One day in Naoshima Island, Japan Review
Naoshima island is one of, if not the, most famous art islands in Japan. Located around 1.5 hours away from Okayama Station; the island is most famous for its unique artistic spaces, its compact size perfect for biking, and a giant yellow pumpkin.
I’m not kidding.
This island houses the world’s most famous pumpkin, so it’s a pretty big baller in the giant vegetable art world.
Arguably that’s a pretty small world, but who am I to judge?
I’m not a broadly artistic person; my interest is mostly limited to animation and manga, and a shallow appreciation of pretty things in general.
I mean, sure my biggest claim to fame is that I’ve got one of the UK’s top grades in GCSE art too many years ago, but literally all I did was make buns. I made buns out of tights, paper and clay; and apparently that was enough. The UK’s art education is not fussy at the GCSE level is what I’m saying.
So why did I go to Naoshima Island? Simple. It is an odd, unique, very Japanese and quite accessible activity to do. In addition I would look cultured, and everyone knows that looking cultured is more important than being cultured.
On a serious note I’d heard that Naoshima Island gives you an artistic experience unlike any other; if you didn’t gain an appreciation of art after experiencing it, then odds are you won’t anywhere else.
And I found this to be true personally.
Naoshima is part of a cluster of art islands in the Seto Inland Sea which were previously abandoned; before a Japanese businessman decided that they could be made useful and persuaded a bunch of artists to turn them into art projects in the 1980s. The other islands are Inujima and Teshima, but Naoshima is generally seen as the most popular due to having a higher number of well known art exhibits.
Originally I’d planned to visit both Naoshima and Teshima, however everything I’d read told me this will be a very ambitious and probably stupid idea. Mainly because there is enough to see on each island to last a full day, but also because the islands are far apart and linked by an infrequent ferry service. You’ll only try to visit both on the same day if you have no idea how hard this is or for the bragging rights. Like when I pretended I visited New York when I’d only seen the suburbs during a short layover.
Getting to Naoshima Island
I went to Naoshima island on a Saturday and did so at a reasonably early time. I took the 7.40am to 8.25am train from Okayama to Uno station via the straight JR Uno-port line, before boarding the 9.22am to 9.42am ferry from Uno port to Miyanoura port. The train fare was covered by the Kansai Hiroshima pass, whilst the ferry trip costed 560.00 JPY / 3.74 GBP for a round trip. Note that the ferry to Naoshima departs approximately every hour and that all museums close on a Tuesday. I recommend going on a weekday, since the museums were quite crowded on the Saturday.
Uno station’s exterior is designed by a french artist and has a quirky black and white design, and there were several little details like this which set the atmosphere up for the day.
The ferry ticket collection was painless and the ferry itself surprisingly luxurious. There were comfortable sofas, artwork, TVs and vending machines; the whole ship was spotless and felt like a well maintained old peoples’ home. But in a good way. I was expecting something similar to the Hong Kong ferry I had taken to Lamma island; where the boat was basic and exposed to the elements.
We arrived at Miyanoura port at 9.42am and started heading towards the south of the island. There were several art museums but I had four in mind to visit: Chichu Art Museum, Benesse House Museum, the Art House Projects and the I Love Yu Bathhouse. I chose these based on how famous and/or original the museums are and was determined to visit all of them despite their scattered locations.
We chose not to rent bikes and to walk instead, since I wasn’t a very good cyclist. There were steep winding roads, so I recommend renting an electric bike if you are considering biking; although it was comical to see a few brave souls fighting against gravity.
Along our way we saw a few art pieces, such as this metal cage structure called the Naoshima Pavilion by Sou Fujimoto. It means to represent the 28th island to Naoshima’s current 27 islands. I would have never realised this just from looking at it, so there you go.
There was also a blue structural piece called the Bunraku puppet by José de Guimaraes nearby which apparently lit up at night, but it just looked like a children’s play thing. I suppose if you squint you may be able to see a person manipulating a puppet.
The views from the island were amazing even on such a cloudy and rainy day and the best part was not needing to jostle with other tourists to take photographs. We took our time taking in the views and walked approximately half an hour to the first stop: Chichu Art Museum.
Chichu Art Museum
If you can only visit one museum in Naoshima, for whatever odd reason, it should be Chichu Art Museum. A subterranean concrete building designed by the architect Tadao Ando, the building utilises natural light to highlight the art exhibits within and is the highlight of the visit.
This museum entrance fee was at least twice the price of the other museums and was very popular; we’d arrived at the ticket office at around 10.30am and there was already a huge queue snaking around the front in the rain. Fortunately I’d already bought the tickets online and we joined the much shorter line to pick them up. We went on a Saturday which probably resulted in larger crowds, but it was very manageable since the tickets were sold in batches for set timeslots. Naoshima is also not a common enough attraction to get crazy Shibuya level crowds.
The people in charge took art seriously, not only did they limit the number of people entering the museum; they also prohibited the use of photography inside. You can however take pictures of the mini garden outside which imitates one of Monet’s paintings.
This stopped trigger-happy people like me from going crazy and forced me to >shudder< be in the moment. Of course some people still took some sneaky pictures, because humans can be awful, but generally everyone was very courteous. All the museums had a no photography policy and this means most of the photos here will be random stock photos to hopefully convey my experience.
And what an experience!
The art pieces utilised light, space and materials in a way that elicited feelings from you; the kind that you couldn’t quite describe in words. It really needs to be seen, but my personal highlights were:
- James Turrell’s “Open Sky” – the white roof appeared to have a square piece of the sky attached to the top; the white sky that day made it hard to see where the roof ended and the sky began, and the dripping rain added to the atmosphere.
- James Turrell’s “Open Field” -This fluorescent light installation utilised red light to mess with my senses, the disorientating effect was very uncanny.
- Walter de Maria’s “Time” – this wide open space area was lit purely by natural lighting which meant it looked different every hour.
- Listening to the rain as I walked through consciously designed concrete corridors and pathways; slipping above and below the ground according to the whims of the building.
The images below illustrates how my withered heart felt seeing the exhibits:
I have probably over-hyped things, but the experience was so different from any other art gallery I’d been to that I can’t help but speak in hyperbole. This was truly a unique experience and not even the need to queue for some of the exhibits ruined it. If anything the small crowds provided an endless source of entertainment; especially in the case of the overconfident man:
Guide: Do you speak English?
Man: (in Japanese) I can speak Japanese
Guide: (instructions in Japanese)
Man: (stares in silence)
Guide: (In English) Take shoes off, line up here and listen to the guy in front please (walks off)
What a legend.
The guides were polite but firm; giving clear instructions for every exhibit and ensuring the art pieces were not crowded. They were all dressed in loose white clothing like catalogue models for Muji and fitted the image of fashionable Japanese hipsters to the tee. I sometimes wonder if the shapeless clothing trend will ever end in Asia, but have to admit that the clean uniforms added to the otherworldly vibe of the museum.
It was almost a relief when I bumped into the achingly hip museum café and the souvenir shop. There’s nothing quite like capitalism to drop me right back to earth again; in other words buying things in Chichu museum was very expensive.
I wanted to purchase the official artbook showcasing the museum’s artworks, however it was a heavy beast costing over £100, whilst my flat is more of an old newspapers and magazines kind of place.
I’m joking, who even reads nowadays?
In the end I did get a postcard with a nice aerial shot of the Chichu art museum buildings. It really is a fantastic architectural beauty and definitely worth a visit.
Benesse Art House Museum
The second museum I visited was the Benesse House Museum which had the distinction of being a hotel and a museum. Guests are able to visit the museum for free as part of their stay and have opportunities to eat amazing kaiseki meals. I’d looked into staying there, but quickly dropped that idea after seeing the prices. I would have done it if there were anything to do on the island at night, but by all accounts the island is pretty dead during evenings.
Benesse House Museum was a much more traditional art museum with clearly marked artwork dotted around a traditional concrete building. The pieces were meant to showcase the “coexistence of nature, art and architecture”. The building is a beautiful concrete structure, if not as awe inspiring as Chichu.
This museum had a few surreal pieces inside and outside the building which really stood out; especially the circular room resembling a Bond villain’s lair which housed a LED art piece. Unfortunately I was getting hungry at this point and we frankly rushed through this museum in an attempt to see everything. I didn’t want to eat at the western style connecting café and there were no snacks sold nearby. There weren’t even food vending machines which is crazy for Japan.
Lunch was further delayed because we needed to see the artwork in the Museum’s surrounding area, including the infamous pumpkin, and the majority of the restaurants were located further away near the ports. It would take over half an hour to walk to Honmura port, so we quickly ran around searching for as much art as we could before lunch.
We found pieces that looked like traditional abstract art…
Art pieces with a strong geometrical theme…
an artwork which looked like one of those tiny meeting rooms in open plan offices…
Pieces which could be mistaken for rubbish…
Pieces which were literally rubbish (found earlier in the day)…
Lots of rocks…
An art piece which I was pretty sure we weren’t meant to move, but we did anyway…
And finally the yellow pumpkin!
Hallelujah! Praise be to the vegetable and his followers!
It was alright.
I mean…it was a very nice yellow spotted pumpkin, but it wasn’t going to change my life; frankly it was a lot to ask of a vegetable.
It was a shame that the pumpkin’s so overhyped since I usually love over sized things. But there’s nothing much to say about it. Were we meant to see the sunny yellowness of the pumpkin and contrast it to its lonely status at the end of a pier? Was what made it special: its spotty yellow demeanour, ultimately the cause of its isolation from its non spotty brethren?
Or maybe a pumpkin is just a pumpkin, and this one happens to have a very commercial pattern suitable for selling everywhere.
Who knows? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
But enough of that! It was time for lunch and it turned out that a large number of restaurants were closed at 3.30pm. It was a shame since I really wanted to visit the cute looking cat café.
There were lots of quirky details around the island as a whole.
We managed to find the Apron café and had a very quick meal because the last art museum we wanted to see closes at 5.30pm. The entryway was standard for the island’s restaurants; it felt as if you were entering someone’s backyard and the exterior was homely with a small wooden porch for guests to change into indoor slippers.
The interior was very cosy, continuing with the homely feel with the wooden furniture.
Despite this being a random stop the Apron café wasn’t a bad choice. I had a cherry blossom scone and their special herb tea because their advert for it was very cute, whilst my boyfriend had the cranberry and coconut scone and the sake cake.
My scone was very fragrant and mild with a salty cherry blossom petal.
The sake cake I couldn’t quite remember the taste, it wasn’t bad though and was very rich. The herb tea was deliciously fresh tasting and highly recommended.
My boyfriend enjoyed the cranberry and coconut scone, which was a good thing considering his nut allergy prevented him from trying much else. The menu was very simple with two set lunches and five total items under scones and desserts. The drinks list was more extensive with typical café offerings such as coffee and soft drinks. The Apron didn’t offer many food items for sale, but what they did offer was of a good standard based on my visit.
In total our meal costed approximately 1,850.00 JPY / 12.37 GBP. If we had time we would have tried their set meal which was made up of seasonal local ingredients and had good reviews online. Ultimately I was very grateful that the Apron café was open at all and it was a pleasant bonus that I enjoyed our rushed meal.
Art House Project
The last “Art museum” was actually an art project which consisted of 6 installations dotted around the Honmura area. Real houses and structures were taken over by artists to create art pieces and provide a use for the empty spaces. To buy the tickets we went to the Honmura Lounge and Archive.
We were determined to visit all the installations, collect all the stamps (of course there were stamps) and to do so within the hour we had left before everything closes. Some were spaced pretty far apart and we had to climb a lot of stairs. I had never worked so hard for art in my life. But I’m willing to do a lot for stamps.
Once again this “museum” was very different from Chichu and Benesse House. Every installation was unique with the ones standing out being:
- Haisha – a former dentist’s home turned into an art project; this crazy modified building managed to stuff a statue of liberty inside.
- Go’o Shrine – a modified shrine by Hiroshi Sugimoto that could be seen from the above, but also from below in a dark underground passage which required a torch.
- Minamidera – a James Turrell (him again!) installation that utilised light and darkness in a thoughtful and insightful way. It needs to be experienced.
I Love Yu
Unfortunately we didn’t go into the last item on my to-do list: the I Love Yu bath house back in the Miyanoura port area. With that kind of name how can I resist not even seeing its exterior? This is an actual bath house, but it’s also an art exhibit in its own right and don’t you forget it:
I’d planned to take a soak before we left the island as the bathing areas were also uniquely decorated, but we weren’t keen on missing the next ferry. I ended up buying a bath towel from there instead.
We spent our time at the red pumpkin piece next to the ferry terminal for the last hour. The less famous pumpkin could be entered and was much bigger than its yellow counterpart; it felt more like a kid’s play area than an art piece.
We then ended the day buying souvenirs at the ferry terminal. I bought some salt ice cream since Naoshima is famous for its salt production and it tasted…like salty vanilla. Who would have thought that mixing salt in things would make things salty?
Naoshima Island was a very unique and contemplative experience in Japan. The sheer amount of space on the island allowed for truly unique artistic experiences to be created and the photography restrictions ensured complete immersion. It was the priciest day of our trip in Japan in terms of entrance fees, but prices were in line with most developed countries. I recommend that you book Chichu tickets online before your visit, since it’s the most popular museum for a very good reason and there will be long queues to buy tickets on the day.
I also strongly recommend doing your own research before heading to the island as it will be difficult to the point of impossible to see all the museums in one day; especially in any meaningful way. I had a plan and still managed to miss out on one museum because I hadn’t taken into account how long it took to walk everywhere. Having a plan will ensure that you visit most of the museums that interest you the most, you won’t miss out on lunch, nor will you miss the ferry home. Alternatively staying the night on the island is an option unless one of those days is a Tuesday.
Bring good shoes, snacks and consider renting a bike since the buses were infrequent and unreliable; legend has it that there’s apparently one taxi on the whole island but I never saw it.
Naoshima island is great for anyone open minded about art and wanting to experience something truly special. I will say that it’s an appropriate trip for anyone except families with very small children and those suffering from bad knees.
I went on a rainy weekend where the crowds were at its worst and enjoyed myself despite my limited interest in art, so based on that experience I think most people will enjoy visiting Naoshima island as well.
Ferry times between Miyanoura port and Uno
Chichu Art Museum
Address: 3449-1, Naoshima, Kagawa District, Kagawa 761-3110, Japan
Opening hours: 10:00 – 18:00 (19:00 for sunset viewing of “Open sky”)
Cost: 2,060.00 JPY / 13.77 GBP, additional 510.00 JPY / 3.41 GBP for sunset viewing of “Open sky”
Art House Project
Address: 850-2, Naoshima, Kagawa District, Kagawa 761-3110, Japan
Opening hours: 10:00 – 16:30
Cost: 1,030.00 JPY / 6.89 GBP
Benesse Art House:
Address: Japan, 〒761-3110 Kagawa, Kagawa District, Naoshima, 琴弾地
Opening hours: 08:00 – 21:00
Cost: 1,030.00 JPY / 6.89 GBP
I Love Yu:
Address: 2252-2, Naoshima, Kagawa District, Kagawa 761-3110, Japan
Opening hours: 13:00 – 21:00
Cost: 650.00 JPY / 4.35 GBP