Wednesday 9th December was to be one of the absolute highlights of my trip to Japan. Naoshima (直島), the ‘art island’ in the Seto Inland Sea (瀬戸内海) is now one of my favourite places in Japan, without a doubt. It’s gorgeous.
I arrived on the island fairly early having taken the ferry from Takamatsu, and took a shuttle bus to my hotel, the famous and spectacular Benesse House. Benesse House has to be seen to be believed. It is a hotel and art museum, designed by the Japanese self-taught architect Tadao Ando (安藤 忠雄).
Ando’s work is very distinctive, using lots of concrete and harsh lines. Before I arrived on Naoshima I thought I didn’t care for his work at all, but after a night in Benesse House I began to see what it was all about. His use of light and shade is certainly interesting, and it’s apparent everywhere you go in the vast Benesse Art Site. As well as Benesse House, Ando also designed the Chichu Art Museum and Lee Ufan Museum which are also on the island.
There are very strict rules about what you can and can’t take photos of on the island, but in most cases photographing the outdoors public art and the outside of buildings was permitted. There is art scattered all over the island; all modern, with a mixture of Japanese and Western artists.
One of my favourite things about Naoshima is the Art House Project. The Art House Project is a collection of houses scattered amongst residential properties in Naoshima’s Honmura district which have been converted into works of art and installations. No photos are allowed inside the Art House Project buildings, and I can barely begin to describe everything I saw, but it was eye-opening and mind-blowing. My favourite of all the Art House Project buildings was Haisha by Shinro Ohtake (大竹 伸朗). ‘Haisha’ was once the home and office of a dentist (‘Haisha means ‘dentist’). The building has a feel of a steampunk scrapyard collage about it, with found objects poking out of every opening and neon signs flickering. There is even a giant Statue of Liberty (another found object) standing inside the building. The official title of this whole piece of work is “Dreaming Tongue” (“Bokkon-Nozoki”), which is meant to represent the idea of recalling a dream through taste.
Another art work on the island by Shinro Ohtake is the glamorous bath house, “I Love Yu” (I♥︎湯). This functioning bath house (which sadly I didn’t have time to try) is a place in which Ohtake hopes Japanese and international visitors will exchange ideas whilst relaxing. Every inch of the bath house is decorated with brightly coloured, modern designs, and again the building has a feeling of ‘collage’ or ‘scrapbook’ about it. The name, “I Love Yu”, is a play on the Japanese word ‘yu’ (湯), meaning ‘hot water’, which is usually found on signs at bath houses.
After hitting the gift shop in Benesse House, exploring the art museums there, and having an amazing dinner in Benesse House’s Japanese restaurant, Issen, I had one of the best night’s sleep in a long time. The island is quiet, and I felt ever so at home there. I would LOVE to go back, and I wish it could be this year to attend the visit the Setouchi Triennale 2016, a contemporary art festival held every three years on the islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Naoshima isn’t the only art island – there are actually a whole bunch more: Inujima, Shodoshima, Teshima, Megijima, Ogijima, Oshima, Shamijima, Honjima, Takamijima, Awashima and Ibukijima! As I can’t go back to Japan this year, I’ll be living vicariously through this fantastic blog: Setouchi Explorer.
Finally, I had to save the best to last, just as the light was fading I ran down the beach to see one of the most iconic works of art in all of Japan: Pumpkin, by Yayoi Kusama (草間 彌生). Just wow.