Japan Day 7: Naoshima

Today was long. And if I had better sense I would have realized my itinerary for the day was overly ambitious. But it happened, I did it all, I’m exhausted but I’m glad I did it.

I took a day trip to Naoshima.

We’ll talk about what Naoshima is in a minute but first let’s talk about where it is. Naoshima is an island off the coast of Japan in the Seto Inland Sea. To get there from Osaka, one must take the Shinkansen (bullet train) about an hour south to Okayama, and then take Japan Rail to the port town Uno, which also takes about an hour. From there you need to take a 20 minute ferry ride to reach the island. In all, you’re looking at a best case scenario of 2.5 hours for a one way ride. I figured that because this is Japan and everything is usually quite efficient, the powers that be would line up the JR train arrival in Uno with the Ferry departure times. But oh no. They do not line up at all. For example, the train arrives at Uno at 10:02 but the ferry departs at 10am. And they are very punctual here. The next ferry was an hour later at 11am. You would think that there are enough people doing day trips to Naoshima that maybe they would increase the frequency of the boats. Apparently not.

To go to Naoshima I took the 8:04am Shinkansen and arrived on the island at 11:20. Over 3 hours. Coming back I took the 8:25pm ferry and had 20 or 30 minute waiting time between trains so I got back at 11:30pm. Around 3 hours. I spent 6.5 hours traveling to spend 9 hours on Naoshima. Was it worth it? Absolutely. But next time and as a recommendation to anyone else: just stay the night. It’s enough of a hassle to get there that you might as well chill out and sleep there and not be stressed about traveling back. I wanted to spend a night there but then I would have had to make other compromises on my itinerary. Onward…

Now that we’ve discussed where Naoshima is, let’s talk a little about what it is. Quite simply Naoshima is an art island that is particularly famous for several museums dedicated to modern art, contemporary art, and architecture by the prominent Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

There are other art projects on the island as well. There is one project (the Art House Project) that involves 6 houses that have been redesigned and reimagined by different artists.

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The Go’o Shrine – one of the houses part of the Art House Project.

There is a Tadao Ando museum, designed by the architect, with sketches of projects and plenty of information on his career.

There are also outdoor sculptures all around the island. Some of them you can climb around in or on which is always fun.

There is plenty to fill a day with art alone, not to mention the lovely views and walks around the island. But of course I only had a day.

So I made the most of it. I arrived 11:20am at Miyanoura port, which is sort of the main landing point on the island, and from there I got on the local bus to go across the island to where the Art House Project and Ando Museum are located to see those first since they close the earliest. From there I took the bus to the Benesse Art Site.

Quick note on the buses: similar to the ferry, they don’t run all that frequently. Even though it only takes about 15 min to cross the island by bus they still only run maybe once every 45-90 minutes. Very strange. You need to plan your bus strategy. Most people rent bikes but since it was raining strait through the morning and early afternoon, I didn’t want to risk being stuck in the rain trying to peddle uphill on some remote road. So i stuck with walking and bussing.

Back to Benesse…The Benesse art project started in the early 90s when the Benesse Corporation chose Naoshima as the setting for its growing collection of modern and contemporary art. Now the island has become an arts hub attracting tourists, art lovers and creatives from all over the world

The Benesse Art Site features a few different museums and structures. I’ll list them according to the order I visited them (again, prioritizing closing times).

I took the free Benesse bus all the way to the end of the line to Chichu Art Museum first. This museum was built mostly underground to avoid affecting the beautiful natural scenery of the Seto inland sea. The building is designed by Tadao Ando, with artworks by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria on permanent display. I had lunch in the cafe which didn’t have a particularly impressive menu but the food was good. The view from my table was amazing.

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My view at lunch, looking out the window from the Chichu Art Museum

The thing you need to keep in mind with these museums around the Benesse Art Site is that there isn’t a whole lot of art to “see”. It’s more about the experience of the space and the art within the space. To me the point of visiting these museums, even though they may only have a handful to a dozen works of art inside, is to immerse yourself in the architecture and the place in addition to viewing and experiencing the art installations – what I call a true blend of “sight” and “site”. I’m particularly partial to Monet (my first artistic love when I was 8 when I was given my first art book by a family friend) and being able to view those 5 gorgeous water lily paintings in such a sublimely meditative setting was incredibly surreal. I could live in that room.

After Chichu, I walked down the road 5 minutes to visit the Lee Ufan Museum. This museum resulted from a collaboration between Lee Ufan and Ando. Together they built what is meant to be a tranquil space where art, architecture and nature come in resonance with each other, inviting quiet contemplation. I wasn’t very familiar with Lee Ufan but I fell in love with some of his paintings and installations. The precision, simplicity, and careful attention to each brush stroke is mesmerizing. I must have stood for 15 minutes in the center of the “Meditation room” just…meditating on the art and the space. It was incredibly fulfilling.

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Lee Ufan Museum

After Lee Ufan I walked further down the road to the Benesse House Museum, which integrates both a museum with a hotel, based on a concept of “coexistence of nature, art, and architecture.” The museum has several large scale works and installations set up including artists like Hockney, Rauschenberg, Basquiat, and Cy Twombly among others from Japan and beyond.

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Benesse House Museum

If I had spent the night on the island I would have definitely stayed at the Benesse house. It looks so cool and the rooms have amazing views. And only people who stay in the house have access to certain parts of the building that I would have liked to see.

No matter, I continued my journey and I went around visiting all the major outdoor art projects I could find. There are several scattered around the Benesse Art Site and around other parts of the island.

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The iconic “Pumpkin” by Yayoi Kusama

I eventually made my way back to Miyanoura where I had dinner at a little cafe and then decided to visit the local Naoshima bath. It had an artsy theme too. The bath is an art facility created by artist Shinro Ohtake. You can pay for everything you need at a little vending machine – it’s quite convenient. And now I have a souvenir towel from the experience. The interior is very cool. It’s all decorated in this funky eclectic style. And in the bath itself there is literally an elephant in the room…

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The Naoshima Bath House (I Heart Yu) exterior.

One thing I didn’t realize: it’s a full on bath house so even though I planned ahead and packed a bathing suit, i definitely didn’t need it. I’ll leave it at that.

I will say that after the amount of walking today and past days it was amazing to get in a hot bath, soak up and relax. It was also a good way to decompress and take a few deep breaths before the long ride back to Osaka.

Tomorrow is another long day in this stint of long days. After that I’m planning to carve out some relax time to recover.

 

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