Naoshima Island: a creative paradise

Japan is the only country in the world to have an island dedicated to artists and architects, and it's a modern art lover’s dream destination.

Launched in 1989, Naoshima – now dubbed The Art Island – has been placed firmly on the modern art map thanks to the giant spotted pumpkin that perches majestically on the pier stretching out to the Seto Inland Sea. Created by one of Japan’s most acclaimed artists, Yayoi Kusama, the two-metre-tall pop art pumpkin has turned what was once a pragmatic concrete path into a tourist drawcard, with over 800,000 people visiting in 2019. Here are some other attractions and must-dos if you’re fortunate enough to visit this unique part of the world.  

Launched in 1989, Naoshima – now dubbed The Art Island – has been placed firmly on the modern art map
View from Naoshima.

Get on a bike 

Naoshima is situated in the south-west of Japan’s main island. The best way to see it is to cycle along the coastline, popping from one museum and art installation to the next. Immerse yourself in the works of world-famous contemporary artists like American James Turrell, South Korean Lee Ufan, and Japanese photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, to name a few. Take the time to explore the architectural masterpieces, which are designed to highlight and honour the native landscape as the biggest art attraction of all. 

Art displayed on Naoshima Island
From left: Yayoi Kusama’s iconic pumpkin; Karel Appel Frog and Cat; and Kimiyo Mishima’s Another Rebirth – a 4.5 metre tall trash bin made from recycled waste.

Allocate a few hours for the Benesse Art Site  

One of the main attractions is the Benesse Art Site designed by renowned Osaka-born architect Tadao Ando. It’s home to the Benesse House Museum, the Chichu Art Museum and the Lee Ufan Museum. The Benesse House Museum, a firm favourite in the art world, is an exclusive hybrid museum and hotel, designed by Ando. The charm of staying at the 10-room hotel is the access to the paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations outside of regular museum hours. You can peruse the three floors and gardens after dark, revelling in the works of Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman and Karel Appel. 

Chichu Museum deigned by architect Ando Tadao
From left: The Chichu Museum was designed by architect Tadao Ando. The Chichu Museum is built underground. Playing with minimalist spaces and light at Chichu Café.

The Chichu Art Museum, constructed in 2004, is an underground museum (‘chichu’ meaning ‘in the earth’) that was designed as such so as not to disturb the environment. Although some parts feel like an underground bunker with giant slabs of grey concrete, the minimalism and natural light shining into the space make it incredibly dramatic. The mood changes constantly, depending on the time of day and the season. It is a permanent home to five paintings from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series and houses the work of James Turrell and Walter de Maria. Be sure to grab a coffee or snack at the Chichu Café, if only to meditatively soak in the view through its floor-to-ceiling windows. 

The third wonder of the Benesse Site is the Lee Ufan Museum, a design collaboration between contemporary artist Ufan and Ando. The museum is a perfect example of nature, buildings and art interacting harmoniously with each other. Be sure to spend some time at Ufan’s Infinity Gate and Shadow of Stones. 

From left: Ando Tadao’s architectural prowess; This large arch is a work of Lee Ufan and an icon of Lee Ufan Museum.

The Art House Project 

On the opposite side of the island in the Honmura district (accessible by bus, bike or on foot), you’ll find the six Art Houses. The Art House Project which was started in 1998, used the talent of artists and architects to transform traditional, rundown houses into works of art. These installations not only entice global art fans, but draw on the history of the island and community.  

From left: Formerly a dentist’s home – the installation is decorated with collected trash, and inside it houses works of art that are viewed from different levels. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Go’o Shrine – the glass steps continue through the rocks into an underground cave bringing daylight with them; Honmura Village.

A resounding favourite among art devotees is Minamidera by James Turrell, built on the site of a former Buddhist temple. As you enter the house you’re immediately enveloped in complete darkness. Using only your hands to guide you, you end up in a room where your temporary blindness forces you to sit on a bench for 15 minutes. The darkness also brings complete silence and some detachment from both the outside world and the person next to you. At some points, I wasn’t even sure if my eyes were open or closed. After what feels like a long time, although at this point it’s hard to tell how long you’ve been there, a faint light begins to appear in the distance. As your eyes adjust and your spatial awareness changes, you notice that the light is a green screen that begins to change colour. At this point the exhibit is over and you’re invited to walk around the room and examine the colours and space.  

Don’t miss… 

Naoshima Public Bath “I Love Yu by Shinro Ohtake. ‘Yu’ means ‘hot water’ and here you can take part in an onsen, a traditional Japanese ritual during which you soak your naked body in natural spring water. It’s a quirky installation shared by both visitors and the people of Naoshima that offers the opportunity to immerse your whole body (literally) while experiencing the eclectic facade art. 

Naoshima Public Bath “I ♥ hot water” by Shinro Ohtake.

The Teshima Art Museum by artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa, is a huge structure built on a small hill on the island of Teshima (a short ferry ride from Naoshima). The shell-like space is shaped like a water droplet and has two circular openings in the ceiling to allow wind, light and sounds in, creating an intimate connection between architecture and nature. There are tiny holes in the concrete floor through which water springs, creating small droplets that move continuously. 

Teshima Art Museum.

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