I have wanted to visit the art island Naoshima for many years already and finally this year I was organized enough to book the only proper hotel on the island over 5 months ahead. Naoshima is an island located in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan. The island used to be just a Mitsubishi metals processing plant but with the help of Benesse Holdings, it is now known for its contemporary art museums and installations and is the venue for the Setouchi Triennale art festival. Benesse Holdings is an education and publishing conglomerate best known for its language school company, Berlitz. It also owns a world class collection of art including paintings by Claude Monet and Andy Warhol. About 20 years ago, Benesse Holdings hired Tadao Ando to design museums for its art collections and also to build the hotel Benesse House on the island. You may have read about this island in magazines and there will for sure be a photo of the giant yellow pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama sitting at the end of an old pier.
We took the Shinkansen bullet train (about 50 minutes) from Osaka to the city of Okayama. From Okayama we took the local JR to Chayamachi Station where you just cross the platform to catch another local JR to the small port town of Uno (total about an hour). The Uno station is only about a few minutes walk to the port where we caught a 20-minute ferry ride to Naoshima’s Miyanoura Port. Then there is a shuttle waiting for guests of the Benesse House hotel. If you time everything right, it should take about 3 hours door to door from Osaka to Naoshima island. Our plan was to stay for 2 nights on the island so that we have enough time to also visit the neighboring Teshima Island and its art installations. Most exhibits on Naoshima island are usually closed on Mondays and exhibits on Teshima and Inujima islands are usually closed on Tuesdays. Best avoid visiting on Mondays and Tuesdays. The opening hours are usually from 10am to 4:30 or 5pm. There are only a few ways to navigate the island. We were staying at the Benesse House so we had access to the hotel shuttle which does a loop of the island’s main art sites. An added benefit is that the shuttle will take your luggage directly to the hotel so that you can immediately start visiting museums and then check-in later. There are also local buses for non hotel guests though they are less frequent. Another option is to rent a bike preferably an electric one because the island is quite hilly.
From the pier, we went directly to Chichu Art Museum designed by Tadao Ando and probably the highlight of Naoshima. Chichu literally means “in the ground” as this museum is built underground so as not to disturb the natural landscape but is still able to receive an abundance of natural light throughout the day. Upon entering the museum, the concrete pathway slopes down all the way to the bottom into a courtyard of pebbles as if you are at the bottom of a well.
Chichu Art Museum houses a collection of works by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria. There are 5 paintings from Monet’s Water Lilies series bathed in natural light from the skylight. James Turrell who loves to experiment with light and our perception of it has 3 pieces on display here. The last installation is by Walter De Maria inside a room where the entire floor is a flight of stairs leading to a giant black granite sphere. There is a slit on the roof of the room where the sunlight enters at certain times of the day.
On most Fridays and Saturdays, the museum hosts the Open Sky Night Program which is a sunset viewing of James Turrell’s “Open Sky”. We booked a couple months ahead for this Night Program and arrived after the museum was closed to the public. A small group of us was led into the room that was like the inside of a ziggurat. During the day, you could look up and see the occasional cloud passing over the skylight and it seemed nothing more than a grey marble room with a skylight and benches against the walls. That evening, we all waited in anticipation as the sky grew darker and the LED lights were projected within the room. Over the next hour, we experienced a series of colors from green to purple to pink produced by the LED lights contrasting and changing the color of the sky until it was pitch black outside. It was such a surreal experience with the LED lights causing your eyes to see different colors. I would highly recommend it to anyone, whether you love contemporary art or not. As Turrell put it, “My work has no object, no image, and no focus. With no object, no image, and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought.”
A 10-minute walk away from Chichu Art Museum is Lee Ufan Museum which is also designed by Tadao Ando. This museum opened in 2010 featuring works by Korean contemporary artist Lee Ufan. Lee Ufan is the main theorist of the Mono-ha (“School of Things”) trend in Japan in the late 1960s. The semi-underground architecture of the museum, like Ando’s other works on the island, blends nature and open spaces with the large installations made of concrete and metal. Like most of the other museums in Naoshima, photography is not allowed inside the museum. You really have to come here to appreciate the serenity and beauty of the harmony between nature and art and you will leave relaxed and refreshed.
From Lee Ufan Museum, we walked about 15-20 minutes to the Benesse House Museum, also designed by Tadao Ando. Benesse House opened in 1992, and is both a hotel and a museum. Hotel guests can have early morning and late night access to the museum on site. The intention is to blend nature, art, and architecture. The museum houses a large number of contemporary paintings, sculptures, and installations.
Other than the art displayed inside the museums, there are about 20 or so art pieces located around the Benesse House with one of the more famous being the Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama placed on a jetty looking out to the Seto Inland Sea. The first piece we came across was the Cultural Melting Bath by Cai Guo Qiang featuring a bath where the best qi on the island flows down the mountain ridges to oddly shaped Chinese Taihu stones and then pours into an American made bath tub. Apparently, you can ask the Benesse Hotel to prepare a bath for you there.
After our first afternoon of museums in Naoshima, we finally arrived at our hotel, the Benesse House Park. The Benesse Hotel is formed by 4 groups of rooms called Museum (10 rooms), Oval (6 rooms), Park (40 rooms), and Beach (8 rooms). At the time of our reservation, the only rooms available were in the Park section. The Oval can only be accessed by monorail and is usually only open to those staying there. But from Thursdays to Saturdays, hotel guests of Benesse House can visit the Oval Lounge in the evening for drinks after dinner. The monorail ride up the hill is quite fun but the lounge itself is very plain and uninteresting. I can imagine the Oval pool with the oval skylight being quite beautiful during the day. But since it is pitch dark outside, there is no view to speak of. There are two restaurants at the hotel, one serving French cuisine in the Park building and the other Japanese kaiseiki in the Museum building. We were only able to get reservations for one of our two-night stay at the French Terrace Restaurant Etoile de la Mer. Do make reservations early, like a few months ahead. It is a bit ridiculous to only have two restaurants on site and no coffee shop that is open in the evening and no room service. The evening after we went to see James Turrel’s Night Program, we had to walk about 15+ minutes (because the hotel shuttle and local buses stop running in the late afternoon/ early evening and there are no taxis) to the closest village where there is an Okonomiyaki restaurant still open.
Stayed tuned for more art in Naoshima Part 2 coming soon!
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