The surreal island of Naoshima is just a train ride away from either Osaka or Kyoto. None of us knew what to expect, we’d heard so many things about the island. More specifically, we were told over and over that this was one place in Japan that we couldn’t not go. I was skeptical, and a lot more excited for the upcoming day trip to Nara.
I am not a fan of modern art. Or at least, not a fan of the kind of modern art that you see in a modern art museum, like black canvases or a toilet. I’ve got nothing against it, but I just don’t like it. But Naoshima was a different story, because it really did take my breath away.
After a hilarious train ride with the group, we arrived at the pier where we boarded the ship that would sail us to the island. The huge ship stood out amongst the tiny vessels and buildings that lined the shore. In a single file line, we were directed to the stairs leading to the top decks, one covered and one open, and on our side, cars slowly boarded the lower deck.
The coastal winds were strong, keeping us huddled on the top deck as we cruised towards the island. Several tiny archipelagos decorated the landscape. As soon as the island came into view, the first thought that popped into my head was what exactly am I doing here? Because from the shore, Naoshima looks like any other island.
But Naoshima is exactly the opposite: it’s anything except ordinary. Around 1990, a project by The Benesse Corporation chose Naoshima as the new home for its modern art collection. Before this, Naoshima was a lonely fishing island. Now, it is home to several world-class art and architecture galleries. It is Japan’s very own island of art.
Art, however and as exquisite as it was, is not why I fell in love with Naoshima. I fell in love with Naoshima because it is one of those places that you can never quite finish exploring. That, and the perfect mixture between man and nature that its art projects have created are what makes this such a surreal place. Take a look at Tadao Ando’s masterpiece of an architectural design, the Chichu Art Museum:
The structure is purposefully built underground so it will not disturb the gorgeous natural scenery. The interiors are lit only by natural light.
In a less poetic voice: it felt like being in a science fiction movie, and at the same time it did not. I can’t quite find the words to describe this place, and I’ve been trying to since I got back.
Once you enter, you can find incredible spaces that showcase the artwork of Walter De Maria, Monet and James Turrell. My favourites were the Monet space and the Walter De Maria because you truly do not expect them. As a matter of fact, you don’t expect anything in this place because it is so minimal and so simple that when you arrive at the different installations it feels like stepping into a different reality. I say this a lot, and I say it of many other places, but this is probably the one where it is truest: it’s like being in a movie.
But my favourite part about Naoshima, is how you can walk the island and find art in the strangest and most unexpected of places. You’d expect something like Yayoi Kusama’s “Pumpkin” to be showcased in a museum or have an installation or something. It doesn’t. It simply rests on a small pier, existing with its surroundings, illuminating the desolate shoreline.
You may be walking and run into this simple but perfect staircase looking over the coast.
And then you may turn and look another way and spot an almost invisible trail leading down to the shore, and another one leading up, and you may walk either way and find more art.
Or you could find a pier, which, by the way, also has that modern-artsy look against the ocean and makes for a great photograph. As you walk the pier, look to the side. Can you spot it?
And just like that, with the years this beautiful island has become a treasure trove for all kinds of art just waiting to be discovered.