Naoshima – an art island in Japan’s Inland Sea

Kusama Yayoi pumpkin on Naoshima
Pumpkin by Kusama Yayoi on the pier of Naoshima Art Island

A path leads up through a wooden gate and past some tiny weathered stone shrines. The Hachimangu Shrine is a shrine to the Japanese god of war. It stands upon a hill on Naoshima Art Island in the Japanese Inland Sea. Below is the small harbour town of Honmura, surrounded by old trees and bamboo groves.

glass stairs leading up to a shrine on Naoshima Art Island

The smaller shrine, Goo Jinja, behind it looks rather like a normal, if somewhat rustic, Shinto shrine. It could be anywhere in the Japanese countryside – were it not for the optical glass steps leading up to the main sanctuary. The old shrine was deteriorating so much that it was to be torn down. But then it became part of the island’s Art House Project and artist Sugimoto Hiroshi had the opportunity to turn into a work of art.

Naoshima used to be an island of fishers, and perhaps coastal pirates. It remained so until industrialisation swept the Japanese Inland Sea and Mitsubishi built a smelting factory there. In the 1990s, life on the environmentally damaged 14 km2 island changed again when a large publishing corporation invested heavily on the Southern side to build a museum and a high-class hotel. More museums, and more hotel buildings followed. All of them are iconic buildings by star architect Ando Tadao, and filled with spectacular contemporary art.

metal artwork on Naoshima island

Sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle, Ohtake Shinro and Kusama Yayoi dot the lawn and seaside in front of the hote. One of the hotel buildings perched on a hill can only be spotted vaguely from below. The boats featured in one of the artworks in the museum unexpectedly reappear in reality: lying on the beach behind it.

A new meaning of underground art

drinking can art on Naoshima island
Beverage can recycling bin on Naoshima Island – recycled as an art object

Naoshima Island’s new highlight is the Chichu Museum. The name means underground museum, and the whole building is indeed constructed inside the hills on the western shore of the island. Natural lighting is only coming from several openings in the roof. Featuring only three artists – Claude Monet, Walter De Maria and James Turrell – the museum with its clear forms and focussed spaces is a place to linger. You can watch how the natural light from above changes the atmosphere.

The art itself has also spilled over from the museum area in the Southern part of the island. The Art House Project invites contemporary artists to recreate abandoned houses in the villages into objects of art rather than mere museums. There’s a whole art house museum dedicated to Ando Tadao, the celebrated architect. In the same village, Honmura, you can see another light installation by James Turrell.

After dark on Naoshima Art Island

The two harbour villages on the island, meanwhile, have profited from the art boom. Naoshima, Japan’s new Art Island, has become a Mecca for art lovers. The art is generating demand for more accommodation options and a few cafés and shops. After 6 or 7 pm, however, the only place open except for the hotel restaurants is a lowly but crowded okonomiyaki eatery that also serves as the local pub.

Three girls from Osaka who arrived on rental bikes from their sightseeing are uneasily sitting outside. “They say we may have to wait quite long, but there’s nowhere else to eat!” A group of younger men is also discussing what to do, until one of them finishes a phone call – his mother in the next village is offering to cook for them all. Including the three tourists. Really? The three girls stand in a row, bowing and shouting “arigatô! – Thank you” several times before they all pile into one car and onto the three bicycles and head off. Isa is lucky (and alone) and gets some food reasonably fast.

The Naoshima public bath

local bath interior on Naoshima

And then it is time for a bath, of course in an artsy environment. Near the main ferry terminal in Miyanoura, the old public bath (sento) is worth seeing. Artist Ohtake Shinro has redesigned it into a feel-good pop art location. Still, the bath has remained a classical sento complete with shoe boxes, changing rooms, and a large bath tub. Like all Japanese public baths, onsen or sento, customers undress in the changing room. Then they wash themselves thoroughly, and finally share a large common (sex-separated) bath tub.

There’s a huge elephant on the dividing wall between the men’s and women’s bath room. All the walls and fixtures are adorned with colourful glass panels and acrylic collages. Tropical plants add colour and the floor of the water basin is decorated with images of old photographs and erotic woodblock prints.

Half-buried torii on Naoshima Art Island

How to get to Naoshima Art Island

Naoshima can only be reached by ferry. The nearest port is Uno near Okayama. This is on the Shinkansen line from Osaka to the castle town of Himeji and Hiroshima, itself a top tourist destination. Alternatively you can take the ferry from Takamatsu on the main island of Shikoku. Both ferries takes less than one hour. On the island, there are regular local buses or you can rent a bicycle.

Have you ever heard of Naoshima Art Island or would you like to go there after reading this post?

If you enjoy contemporary architecture, read also our travel blog posts about modern architecture in Doha / Qatar and in Orestad / Copenhagen.

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19 Comments

  1. This is interesting and kind of weird, like all things Japanese 🙂 Japan a place we’d like to go, its so unique. And we always have strange experiences with Japanese people who want to take our photos wherever we go so we’d probably fit right in…
    What struck me was the colourful public bath. Beautiful.
    Frank (bbqboy)

  2. Bathing in Japan is an experience of its own, anyway. In natural onsen (thermal baths) which are often in hotels but also in ordinary public baths which look basically the same.

  3. We had a busy 10 days in Japan but it was only a tease. We would definitely want to head back for more. Naoshima looks like an interesting spot to visit for art displays. Funny to see a public bath area as an art scene. Good to know we can take a ferry and then get around the island by bike. A fun day trip idea.

    1. Dear Linda, a day trip is possible. But I would really recommend staying on the island for the night. That way you can also explore the illuminations and you would have enough time to explore everything!

  4. I like the project of turning abandoned houses in the villages into objects of art. The idea is not new, but it’s ingenious. I’ve seen something very similar in Germany (the Kunsthofpassage, in Dresden). If I go to Japan, I’d like to visit the art island of Naoshima.

  5. I’ve never heard of an entire island being dedicated to art. Naoshima would be a very interesting place to visit. So cool that some of my favorite artists are featured there — Niki de Saint Phalle and Monet.

    1. Dear Tami, if you have an interest in art – you will totally enjoy a visit to Naohsima. They also feature a lot of the famous contemporary Japanese artists!

  6. Japan is fascinating in a very different way and that’s the reson we would love to make it there sometime. Had not heard of Naoshima though and hence it was interesting to know about the Art Island. Being an art lover now this fascinating place should feature in our plans for sure.

  7. I’ve not explored Japan yet. I think I would enjoy visiting here, if only for the contemporary public art displays. Such a great find that would definitely appeal to me.

  8. We love Japan. We traveled for 3 weeks using the Shinkansen and covered most of the places including part of Shikoku island. But I missed the beautiful artsy Naoshima! Love those art pictures in the public bath and on the beach. The flight of stairs without support in the first image looks scary! Adding Naoshima to my bucket list now. 🙂

    1. If you go back to Japan and have the chance to visit Naoshima – do it! It is not yet on everyones bucket list, but well-known in Japan and the art world. It will be an experience, for sure.

  9. I appreciate the concept of transforming ancient or abandoned things and locations into works of art or utilitarian objects. I’d also like to try onsen (hot springs) and public baths to get a taste of this aspect of Japanese culture. This is ideal for relaxing after a day of sightseeing on Naoshima Art Island.

  10. How art projects changed an island into a famous destination, at least for the Japanese. Too bad there’s only one eating place open in the evening. They need to change that, especially during the busy months. The public bath looks interesting although I’m not sure I can do that.

  11. Wow! This is fun and amazing! We’d love to visit. I am pretty sure my daughter who’s so artsy would enjoy this. We look forward visiting the Chichu Museum. Love what they did with the garbage can. I would love to make one at home too. 🙂

  12. As someone who loves street art, this Japanese island with art installations is something I’d totally love to visit. The optical glass staircase looks very interesting. I’m gonna check for the buildings designed by architect Ando Tadao on Google. I’m intrigued. Chichu museum sounds intersting. To view Claude Monet’s art with natural light from the roof sounds amusing.

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