Naoshima it’s a like a Japanese version of the Venice Biennale, but permanent.
On a tiny island.
In Japan.

Most Japanese we encountered didn’t know of Naoshima, so we were travelling relatively uncharted waters as we took the 20-minute ferry from Uno (halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima) across the Seto Inland Sea.

Naoshima is not even 5km long, and yet it is fast becoming one of Japan’s great art hot spots thanks to a scattering of remarkable museums housing some first-rate art collections including works by Monet, James Turrell and Walter de Maria. The inspiring scenery doesn’t hurt either.

When we arrived the pink sakura was on the trees, birds were singing and a gentle sea breeze wafted as we pedaled our tiny gear-less hire bikes up the occasional slope. Idyllic would be an understatement.

It all started in 1992 when a Japanese educational publisher opened Benesse House Museum to house their Warhols, Hockneys and various other bits and pieces from their corporate art collection. They asked self-taught architect and concrete-lover Tadao Ando to design the building, which he incorporated into the landscape, harmonizing it with nature.

Benesse House kick-started a flourishing new era on the island, with new museums and art projects popping up like mushrooms. Ando has since built two more museums for the publisher: the ChiChu Art Museum and the Lee Ufan Museum.

If there’s one thing I can say for sure it’s that you’ll leave Naoshima with a whole new appreciation of concrete. The underground ChiChu Art Museum is Ando’s love letter to this humble building material, using it in such a simple but monumental way that you feel like you’re walking around the high temple of some long-lost civilization, glimpsing hills and landscapes in the mottled color variations on the walls.

 

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But let’s not forget the Art.

The most breath-taking moment was in the Chi Chu Art Museum where, after navigating a series of corridors and sudden cubic courtyards so deep they frame the distant sky above, you enter the Monet space. You remove your shoes, step through a doorway onto a cushiony marble floor and turn a corner into a room of pure white revealing five sublime Monet water lily paintings. Illuminated by natural light from above, and with the air moist and slightly humid, you feel like a fish under the lily pads. It’s goose-bump material.

Beyond ChiChu there’s plenty more epic art experiences to be had around the island. In Honmura township the Art House Project converted six vacant but beautiful houses into art spaces featuring installations by renowned local and international artists. In one house a darkened room contains a giant silent waterfall, in another digital numbers flash in an indoor pond like radioactive goldfish.

The slightly more mod township of Miyanoura hosts the pop-art Naoshima Bath house where you can soak under a life-size elephant sculpture and painted glass ceilings. We stayed in a little minshuku in Honmura owned by an entrepreneurial Björk look-alike who also runs the local cat café.

Riding around you come across sea views that make you think you’re in the Greek Archipelago, as well as spotting big spotted pumpkin sculptures by Japan’s polka dot queen Yayoi Kusama. Seriously, in Naoshima art experiences abound.

So if you happen to find yourself close to the Seto Inland Sea, or in Japan at all for that matter, do yourself a favor and check out Naoshima.

 

 

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Words: Beatrice Clarke
Photo: Beatrice Clarke and Alessandro Raschella

 

 

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