Naoshima, The Art Island

1 July 2021

As I was leaving in August, I was determined to make my last summer in Japan a good one – and it was. I made it to quite a few places I’d missed so far, including the shrines in Nikko and TeamLab Borderless, an Instagram-famous art installation in Tokyo. There were trips to the beach, hangouts in the park, and game nights at my apartment. Coincidentally, four of my closest Tokyo friends are summer babies, and I made it to each birthday celebration. But still, I needed one last good trip.

I met one of the members of my “top shelf” crew in a guest house in Busan, South Korea. When we realized we were both travel writers who lived in Japan, it was clear that we had to be friends. Little did I know that in the subsequent years how close we would become. She was a clear choice of a final travel partner, and we decided to choose a place that neither of us had been to (no small task!) We settled on visiting Shōdoshima and Naoshima, two of the islands in the Seto Inland Sea.

First we had to get there. We flew from Tokyo to Takamatsu, itself on the island of Shikoku, where we took the airport bus to the port and boarded the car ferry for Shōdoshima, the bigger of the two islands and where we had rented a wonderful old Japanese house to stay in. But before we even had time to explore that island properly, we took a day trip to Naoshima.

Flying to Takamatsu. Shot on iphone.
Pulling into Shōdoshima. Shot on film with my Nikon F3.

Naoshima is known for one rather surprising thing: art. With a population of just 3,000, the tiny island draws huge amounts of tourists in normal years due to it’s many contemporary art museums and statues dotted throughout. It wears it’s identity as Japan’s art island proudly. One only has to journey steps from the ferry dock to find the first large installations: Yayoi Kusama’s Red Pumpkin and Naoshima Pavilion by Sou Fujimoto.

Welcome to my pumpkin. . . er, Yayoi Kusama’s Red Pumpkin. Image courtesy of Florentyna Leow.
Naoshima Pavilion by Sou Fujimoto. Shot on iphone.

The museums of Naoshima are directed by the Benesse Corporation, and a few of the site-specific ones have been designed by the architect Tadao Ando. Art snobs and rich people would be able to spend days on the island and visit each and every one, but lacking the time and funds we chose to visit only the one that interested us the most: the Chichu Art Museum.

To say that the Chichu Art Museum might be one of the best museums I’d ever been to is not an understatement. The museum only features the work of three artists, four if you consider the Ando-designed building, and admission is ¥2,100 (about $19). I was worried it would feel like a rip-off. It was anything but. In fact, I think more museums should follow Chichu’s lead, and feature only a few incredible works by a few exceptional artists, and showcase them in the best way possible.

As described on the museum’s website:

Chichu Art Museum was constructed in 2004 as a site rethinking the relationship between nature and people. The museum was built mostly underground to avoid affecting the beautiful natural scenery of the Seto Inland sea. Artworks by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria are on permanent display in this building designed by Tadao Ando. Despite being primarily subterranean, the museum lets in an abundance of natural light that changes the appearance of the artworks and the ambience of the space itself with the passage of time, throughout the day and all along the four seasons of the year.

Garden outside of Chichu Art Museum. Shot on film with my Nikon F3.

Moving through the museum is an experience on it’s own. How is it possible that a subterranean concrete structure feel light and towering rather than dark and sunken? And then of course, the art itself. I’d seen work by James Turrell before, but I’d never felt like I “got it.” Well, I take it all back, because I really “got” Turrell’s Open Field. This piece is really difficult to describe, because for the magic to happen you must physically be in it. The viewer walks up a series of steps and approaches what appears to be a blue square, but is actually the opening to another space that is illuminated by a blue light. Once the viewer moves inside, the lighting changes, creating optical illusions as to the dimensions of the space. It may not sound like much, but trust me, it was trippy as hell in the best way.

After getting our minds blown by Turrell, we set off down a dark hall and rounded a corner, where the space opened up in a chasm of light and the estatic beauty of Monet’s Water Lilies. If the Chichu Art Museum was art church, this was the “come to Jesus” moment. The room contained five of Monet’s paintings of water lilies from his home in Giverny. The fact that Monet was a master is uncontested, and to be able to spend quiet, intimate time with his work in such a reverent space was incredibly moving.

I was unfamiliar with the last artist, Walter De Maria, but his massive work Time/Timeless/No Time continued to underscore that we were in a spiritual place, a temple to art. The centerpiece of it is a massive granite sphere, and we marveled at how perfectly smooth it was, and how it could have gotten there in the first place. Blissfully, no photos are allowed inside the Chichu Art Museum, so all that I can share with you are some photos of my treat in the cafe and the garden outside.

We took our time leaving the area of the island housing the Chichu Art Museum, exploring the different sculptures and gift shops by the shores of the glasslike Seto Inland Sea, and found Yellow Pumpkin, the other Yayoi Kusama sculpture made even more famous by Instagram. Unfortunately, that would be one of the last high points of our day trip, as things quickly began to go downhill.

Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin. Shot on iphone.

We took the shuttle bus over to another part of the island to check out Art House Project, a series of ten empty houses that have been turned into works of art. When we went to buy the tickets, however, we were informed that we could only visit Art House Project as part of a timed, organized tour, and the next tour was in 20 minutes. This tour was more expensive than what we had expected, included a museum that we weren’t interested in, and was only given in Japanese. We were pissed off, but by that time it was around 12:30, so we decided to lick our wounds and go find lunch.

We had a map of the surrounding cute, old-fashioned area that detailed a number of attractive looking restaurants and cafes. Imagine our frustration when none of them were open. I mean it – none! We checked at least ten places before we begged a cafe owner to serve us some food. She said she could do a meat sauce doria. Fine. Never mind that meat sauce doria, a Japanese comfort food consisting of rice covered in meat sauce and cheese and baked in a ramekin, is probably my least favorite food in Japan. To cap it all off, my friend got a call during our lunch that really upset her, adding a further tragic flavor to our already depressing meal.

It’s sometimes hard while traveling to claim defeat, and go back to your lodgings to lick your wounds, and try again tomorrow. But it was clear that by staying longer, we were just not going to have any fun. While killing time waiting for the ferry back, we did manage to find one more bit of magic, and, dare I say it, art: a fabulous abandoned house that was being swallowed by nature before our eyes.

While our time at Naoshima was over, our days of island fun in the Seto Inland Sea were just beginning. More on that next time.

Safe and Happy Travels,


2 thoughts on “Naoshima, The Art Island”

  1. Wow, what a day, both exhilarating and frustrating.
    I love Yayoi Kusama’s work, and also James Turrell. He has an installation in Canberra that I’ve been to twice, called Skyspace, and you enter inside it. It’s a kind of spiral with a reflecting pool. Hard to describe but it gives me an idea of the kind of thing you’d have seen. His work is amazing.
    Not a single cafe open?! How bizarre.
    Looking forward to hearing about Shōdoshima.

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