48 Hours on Japan's Art Island

48 Hours on Japan's Art Island

There's something about arriving at a destination by boat that makes the travel experience infinitely more exciting. On our approach to Naoshima, one of some 3,000 islands which dot Japan's Seto Inland Sea, I watched with bated breath as the isle slowly revealed itself from the ferry's window, lush undulating hills rising from placid turquoise water. The air was heavy with a thick summer haze that enveloped Naoshima in a cloak of mystery, and my eyes strained in their search for a glimpse of what we'd traversed air, land and sea to behold: art.

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Naoshima's roots in the art world began rather humbly in the 1980s as a plan to create a gathering place where children could learn in an unspoiled natural environment. A camp of yurts were transported from Mongolia and erected along the island's sandy shores, where Karel Appel’s outdoor sculpture Frog and Cat became the island's first permanent art installation. It was the start of a project that would grow far beyond its initial vision: over the next 30 years the island would become a mecca for art, its site-specific installations and Tadao Ando-designed modern art museums drawing pilgrimages to the 3-mile-long island from across the globe. 

Art is everywhere on Naoshima. It climbs up the walls of centuries-old buildings in the towns' backstreets, stands sentry on a concrete jetty jutting into a bay, and erupts from the earth next to our landing place, Miyanoura Port. A bulbous fire engine-red polka-dotted gourd – the work of world-renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama – is the first installation to greet island visitors. Kusama’s giant pumpkins have become the unofficial mascots of Naoshima, their vibrant spotted skins and waterfront positions creating a surreal scene that feels one part Alice in Wonderland and one part Zen Japan.

Adhering to the idea of nature, architecture and art living in harmony, all of the museums on Naoshima are designed to both enhance the surrounding landscape and deepen the art viewer’s experience. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the subterranean Chichu Art Museum, which captures sunlight from above and plunges it underground to illuminate the works of artists like Claude Monet. Before entering the room dedicated to Monet’s Water Lilies, guests are politely instructed to remove their shoes. I slipped on a pair of the provided slippers and padded quietly over a vast white floor. Constructed of over half a million tiny glimmering marble tiles, the pristine floor mirrors light streaming in from the room's white stone ceiling in an otherworldly, halo-like glow. Monet’s pond, with its scattered lily pads and sky reflections, seems to be alive in this luminous white chamber - and I, rendered speechless. 

I don't consider myself to be a connoisseur of art in any form, but I love visiting museums (my husband enjoys poking fun at my inability to move from an exhibit until I've read every posted information placard in its entirety). Throughout my travels I've been fortunate to step foot in some of the world's best museums, and none have moved me quite like those on Naoshima. I'd seen Monet's work in his home country of France the year prior, but it wasn't until visiting this tiny Japanese island that I realized I had not experienced his art. For it is here, thousands of miles and half a world away from where he painted, that Monet's vision seems best understood.

On the itinerary

Benessee House Museum: multi-concept museum, hotel and restaurant facility housing contemporary artwork in addition to scattered outdoor installations.

Chichu Art Museum: underground museum (and artwork in its own right) dedicated to the permanent display of works by Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria.

Lee Ufan Museum: tranquil museum showcasing the work of Korean minimalist painter and sculptor Lee Ufan.

Ando Museum: an introduction to the island’s chief architect and the unofficial King of Concrete, Tadao Ando.

Art House Project: abandoned traditional Japanese residences repurposed as art projects.

Naoshima Bath I LOVE YU: part art installation, part onsen (hot spring bath).

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Yamamoto Udon: delicious and satisfying bowls of udon soup for only 650 JPY.

Little Plum: shipping container turned restaurant with local beers on offer and wheels available for rent.

Shioya Diner: kitschy 1950’s-style American diner serving up dishes like Cajun BBQ chicken with coleslaw, mashed potatoes and sweet buttered corn (as well as a fantastic hamburger).

Konnichiwa Café: cozy little waterfront spot to enjoy a cup of coffee.

If you go

48 hours on Naoshima will suffice, but plan for 72 hours in the area if you wish to see neighboring Teshima or Inujima, which feature additional art museums and projects. I have major regrets over missing the Teshima Art Museum.

Reserve your accommodations well in advance as Naoshima’s guesthouses and dormitories have limited rooms. I recommend Oomiyake, where you can take a traditional Japanese room at a 400-year-old mansion in the Honmura area. Read more about our stay at Oomiyake here.

It’s a good idea to pre-book breakfast at your hotel. There are few restaurants on the island open before 10AM, and their business hours and operating days often change on a whim.

Naoshima is best navigated by bus or bicycle. You can reference the island’s printable guide map (available at Naoshima’s visitor center and on the ferries) for bus timetables, bike rental shops and just about every bit of information you’ll need.

Be aware that photography is prohibited inside all of the island's museums (as is the case for most in Japan). 

Getting there

Naoshima is reached by ferry from the ports of Uno (near Okayama) and Takamatsu. Ferry schedules are available here (reference page 13 of the printout).

For trips in Japan that involve multiples modes of transport I use Rome2Rio for simplified schedules and cost breakdowns.

can't make it to japan?

My fellow Americans can delve into the polka-dotted universe of Yayoi Kusama sans long-haul flight. The artist's "Infinity Mirrors" exhibit is currently making a rare North American tour! You can catch it now in Seattle and later this year in Los Angeles.

Scenes from: Tokyo Sakura

Scenes from: Tokyo Sakura