Journey to a little island in the Seto Inland sea in Japan that is home to some fantastic art and scenic beauty.
I struggle with even getting my rental cycle off its kickstand. To my embarrassment, the girl who rented me the bicycle, comes running over to show me how to get the cycle off its stand. I start pedalling away. A few missteps and I find my balance. It’s true what they say – once you learn to ride a bicycle you never forget. I’m cycling away now on a winding island road with the wind blowing through my hair. The road winds through the scenic island of Naoshima, home to fabulous modern art museums.
I first heard of Naoshima and it’s sister island Teshima, from a Polish friend. After checking the photographs of the place online, I knew I had to visit the island if I was ever in Japan. From being called a “Sea of Death”, for the rampant dumping of toxic waste in the 1970s, Naoshima has come a long way to it’s current state as an idyllic art colony. The island was transformed into a gigantic art installation after the Benesse Corporation established a number of art museums on the island.
A bit off the beaten track, getting to the island was an adventure in itself. After changing two trains and getting on to a ferry, I finally arrive at the island. And immediately I am greeted by a giant red outdoor pumpkin
Naoshima has a bus system that takes people around the island and I just miss the bus out of the ferry terminal. Seeing that the next one is at least about 30 minutes away, I decide to rent a bicycle instead. Riding through wonderful island roads and admiring the beauty of the island is a wonderful lazy way to see to the island.
After a short ride I make it to my first stop, the Chichu Art Museum. The Chichu Art Museum is a modern art museum built into a hillside.The museum building, designed by Ando Tadao and itself a work of art, is mostly located underground and solely utilizes natural light to illuminate the artwork. I begin by strolling through the Chichu garden, which is said to be inspired by the “Water Lilies” series by Claude Monet.
The entrance to the museum leads me deep into the ground, with natural light illuminating the way. The museum has a lovely collection of Claude Monet paintings that can be viewed in a large white viewing room. The colors of Monet are in stark contrast to the white background and draw me into the painting.
I take in other wonderful pieces of art including Walter De Maria’s “Time/Timeless/No Time”. The installation is made of precise measurements having a large granite ball sitting in the center of a subterranean hall, lit by natural light from above. As the sun sets, it is said that the work’s appearance changes with the changing light.
But the artist who makes the biggest impression on me is James Turrell. Turrell presents light as an work of art itself. I first view his installation titled “Open Field”. I enter into a clean white room, that has an almost antiseptic laboratory like feel to it. Then I am instructed to walk towards towards a pair of stairs and climb into what looks like a blue light filled hole in the wall. I slowly walk towards the end of the “room”. With me surrounded by the eerie blue light, my perception of depth gradually changes and it seems like an “Open Field” from some abstract painting. The only difference is that I get the distinct feeling of being part of the painting and not just a passive viewer. After that disorienting walk into the blue yonder, I move on to view “Open Sky” which features an exhibit that changes lighting with the changes in the ambient light from the ceiling.
I leave the museum to try and find the famous yellow pumpkin of Naoshima. The iconic pumpkin was created by Yayoi Kusama, a renowned Japanese Pop artist who was an influence for Andy Warhol. The pumpkin sits on the the end of a lovely beach near the Benesse House Museum. I take the long route not knowing how steep the climb is. Quite soon I am huffing and puffing my way up the hill. Somewhere up the incline, I give up and decide to walk instead. In spite of the exertion, I am rewarded by brilliant views from the top of the island.
I spot my destination and now I am faced with a new dilemma – going downhill. The steep slope down, means that I have to once again walk down or risk being a high velocity splat on the foot of the hill. I somehow reach the end of the road and park my bicycle. The pumpkin is not far.
After seeing Naoshima’s most iconic art piece, I roam about a bit in the area before I decide to head to the Benesse House Museum. The museum designed by Tadao Ando hosts both a hotel and a museum. It looks like it might rain soon, so I hurry into the museum.
The museum has many impressive pieces of art and site specific installations on display. The one that stays with me is Bruce Nauman’s “100 Live and Die”. It features a gigantic LED display with words and sentences expressing human behaviors, emotions etc. coupled with the words “Live” and “Die”. The artwork invites the viewer to reflect on their own life and death.
I exit the museum and it is quite dark outside. A little over the bay, I am treated to the fantastic sight of rays of light lighting up the sea. As quickly as the light appears, it vanishes warning me to hurry on before it begins raining. I race on towards the pier and my final destination – a most unusual museum.
Back in 2002, James Bond featured in a little adventure involving Naoshima. The book by Raymond Benson was called “The Man with the Red Tattoo” and was set in Japan and Naoshima. To campaign for a movie to be made based on the book, a small little “007 museum” was set up on the island
The small museum features scenes from the book, including Bond taking on some pretty weird villains. The rest of the museum has varied memorabilia from other Bond movies like the Walther PPK that Bond prefers. Also decorating the walls are posters from other Bond movies and sections dedicated to Sean Connery and Mie Hama, the Japanese actress who played the role of a Bond Girl named Kissy Suzuki in 1967’s “You Only Live Twice”.
With this escape into the fantasy world of spies and assasins, I leave my bicycle back at the rental shop. The twilight is setting in, as I wait for my ferry back to the mainland, still soaking in the wondrous beauty of Naoshima.
Getting to Naoshima is not exactly easy. First take the train to Okayama from Kyoto. From Okayama you need to take JR Uno Line from Okayama Station to Uno Station (45-60 minutes, ¥580 one way). From Uno you can take a ferry to Miyanoura Port on Naoshima (20 minutes, ¥290 one way). From Miyanoura you can either take the bus (frequency about 20 minutes, ¥500) or hire a bicycle (about ¥500) to get around the island.
What to do
There is plenty of art to explore all over the island. You can start with the 007 Museum, the Miyanoura gallery and the fabulous Naoshima Bath (I Love Yu). You can explore the Chichu Art Museum, The Benesse House Museum and Lee Ufan Museum. The Honmura port end of the island has the Art House project in which a number of old houses are transformed into art spaces. You can also see the small Ando museum here.
Where to Stay
I did Naoshima as a day trip from Kyoto. However if you must stay on the island and have the cash to spare, do consider staying the Benesse House Museum. For more pocket friendly options there are a number of stay options near Miyanoura area.