A tiny island, 200 miles west of Kyoto, is Japan’s most unlikely art installation. This is Naoshima, also known as the country’s best-kept cultural secret.
I waited in a small line of people outside an unassuming rectangular dark wood and stone building that blended in completely with the traditional wooden houses lining the quiet residential street. Right on scheduled time, the door opened and we were let into the building, walking into a dark narrow corridor that led into a pitch-black room.
We sat in silence in the absolute darkness of the room for several minutes before I noticed the faintest glimmer of a moving light a few meters in front of me. As more minutes passed, the light became brighter and I started to discern a blue screen framed by a faint orange light. Once it was bright enough to see where we were going, we all started walking around the room, only to discover that the blue screen was in fact a window into a blue space. After 15 minutes, an attendant explained that nothing had changed in the room while we were in it: the blue window had always been there, our eyes just needed to adjust to the darkness to see it.
Being able to see this immersive work —Backside of the Moon, by the American artist James Turrell —was one of my favorite art experiences to date. Surreal, dreamy and meditative, it has stayed with me long afterwards. But this work was just the start of many remarkable art pieces that I saw during my two-day exploration of Naoshima Island by bicycle.
The 8.8 square kilometer island is home to only 3,500 people but it’s been called Japan’s best kept cultural secret. Naoshima, which lies in the Seto Inland Sea, some 200 kilometers west of Kyoto, used to have just a few sleeping fishing villages with declining populations until 30 years ago, when world-famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando started designing art museums on the island. Ando’s monumental buildings were planned to become part of the landscape, and they alone are reason enough to visit Naoshima. Inside, the buildings are works by the world’s most famous modern and contemporary artists, but Naoshima’s art doesn’t stop there. All over the island are small galleries, outdoor sculptures and installations to discover.
After jumping off a ferry and snapping some photos of a Yayoi Kusama giant pumpkin sculpture at the harbor, I began my exploration of Naoshima in the village of Honmura, where old abandoned houses have been turned into permanent installations by artists —one of these is Backside of the Moon— in a project called Art Houses. In each of the different houses, I loved how traditional Japanese art, design aesthetic and philosophy were incorporated into the contemporary art works. In one house, Sea of Time ’98, a serene pool containing LED displays that counted numbers, reflected the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, while another house contained abstract watercolor paintings reminiscent of old traditional paintings in Japanese temples.
Then I stopped at another Yayoi Kusama pumpkin —this time a bright yellow one at the end of an old pier— which infused the otherwise drab landscape with a jolt of childlike, irreverent joy, before I pedaled up a steep road to reach the Chichu Art Museum, which is one of the highest points of the island. The Ando-designed museum, mostly underground, was an architectural wonder of futuristic, serene minimalism. I’d never been inside a building quite like it before, and I wandered around the grey concrete rooms and courtyards in a hushed state of awe.
The museum houses just a few works, the most famous, Claude Monet’s paintings of water lilies, which are in a room that feels more like a cathedral than a museum. Simple and spacious, the white marble-floored room has only one light source, a partially blocked out sunlight. The other two visitors and I were reverentially silent as we took in the sight of the luminescent, almost abstract paintings bathed in soft light. It felt spiritually transcendent, far from your usual art museum, where tourists jostle to take photos of famous works without even looking at them.
Benesse House Museum, also designed by Ando, was another concrete masterpiece, housing works by artists from the last few decades (such as Andy Warhol and David Hockney) and a number of outdoor installations spread out on the seashore. My highlight was Walter De Maria’s serenely minimalist Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown, a pair of giant granite spheres that reflected the island’s coastline on their polished surfaces.
Even bath time on Naoshima is an art experience to remember. I Love Yu, the island’s public bathhouse, is one giant art work —the eclectic neon exterior, fittings (including the toilets), wall murals of abalone divers, cacti-filled greenhouse, erotic-inspired collages and beautiful mosaics inside the steamy bath rooms were all designed by artist Otake Shinro—. Soaking in the warm bath under the watchful gaze of a huge elephant statue, I reflected on what was so special about Naoshima: on this small island, the boundaries between art and life have been dissolved in the most magical way.
To Chicago, Los Angeles or New York and connect to Tokyo and then to Okayama with ANA, an airline member of Star Alliance. From there you can travel to Naoshima Island by train and ferry.