Naoshima – an art island in Japan’s Inland Sea

Kusama Yayoi pumpkin on Naoshima
Pumpkin by Kusama Yayoi

A path leads up through a wooden gate and past some tiny weathered stone shrines. The Hachimangu Shrine (a shrine to the god of war) stands upon a hill on Naoshima Art Island. 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 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 was made part of the island’s Art House Project and handed to artist Sugimoto Hiroshi to turn into a work of art.

Naoshima used to be an island of fishers, and perhaps coastal pirates, 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 hotel, and 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 can be seen 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 has become a Mecca for art lovers, 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. There’s a huge elephant on the dividing wall between the men’s and women’s bath room, and 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 be reached by ferry from Uno near Okayama (on the Shinkansen line between Osaka and Hiroshima). 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?

2 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.

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