Naoshima art island, Japan, is an off-the-beaten path destination perfect for a second visit to Japan. Sculptures, installations and modern art galleries are everywhere. It’s thoroughly immersive, completely different and somewhere we will never forget.
We stayed in Naoshima for a long weekend, which felt about right. It was part of our Japan trip that lasted for two weeks in January (#Japanuary). This is the first post in my series on Japan. We’re lucky enough to have friends in Tokyo (hiya to Tom and Ayako!) so get a local’s unique insight into the country when we go. Hopefully this should make for some good blog posts for (all three of) our readers, too.
Anyway… our last trip to Japan was in May 2015, and we weren’t sure what to expect with the weather in January. Naoshima certainly delivered on the weather front, giving us all of the weather available. Gale-force winds, snow showers and blazing sunshine – all within a few hours. But the best thing about going in January was the clean, crisp island air. This was the first thing we noticed when we arrived in Miyanoura port on the ferry from Uno.
The Art House Project
After depositing our stuff at Season 2, a self-catering apartment (minshuku), we set out to explore. Our first port of call was the Art House Project, in Honmura village. It’s a collection of abandoned houses and buildings that have been converted into art experiences.
The standout one for us was Minamidera, a building containing a ‘light experience’ by James Turrell. It has to be experienced to be understood but basically it involves stumbling round in pitch darkness and your eyes adjusting to it. But in a really good way.
Another of our favourites in the project was this modernised old Shinto shrine. It’s connected to an underground chamber by a glass staircase. You can squeeze down a narrow tunnel into the chamber to see how the light reflects from another angle.
The beach and scenery
Naoshima has fantastic big skies, sandy beaches and lush forests. It’s hard to know where scenery ends and art begins. The island was once only known for quarrying, but art has breathed a new lease of life into it. Quarrying has also inspired a running theme in the art on Naoshima: the concept of removing something from the earth and creating a new space. The combination of the deliberate and natural to create art was highly impressive.
The giant pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama is probably the most iconic piece of art on Naoshima. It looks out across the sea from a vantage point on a small pier on the beach. We weren’t massively enthralled with it to be honest, maybe more so because we’d just seen so many other incredible things in the Art House Project. But it’s worth a look.
The walk along the beach was lovely, too.
Nothing is a gallery on Naoshima. It’s always a museum. We decided there’s a reason for this: a gallery conjures up images of paintings hanging on walls. Not what Naoshima is about.
We visited the Chichu Art Museum, which is built into the hillside and is a work of art in itself. Ando Tadao designed it (they’re obsessed with him, and rightly so) and he made it so that it only uses natural light. This has to be seen to be appreciated. Ando also has his own little museum near the Art House Project, showcasing more of his work with concrete and light.
Chichu’s standout pieces for us were James Turrell’s Open sky and Walter De Maria’s room of geometric shapes. It’s actually best not to describe them because it’s impossible to do them justice (and will only sound pretentious if we try). It also had some Monet pieces displayed in the most fantastic light imaginable.
The other main museum we went to was the Lee Ufan Museum, home of lots of work by Korean artist Lee Ufan but again built by our friend Ando. Like all the other Naoshima art museums, it plays with light and has lots of sweeping concrete.
You’re not allowed to take photos inside any of the museums, even without flash, so we don’t have anything to put on the blog. This isn’t a bad thing though, because photographs wouldn’t show how the pieces really were, given that they were all experiential, playing with light and shade and tricking the eye. Luckily, there are loads of art installations outdoors so we could get some photos of those so you can get an idea of what it’s like walking around.
We had lunch in the very nice Scandinavian-feeling café in the Chichu Art Museum, which has full-length windows so you can look out at the sea while you eat. We were treated to a bizarre spectacle of looking out into the sunshine and seeing a huge snow cloud blowing towards us across the sea. You could actually see it approaching as if it was a boat. This was quite surreal after all the arty experiences we’d had with light moving around. It came, it snowed, it blew away, and the sun came out again.
It’s a well-known fact that island air makes you hungry (is it?). Naoshima is only small and after the ridiculous, overwhelming amount of food choices across the rest of Japan, it was actually a relief to only have two restaurants within walking distance of our apartment.
One was ramen, which we’d just had the absolute best version of in Tokyo so didn’t fancy again. The other was a cosy little place serving our all-time favourite Japanese dish, okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes). If you haven’t had okonomiyaki, you haven’t lived. So it was no contest and did not disappoint.
The chef/owner (of Okonomiyaki Umikko) was an absolutely lovely man who told Chris how to make the ultimate okonomiyaki sauce. The three of us loved it so much that we ate there twice (only slightly influenced by the fact that it was January and everything else was shut!). It was such a cosy yet simple restaurant: a hygge Japanese experience if ever there was one.
Fun fact: okonomiyaki translates as ‘as you like it’.
A glimpse of real Japanese island life
Going to a tiny island in Japan gives a good insight into what life is like outside big cities. What life was like in Japan years ago. It’s slower, simpler, but still thoroughly Japanese. Naoshima is still full of little fishing hamlets, despite tourism obviously playing a big part in employment there.
It’s hard to get across in a blog post how absolutely incredible and unforgettable Naoshima is. You may have noticed my usual mildly sarcastic tone has gone from this post. That’s because it’s impossible to not just be totally humbled by Naoshima.
For an island of only about three square miles and 3,000 people, there’s more art and culture there than in some major international cities. The ratio of art to ‘not art’ is ridiculous. You start wondering if everything is art because there’s very little divide between art and normal life, if that makes sense and doesn’t sound too pretentious (it deffo does).
Naoshima art island, Japan: useful information
How to get there (and away)
From Kobe, we got the shinkansen (bullet train) from Shin-Kobe to Okayama. We then changed to a normal train to Uno. A ferry from Uno ferries you (literally) to Naoshima’s port town of Miyanoura.
When we left Naoshima, we got the ferry to Takamatsu (to eat udon noodles). The ferry journey and the train journey from Takamatsu to Okayama were both spectacular. Okayama is on the main shinkansen line so you can get to wherever you’re off to from there.
Where to stay
How to get around
Buses and your own feet can get you everywhere you need to go on the island.
When to go
Apparently, it gets totally heaving in summer on Naoshima. We loved the brooding skies and crisp air in January, although it’s worth bearing in mind that not all the restaurants were open. But you do increase your chances of getting some of the art experiences all to yourself.
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If you enjoyed this post, you may also like my other Japan blog posts:
- Everything you need to know before visiting Japan
- Two-week itinerary options for Japan
- How to spend 3 days in Tokyo: an itinerary
- Things to do on Miyajima island, home of the red shrine and tame deer
- 10 things to do in Okayama
- 20 unique things to do in Tokyo
- Discover off-the-beaten-track Tokyo
- Discover Himeji Castle
- How to spend one day in Takamatsu
- Kobe – how to spend one day in Japan’s floral city
- Tokyo quirky train-themed things to do
- How to watch sumo in Tokyo, Japan.
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