Ever since we had heard about the contemporary art island of Naoshima, and seen photos of Yaoyi Kusama’s pumpkin sitting wistfully on the jetty, we were keen to visit.
It was a bit of hassle to get there – a Shinkansen from Kyoto to Okayama, followed by a train to Chayamachi and then another to Uno, where we took a ferry to Naoshima. The ferry had gotten into the spirit of the art island, with original paintings and collages on the walls and even a sculpture on outside deck. It was only a 20 minute trip, past islands with granite cliffs and small beaches, we were lucky to have a sunny day to enjoy the vista. I was surprised at how calm the ocean was, but being the Seto “Inland Sea” perhaps this should have been expected!
On arrival at Miyanoura port, we were immediately greeted by Kusama’s other pumpkin (“Red Pumpkin”), which has big holes in it allowing you to peek out. There was also a new-ish wire net artwork called “Naoshima Pavillion”. This happened to be next to an udon shop, where we decided to have lunch. It was a pretty local shop, serve yourself style, but the bukkake udon was really yummy and a great start to our island adventure. Mark happily slurped his down!
We then headed to the bus stop so we could find our accommodation, drop off our bags and start exploring the artworks. The town buses were mini-bus sized and covered in spots and pumpkins. There were lots of signs about not getting too close to take photos and selfies (which I only read after taking my photos!)
Naoshima is an island in two parts, there is a Mitsubishi factory (we googled it and it said it processed E-waste) in the north of the island, and fishing villages (and now art museums and associated tourism) in the south of the island. It was a quick trip to our accommodation in Tsumuru which was just a collection of houses, a local shop (with unfortunately no milk for our cereal), an okonomiyaki shop and a ramen shop.
Being a small island, biking is a good way to get around, although there are a few steep hills. From our accommodation (which had bikes provided) it wasn’t far to the start of the art area, where you couldn’t ride a bike anyhow, unless you took the very steep detour road! From the bike parking area we could see the famous “Pumpkin” sitting on the jetty, with a great view of the Seto Sea. It was smaller than the one we had seen in Kyoto (were we saw a Kusama exhibition) but it was in such a great location. We waited our turn for photos and then walked along the beach front to admire the other outdoor works including sculptures of cats and camels with flowers planted in them, giant metal triangles and metal boats.
We continued on the hilly walk around the coast and spied more art – a clearing of stones and an outdoor bath! At the top of a hill we spotted an interesting building below, the Lee Ufan Museum which was designed by architect Tando Ando. There was even a sign showing how to find the entrance as all we could see were concrete walls, a huge pole and some precisely placed boulders. After finding the entrance, there were still maze like corridors to walk through before locating the ticket desk. The inner courtyard of the museum was great – a triangular space with rocks and a steel plate, but very evocative. The art works were minimalist but beautiful including brush strokes with crushed stones, rooms housing rock ‘sculptures’ and a projection of a rock into its own shadow which was quite trippy.
We wound our way further around the coast to the Chi Chu Museum. Getting to the museum entrance involved walking past a lovely garden with a small stream, to put us in the mood for Monets! The museum was mostly unground to blend into the surroundings and again the architecture was a highlight. All the museums on Naoshima had a ban on photography which was good as you had to properly experience them, but it would have been nice to take a photo of this one! There were long corridors, courtyards of various geometric shapes with walkways at different heights and interesting sightlines.
Chichu Museum has three main exhibitions – some wonderful Monet waterlilies, James Turrell light art and a very cool Walter De Maria installation. We had to keep taking our shoes off to visit the different exhibits which was very Japanese. Firstly we admired the five water lily painting from the later part of Monet’s career. They were hung in a white room, with a white uniformed attendant, white dice-like tiles on the floor and natural light from the windows in the ceiling. It was very peaceful and a lovely way to view the paintings.
Next we visited the James Turrell art, it was a bit unusual and I’m not sure I ‘got’ it. The best part was a big hole in the roof of the building called “Open Sky”.
Last but not least was the Water De Maria artwork. It was a cavernous space with a huge granite ball in the centre and lots of golden wooden structures arranged around it. They made me smile as I immediately thought they looked like golden cricket wickets, but on closer inspection were square, triangle and pentagon cylinders. As per the other artworks, the building and natural light was part of the show and the clouds were reflected in the super shiny granite. It was an amazing interplay of light, space and shapes even though I wasn’t really sure what it all meant!
Our final art museum of the day was the Benesse House Museum, which was the original gallery on Naoshima, designed as an integrated art museum and hotel. Again we were struck by the architecture and enjoyed some more approachable pieces of art. Our favourites included a box with lots of different words that lit up which had either ‘life’ or ‘death’ after them like ‘run life’ or ‘eat death’; a box with ‘Little Boy’ on it and the Japanese constitution billowing out, which was very powerful; a line of three chattering men “Chatter, Chatter, Chatter” (although of course men don’t chatter!); an ant farm of world flags; two giant stones in a courtyard that looked like soft pillows and a very intriguing work which was a painting of two boats on a beach, with two real boats in front of the painting and then about 500m way on the actual beach the same two boats…
It was getting dark and we had just enough time for some more posing with the pumpkin, before our short cycle home. It was pretty cold, so after freshening up we were happy we only had to pop across the road to the okonomiyaki shop. The shop was cosy, with a husband and wife doing the cooking. I had the mixed okonomiyaki with lots of seafood – it was huge and tasty.
The next day was drizzly but we still headed out for a run. It was about 9km around the southern loop of the island, I took the hilly route and had some good views of the pumpkin (again!). It was pleasant running through the small fishing villages and there were practically no cars early in the morning.
After a bakery breakfast, we set off to see the Art House Project, Naoshima’s other main art area. In the town of Honmura, six empty houses have been turned into art installations. The first we visited was another James Turrell work where we entered a very dark room, feeling along the walls for the sitting area at the back. There was a bit of surprise that happened and it was a great play on the human senses.
After becoming a bit lost in the alleyways, we found the second exhibition which was completely different. In a renovated old house (200 years old?) there was a large shallow pool, that at first glance was filled with many blinking lights. However, on closer inspection, it was actually lots of LED timers counting at different rates, as set by the local residents. It was mesmerising to watch the blinking lights and ponder countdowns, time, and therefore mortality.
Next we headed to a hill above the town where a small shrine had been ‘refurbished’ with a lovely rock garden and icy-glass stairs. The best part was going down a narrow tunnel to a crypt like space below the shrine and seeing the stairs come out from the heart of the cave.
The fourth and fifth houses were less spectacular but still interesting. One had a small yard with two pavilions set up, one with wooden camellias and real bamboo, one with real bamboo but no flowers. There was also a real camellia in the garden and artwork was about the differences of with/without and real/unreal. The penultimate house was another older house with large paintings. The first set were not that impressive, but the second was a giant and very beautiful ‘waterfall’ which benefited greatly by being exhibited in the old house.
The final house used to be a dentist’s home / surgery and was very eclectic. The outside was decorated with lots of old objects and was one of the few things on the art house tour that could be photographed. The inside had three main spaces that were all very different – a room with a boat in a starry, blue sea that Mark really liked; a room with black objects; and a Statue of Liberty that took up 3 floors in the bathroom and rooms above! Some people on TripAdvisor had complained this house was too self indulgent, but I think they might have been Americans who couldn’t take a joke…
We really enjoyed the Art House Project sites, each had such a different feel and the precinct complimented the art galleries. It was fun walking through the narrow streets to find the next art house, with the discrete signs making finding them more of a challenge.
By this stage it was time for lunch, although there wasn’t much open in the off-season. We ended up at Calico where I had a tasty curry rice, but I think Mark would have been happy to head back to the Udon shop!
The last art site of the island was the public bath, decorated by the same artist as the dentist’s house. Called “I Love Yu”, it is a play on words as Yu means hot water in Japanese. We used a vending machine to get a ticket and then went to our separate change rooms with mermaid tiles, posters and other interesting objects decorating the space. I was the only person in the women’s section and luxuriated in the bath whilst staring at the very literal elephant in the room, which was on the wall between the male and female baths. I also enjoyed looking at the postcard collage on the bottom of the bath. It was too hot to stay in for long, but was definitely an experience and a fitting end to our great trip to Naoshima.