Naoshima: Art, Nature and Architecture

Naoshima is an island located in Japan’s Seta Island Sea. Known for its contemporary art museums, this island has been a hidden secret for around 30 years and boasts contemporary architecture alongside traditional Japanese houses. I say *hidden* as not that many Japanese or tourists know about it. The theme of the art spaces and for Naoshima as a whole is to create spaces where art and nature coexist.

But this place is not somewhere you stumble upon: from Kyoto it took us a bus, four trains and a ferry to arrive but after spending 36 hours on the island we can duly report that it was definately worth the multiple connections as the place itself and the museums are breathtaking.

In order to balance our trip budget we stayed at Naoshima Backpackers Guesthouse. We’d wanted to stay at the Benesse (the primary island hotel and Museum) but at $400 a pop it would have broken the budget so we settled on $30 per night at the backpackers instead. Incidentally, we are expecting our budget to take a beating in a few days so we intentionally stayed low in this location.

In the interests of experiencing unusual forms of accommodation, we’d booked a capsule room (unique to Japan and a space big enough for a bed and not much else) but when we arrived we were upgraded to twin room. Who gets upgraded at a backpackers?? Haha

Anyway- it was nice to have the space for our huge case so we didn’t complain.

Once settled, we hired bikes to get around the island (which was around 10km round the edges) and used local recommendations for lunch and dinner.

[One thing to note is that in comparison with the rest of Japan which is ordered and precise, Naoshima was a little *casual* in the way it handled itself: for instance, restaurant opening hours were listed as *Open Monday/irregular* and the one bakery on the island listed online as opening at 8.30am, had a sign outside, when I visited, saying “today’s opening is from around 13 o’clock”. It was very out of character and ever so slightly annoying]

The main compound on the island (mentioned above) is called Benesse House and is one of many buildings designed by Tadao Ando, a self taught Japanese architect who designed many of the museums / buildings on this island.

His style, minimal, angular and in most cases from concrete give a blank canvas for the presented artworks and become very much part of the visual experience.

During our brief stay, the museums we visited were:

The Chi Chu Art Museum

Benesse House

Lee Ufan Museum

For all of the above locations photography is prohibited. Under instructions from the management/organisation, who wanted visitors to focus on the space and not on re living the visit. It made for a frustrating start since the buildings were so unique in design we wanted to capture the angles and vistas.

However, in retrospect, it did make the whole experience so much richer and more powerful. For visual purposes on the blog we scanned some postcards to try and capture the space.

It’s unusual to have one museum only feature three artists and maybe eight pieces of work in total but this was the case for the Chi Chu.

The museum, built into the side and top of the island, uses pockets of natural light to illuminate rooms. When you see the museum from above (google it) you see angular shapes for each of the galleries for museum walkways.

Featured in one room were five Monets, in the second pace were three James Turrell light pieces and in the last space was a piece by Walter De Maria.

Not much – right?

It’s hard to describe in a blog the impact this building and the pieces had on us (without us sounding pretentious, obnoxious, or both) but entering each of the rooms was an emotional, spine tingly affair as we either discovered a new artist, saw work in a new and dramatic space or were able to quietly interact with the piece in silence and without camera clicks.

The docents were cautious on numbers and the other visitors extremely respectful of space and noise. At times the rooms were like private galleries with just us or maybe four other people.

The building itself was so beautiful in its exterior design and interior finishing that it became part of the experience and it made the Monets (pieces we’ve seen before in Paris) almost secondary in the experience.

Our second location, The Benesse House, held a larger number of pieces (at least more than nine), again in a beautiful space and also designed by Ando. It was a lighter, more open space with pieces from Warhol and Hockney to Cy Twomby, Richard Long and Jannis Kounellis. Many of the pieces were inspired by the island location and the surrounding nature.

The final visit was the Lee Ufan Museum which showed his works on canvas along side sculptures. Just as impressive as the previous but different, calmer and more *natural*. The postcards below illustrate his work further.

By the time we had finished the day, we were *arted-out* but in a good way. Usually after a gallery or museum visit it’s the combination of art and the crowds that’s exhausting… in this case it was the space and the art that left us inspired yet calm and full, like you feel after a great roast chicken dinner (apologies to vegetarians).

We ended the evening with a meal at Ebisukamo, a local Japanese restaurant with three tables and one chef+waiter+owner.

The next day would take us to the next door island of Teshima for the Teshima Art Museum. The museum, created for just one piece, was another experience of impressive proportions but again, no photos permitted. The link will take you to the site with images and you’ll just have to believe us when we say it was impressive.

Our next stop is two nights in Hiroshima.

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