The otherworldliness of Naoshima: Japan's Art Island

It almost sounds too utopic to be true - a whole island in Japan that’s purely dedicated to art. For those sojourners who have a curiosity and passion for art, culture, and breathtaking natural beauty, there isn’t any place else in the world like it. When I first heard of this haven, it sounded like a fairytale - one of those far-fetched stories travellers and seafarer would tell each other over a pint at the hostel. But alas, such a magical place exists. Naoshima, Japan's art island, should be at the top of your must-visit list. This small island in the Seto Inland Sea has become a mecca for art enthusiasts from around the world, thanks to its stunning collection of contemporary art installations, museums, and architectural wonders. It’s a journey through an artistic oasis and one that you can embark on yourself. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!

©Wikimedia/ 663highland

Now, one might wonder, how did a rough patch of islet in the sea become a temple ground for artistic expression and unbounded creativity? It began at the heart of Naoshima, the Benesse Art Site. Benesse Corporation, a Japanese education and publishing company, played a pivotal role in transforming the island into an art lover's paradise. Beyond capitalism - they saw the potential of Naoshima island as a canvas for blending contemporary art with the island's natural beauty. Their goal was not just to create a place to showcase art but to create an environment where art and nature coexist harmoniously. It is interesting, because unlike other artistic enclaves like Brooklyn and East Berlin where artists gradually moved to, this one was set-up by a company. 

Over the years, Naoshima has become a canvas for outdoor art installations and sculptures by internationally acclaimed artists. That’s what I actually love most about the island - on any given day, time, you can wander around the grounds and just look up at these awe-inspiring creations and pieces. These installations were strategically placed throughout the island to create a dialogue between art and nature. I simply cannot be reflective and observant at the man-made creativity around me that blends effortlessly into the gorgeous nature. 

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One of the most iconic landmarks on Naoshima, the Chichu Art Museum, was designed by the renowned architect Tadao Ando and opened in 2004. Its partially underground design minimizes its environmental impact and provides the perfect setting for artworks that rely on natural light.  Beyond the Benesse properties, Naoshima has seen the establishment of other cultural institutions, such as the Lee Ufan Museum and the Ando Museum, both designed by prominent architects and dedicated to specific artists.

The development of Naoshima as an art island is not solely only from the Benesse Corporation, but also thankfully involved the local community. Residents have embraced the island's artistic transformation and have been actively involved in preserving its natural beauty while welcoming visitors from all over Japan and the world alike.

©flickr/ Todd Lappin

Of course one of the main things you have to see is Yayoi Kasuma's iconic polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture at the edge of the boardwalk on this island. Naoshima is part of the larger Setouchi Triennale art festival, which takes place in various locations in the Seto Inland Sea. This triennial event brings even more attention and art to the region, further solidifying Naoshima's status as an art destination. But if you are not here during that time of the year, then for another truly unique experience, visit the Naoshima Bath "I Love Yu." This public bathhouse is an artistic creation in itself, featuring contemporary art installations within its serene bathing spaces. Here, the act of bathing becomes an immersive art experience. 

There is also the Ando Museum, designed by the legendary architect Tadao Ando, which provides insights into the island's transformation into an art destination. Here, you can marvel at Ando's architectural concepts and designs while gaining a deeper understanding of Naoshima's artistic evolution. And then, make your way to the Lee Ufan Museum, which is essentially a tribute to Minimalism. This is where you will dive into the world of Lee Ufan, a prominent Korean artist associated with the Mono-ha art movement. The Lee Ufan Museum showcases his minimalist works within a structure designed to harmonise with his art, offering a serene atmosphere for reflection. 

To wrap it up, make some time for the most iconic Chichu Art Museum. It’s where you’ll venture underground (yep!) to discover a marvel of architectural ingenuity. This museum is built partly underground to minimise its environmental impact and to create the perfect conditions for its art pieces. And because of that, it plays with light and architectural form in quite a unique way to the eyes. Also, here you'll find works by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria, all of which utilize natural light to create mesmerising visual experiences.

©Wikimedia/ shoyanishikawa

This is definitely a journey worth taking! Naoshima island is accessible by ferry from Uno Port in Okayama Prefecture or Takamatsu Port in Kagawa Prefecture. It's also part of the larger Setouchi Triennale art festival, which includes several other islands and locations in the Seto Inland Sea. 

From Uno Port, Okayama Prefecture: 

If you're starting here, the departure point is in Okayama City, where you can take the JR Seto-Ohashi Line to Uno Station. The journey takes about 40 minutes. From Uno Station, it's a short walk to Uno Port, where you can catch a ferry to Naoshima. Ferries from Uno Port to Naoshima are operated by Shikoku Kisen. The journey takes approximately 20-30 minutes. 

©Wikimedia/ Spaceaero2

From Takamatsu Port, Kagawa Prefecture:

If this is your starting point, then in Takamatsu City, take a train or bus to Takamatsu Port. It's a major transportation hub with easy access to Naoshima. The ferry terminal at Takamatsu Port offers regular ferry services to Naoshima. Ferries from Takamatsu Port to Naoshima are operated by several companies, including Shikoku Kisen and Shikoku Ferry. The journey duration varies depending on the specific route but generally takes around 30-45 minutes.

Once you arrive on Naoshima, you can explore the island by foot, bicycle, or bus. Many of the art sites and museums are within a reasonable walking or biking distance from the ferry terminals, and bicycles are available for rent on the island. The island's compact size and scenic beauty make it a delightful place to explore on foot or by bike.

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Naoshima island is a testament to the power of art and nature coming together to create a harmonious and thought-provoking experience. As I wandered through the island's stunning landscapes and encounter world-class art, I found yourself transported to a world where creativity knows no bounds. Naoshima truly is a destination like no other, where art and nature converge to captivate the soul - so don't miss the opportunity to explore this artistic oasis in the heart of Japan.

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