Naoshima: One Day on Japan’s Island of Art

Japan is best known for its cityscapes in centres such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto: Stunning ancient temples are interspersed with giant skyscrapers, neon lit sidewalks, noodle stands and cherry trees. Not as well known are the small, beautiful islands that make up this archipelago nation. Take Naoshima for example. Located 200 kilometres south of Osaka (the country’s second largest city), this island in Japan’s Inland Sea has seen a decline in population as residents move to more urban centres for work. Recently, the residents decided to counter this by creating an “art mecca,” which the brochures billed as an international centre for the arts. Hire a Japan tour guide such as Hiro Tsuyama and Mayumi Otsujiwho would be more than happy to show you around this unique island with its giant sculptures, Chichu Art Museum and Beness House complex that houses work by Andy Warhol, Richard Long and others. For this article, though, we sent local writer Perrin Lindelauf over to the island solo to see what he could find. This is his tale:


I have to admit the concept of an art mecca in the middle of Japan’s Inland Sea struck me as implausible. Would people really travel to an island of art located in “Asia’s Mediterranean,” as per the brochure? I suppressed my skepticism and boarded a ferry from Takamatsu.

The comparison to the azure waters of the Mediterranean doesn’t quite stand up, but Naoshima truly has become a vibrant centre of the arts and a success story for Japan’s countryside, particularly the smaller islands. What began as a cultural and educational collaboration between the Naoshima government and the Benesse Corporation, the island now boasts three excellent museums as well as areas for lesser-known artists to exhibit their work. I had a day and I intended to see it all.

Upon arrival in Miyanoura village, I found that everyone who had disembarked with me was waiting in a long line for the shuttle buses that went around the museums. Scoffing at their laziness, I rented a shopping bicycle and proceeded to regret it as soon as I got out of town. Naoshima is quite hilly and no place for bikes without gears, so I arrived at the first museum quite sweaty. (To my chagrin, I later learned that another shop rents battery-assisted bicycles that make the hills a breeze.)

The Chichu Art Museum’s name is a pun: the characters of “ground” and “centre” combine to form “underground” but also are used to translate “Mediterranean” into Japanese, which may be where the comparison is coming from. This fascinating museum is indeed mostly underground and its lighting is provided by a system of skylights that allow a soft, filtered light to illuminate the works. All of the museums on the island were designed by famous architect Ando Tadao, noted for his use of concrete. I had a bad impression of Ando because I work in a building he designed. Concrete might look cool, but my workplace is not comfortable or welcoming. It was a pleasant surprise to find the twisting corridors and sudden openings to the sky to be a delight.

Unlike other museums I had visited, there were only three exhibits: five water lily painting by Claude Monet and installations by James Turrell and Walter De Maria. Each used the natural lighting as a part of the installation, so much so that there were special reservations for night viewing. I was used to seeing art under electric light and was surprised at how much depth the soft light added to Monet’s paintings.

The Beness House Museum was next on the list. The first museum built of the three, it held more traditional exhibits of paintings on walls along with a number of interesting installations. My favourite by far was a gigantic, smooth stone set in a concrete courtyard with a wide space open to the sky. Guests sat or laid back on the cool stone and looked up at the sky, seemingly for the first time in years. They exclaimed at its coolness and the beauty of the blue sky overhead. I delighted at how the piece enabled people who wouldn’t be caught dead lying in the grass and cloud-gazing to experience something they had forgotten in their day-to-day lives.

The Lee Ufan Museum was smaller than the first two, but was the best combination of styles. Lee, a notable Korean artist, is known for his stark, minimalist works and simplicity of elements. The narrow concrete hallways feel gloomy, but they you come across a solitary boulder or a single streak of paint in a white canvas. The contrast is startlingly effective, like finding a quartz crystal in a bed of grey gravel.

The village of Honmura on the east side of the island is where many upcoming artists come to display their work, feeding off the enthusiasm of the boat-loads of visits each summer. Aside from several installation pieces, the village has a handful of old homes turned into art galleries and you can never be quite sure of what will be on display. During my visit there were half a dozen young photographers from the Osaka area showing off their work. Chatting with these ambitious young men and women inspired by the works around them was the perfect finish for a day on Japan’s island of art.

Beness House Museum on Naoshima

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