’s a little worse than that. Regardless, I guess this dish still didn’t taste terrible…what does that make me?
Day 2: The Lee Ufan Museum (approx. time 15-30 minutes). I’ll be honest, this one takes a while to sink in. The pieces are quite minimalist and meant to represent solitude within nature, but it might just look like a bunch of rocks to most people. Again, most of the art could not be photographed, but I was able to grab this shot of the front of the museum.
Also Day 2: The Chichu Art Museum (approx. time 1-1.5 hours). This had, bar none, the most impressive art installations that I’ve ever seen. Going along with the current theme, I was not able to photograph these myself, though I highly encourage you check them out here, if possible, or at least online. My personal favorite was James Turrell’s Open Field. Utterly surreal and infinitely better in person…just saying. 🙂
Things Missed (hereinafter “Things to do Next Time” because here at IC we are glitter, sunshine, and rainbows):
The Ando Museum. Like I mentioned above, this is right next to the Art House Project, so I would have loved to see it as it includes work from the guy who designed the Benesse House, Tadao Ando.
I <3 Yu Bathouse. This peculiar exhibit is actually a combination public bath/work of art. It is right next to Miyanoura port, so it makes an excellent stop right before you head to your hotel.
Nyaoshima cat cafe. Sad face. 🙁
Stayed tuned for Episode 6, where I experience a bit of the “real” Japan in Hikone and take deer selfies in Nara!