Naoshima, Japan: Polka-dotted Pumpkins and the Origin of Art Islands

Witnessing the origin of something has always been fascinating for me. Especially when that something starts humble and has grown to be inspiring like the art islands in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan. Now with a dozen of islands participating in the art project, Art Setouchi began as a revitalization project on Naoshima, a depopulating island about one hour off the shore of Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, by ferry. With Benesse House Museum opening its door in 1992, Naoshima has since been welcoming not only art lovers, but also curious visitors.

More art sites, whether museums or outdoor art installations, then popped up on Naoshima and spread to other islands in Shikoku to breathe life into the sleepy towns and villages. Among all these contemporary artworks, Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dotted Yellow Pumpkin on Naoshima has become the most iconic sight that introduces the art islands in the Seto Inland Sea to the world. As someone with not much knowledge about art, I admittedly visited Naoshima mainly to enjoy the big picture of the art islands and their origin story. However, I ended up really loving certain pieces and the peaceful atmosphere on Naoshima makes sightseeing around the island a pleasant experience.

Just like my visit to the other very famous art island Teshima the day before (I also covered more about Art Setouchi and the art festival Setouchi Triennale in my Teshima travelogue), it was unfortunately a gloomy day and all the bicycles were already booked out. Since I wanted to start early, the first Naoshima Town Bus of the day hadn’t started running either and I had no choice, but to walk from Miyanoura Port to Chichu Art Museum. Thankfully, Naoshima is smaller than Teshima and there are plenty of art installations and scenic views to enjoy along the way, so I didn’t feel too exhausted at the idea of walking long distance two days in a row.

01NaoshimaRedPumpkin

The first work of art that will greet you on Naoshima is the Red Pumpkin, also created by Yayoi Kusama. Though less famous than the Yellow Pumpkin, the Red Pumpkin, which is situated in Miyanoura Port area, stands out among the whites, grays, and blues of the old houses, the boats, and the sea. There are also huge holes camouflaged among the black polkadots, letting you enter this four-meter-tall pumpkin and pose for photos. To think that the vibrant colors and cute polkadots of Yayoi Kusama’s works are the artistic expressions that help the avant-garde artist cope with the hallucinations she experienced in childhood… That is a stark contrast to the playful vibes of her art and a reality check for us that there is more than meets the eye.

02Naoshima

Close to Yayoi Kusama’s Red Pumpkin is Sou Fujimoto’s Naoshima Pavilion. The white stainless steel mesh resembles a floating island like Naoshima and like the Red Pumpkin, you are invited to enter the structure.

03NaoshimaPavilion

These aren’t all that Miyanoura area has to offer, but I had made art museum reservations, so I had to save other points of interest in Miyanoura for later. I set out for Benesse Art Site Naoshima area, which is a cluster of all the major art museums on the island.

04Naoshima

05Naoshima

06Naoshima

07Naoshima

Naoshima is much hillier than Teshima and while that means nice vantage points overlooking the coastline and the greenery are waiting along the way, it can be challenging for cyclists. If you aren’t so physically fit (just like me) and rental electric bicycles are no longer available on the day you go, I would recommend walking instead of cycling with a non-electric bicycle. Remember that at least, Naoshima isn’t that big. From Miyanoura Port to Benesse Art Site Naoshima area, it takes under 30 minutes on foot.

08Naoshima

The first art museum you will reach is Chichu Art Museum. As the name says, the museum is mostly built underground. But before we go beneath the ground, let’s check out the art museum’s small garden that imitates the Monet’s Garden in Giverny, France. I visited Chichu Garden in spring, so the water lilies were in quite a depressing state, but these colorful flowers were alive and pretty.   

09NaoshimaChichuArtMuseum

And that is the only picture I have taken at Chichu Art Museum. Photos are prohibited inside all art museums on Naoshima. But to give you some idea, I would say the museum building, which was designed by Tadao Ando, hence the bare concrete and raw feels, is minimalistic. As with other structure designed by the world-renowned Japanese architect (think Teshima Art Museum, which I wrote about here), harmony with the surrounding nature is utilized to enhance our art viewing experience, especially the ever-changing natural light. The minimalistic elements of the museum building and the underground location avoid not only distracting us from the art installations, but also avoid harming the environment.

There aren’t many artworks inside Chichu Art Museum and most of them emphasize the beauty of minimalism and simplicity like the building itself. There are also Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paintings, which are why they created Giverny-inspired Chichu Garden, but there are two other artworks that I prefer. James Turrell’s Open Field is my no. 1 favorite work on the whole island. With the limited number of viewers allowed, I had to wait a bit, but that was for the best. Since light is the highlight of James Turrell’s art, you have to see and experience Open Field in person. Entering the empty white room and then the empty blue room and eventually sitting down surrounded by the slowly transforming colored light, the whole experience felt as if I was in a dreamscape. (And my NCT fangirl’s brain couldn’t help thinking of NCT U’s The 7th Sense MV.) I was dazed in a very good way, by not only the light, but also the immersive experience.

The last display I saw at Chichu Art Museum is my second favorite work on Naoshima: Time/Timeless/No Time by Walter De Maria. This is the artwork that best utilizes natural lighting and blends into the concrete structure of Chichu Art Museum in my opinion. An enormous obsidian-colored polished granite sphere sits proudly on a grand flight of stairs in the exhibition room, flanked by a few golden rectangular posts. It exudes solemnity and I love the air of stillness. I felt like I was gazing at a modern-style altar and the scale of Time/Timeless/No Time somehow reminds me of the Pergamon Altar at Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

The next art museum I planned to visit was Benesse House Museum, but I stopped by Lee Ufan Museum first. I didn’t enter Lee Ufan Museum, but since it is only five minutes from Chichu Art Museum on foot and situated on the way to Benesse House Museum, I wanted to see it from the outside.

10NaoshimaLeeUfanMuseum

11NaoshimaLeeUfanMuseum

12NaoshimaLeeUfanMuseum

A collaboration between the Korean artist Lee Ufan and the architect Tadao Ando, concrete and minimalism are back, but with the addition of the stone and the very tall pole. As expected from minimalistic art, the exterior isn’t so eye-catching overall except for the pole, but continuing toward the sea, there is a huge arch between two more stones. With the sea view we can see through it, the arch is a good example of the interplay between art and nature on Naoshima.     

13Naoshima

14Naoshima

Walking on for ten more minutes, I arrived at another Tadao Ando-designed building, Benesse House Museum. This is the very origin of the Naoshima’s rebirth as art island which has eventually grown into the Art Setouchi project.

15NaoshimaBenesseHouseMuseum

Photography isn’t allowed inside Benesse House Museum, but since the art museum has a restaurant/cafe with sea view and outdoor areas, I have some photos. There are many nice works of art on display inside and outside the museum, but I prefer Chichu Art Museum. Still, the idea behind the museum itself is interesting.

16NaoshimaBenesseHouseMuseum

Benesse House Museum is a brainchild of two visionary people, a businessman and the then-mayor of Naoshima who both aim for development through contemporary art that goes hand in hand with the nature and the culture on the island. Since its conception, the project makes sure to engage local people on these art islands, including the elderly and children, in the activities. Though I don’t know in detail about the statistics and stuff like that, from my visit to the most popular art islands like Naoshima and Teshima, these art islands thankfully seem to be retaining the balance between tourism development, natural conservation, and cultural preservation. It has enough convenience and good infrastructure while local businesses like restaurants thrive, something I wish to see in the rural parts of Thailand instead of romanticized images of underdevelopment.

17NaoshimaBenesseHouseMuseum

18NaoshimaBenesseHouseMuseum

Benesse House Museum exhibits a wide range of artworks, from paintings and photos to sculptures. In keeping with the idea of the coexistence between nature, archirecture, and art, the artists specifically create their works for Benesse House Museum and make their own decision on where in the museum area to display their art.

19NaoshimaBenesseHouseMuseum

Among the outdoor installations in Benesse House Museum area is the world-famous Yellow Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama, the one piece of art that draws visitors from across the sea to a remote island like Naoshima.

20NaoshimaYellowPumpkin

21NaoshimaYellowPumpkin

The Yellow Pumpkin is smaller than the Red Pumpkin near Miyanoura Port and you can’t enter it. It just sits there on the small pier. However, it sits against a very nice backdrop of the sea. I imagined the Yellow Pumpkin would have looked even better on a less dreary day, with a cheerful contrast to the bluer sky. If you stay overnight on Naoshima, it might be interesting to check it out at sunrise and sunset or under the night sky.

22Naoshima

A short walk away on Gontanji Beach is the shortest torii gate I have seen. Another structure that looks beautiful on its seaside location.

Tsutsuji-so Bus Stop is conveniently located near the Yellow Pumpkin and Benesse House Museum and since the bus would soon arrive, I could finally use the service and give my legs a break.

23NaoshimaHonmura

24NaoshimaHonmura

I got off the bus at Honmura, a small village full of time-honored wooden houses. I was there to see more art, but not before I had proper lunch at a local udon restaurant (food at Benesse House Museum is pricey, but I was tired, so I had only the small cheesecake there to refuel myself a little). After all, I hadn’t tasted Kagawa Prefecture specialty udon yet. I had to line up and wait for around 20 minutes, but it was very reasonably-priced and delicious.

25NaoshimaHonmura

Honmura is famous for Art House Project, comprising seven abandoned traditional houses-turned-art museums. Each house houses only one or two installation and it is much smaller than the exhibitions at Chichu Art Museum and Benesse House Museum, but I wanted to see one artwork anyway, so I chose to enter Kadoya, a 200-year-old storehouse which is also the first house to be renovated for Art House Project.

The highlight of Kadoya is a co-creation between the artist Tatsuo Miyajima and Naoshima islanders. It hides behind the wooden facade of the house, which remains faithful to its original appearance. In the dark room glow multicolored LEDs in a pool like stars in a little universe. Look closely at the LED set and you will see why it is called Sea of Time ’98.

26NaoshimaHonmura

In addition to Art House Project, landmarks in Honmura area include Ando Museum and Hiroshi Sambuichi’s The Naoshima Plan “The Water”. I already saw enough Tadao Ando’s works for the day, so I only visited The Naoshima Plan “The Water”, which doesn’t charge admission fee.

27NaoshimaPlanWater

Hiroshi Sambuichi has renovated an old house and also added a pool with a place for you to sit down, dipping your feet into the well water while feeling the wind (it was raining, so I obviously just looked). The architect’s message is that the community of Honmura is like water and wind. It can move, passing onto another.

I took one more bus ride and was back to Miyanoura area at last. I walked to my last stop, Naoshima Bath “I♥︎湯” (“I Love Yu”).

28NaoshimaBathILoveYu

“Yu” here is a witty pun. It beans bath in Japanese and as the name of the place says, it is a public bath house decorated with various artworks. It is cool how you can immerse yourself and bathe in the beauty of art. Literally.

29NaoshimaBathILoveYu

I didn’t go inside Naoshima Bath “I Love Yu” and just looked at the exterior, which is very cool. It is a scrapbook-style design by Shinro Otake and the artist also made it with recycled materials. If you don’t mind sharing a bath with other people, consider buying the admission ticket for this artistic Japanese bathing experience. The bath house is actually built for both local people and visitors.

30NaoshimaBathILoveYu

And that was where I wrapped up my art island tour. Naoshima and Teshima aside, there are still other art islands in Seto Inland Sea. Although Naoshima and Teshima are unanimously considered the most interesting among all the art islands in the Art Setouchi project, art aficionados might want to go beyond the polka-dotted pumpkins and famous art museums and explore the rest of the venues for hidden gems. Check out Art Setouchi website for more details. If I somehow get to revisit another art island in Shikoku one day, I will make sure to write another post.

Guide

Naoshima Island
When to visit: Ourdoor art installations can be visited anytime, but walking and cycling are better when the weather is fine, of course. You should also avoid visiting on Monday because most museums aren’t open.

How to get there: You can take a ferry from Takamatsu.

Go to Takamatsu by Shinkansen train from big cities like Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. Then get off the train at JR Okayama Station (Hiroshima is the closest city to Okayama, taking only around 40 minutes). After that, change to JR Marine-Liner, get off at JR Takamatsu Station, and walk a few minutes to Port of Takamatsu, where you can take the ferry to Miyanoura Port of Naoshima.

I recommend exploring the island on rental bicycle. You can find the list of rental bicycle shops and their contact information here. Both electric bicycles and normal bicycles are available.

For bus schedules and bus stop information, please check here. There are bus stops near art museums, outdoor art installations, and other points of interest, but like I said before, buses are infrequent. You should combine walking and taking a bus.

Chichu Art Museum
When to visit: Please check the calendar for their open days and book the ticket before visiting on their website.
How to get there: Take Naoshima Town Bus from Miyanoura Port, ride a bicycle, or even walk from Miyanoura Port in about 30 minutes.
Entrance fee: 2,100 yen (You must reserve a time slot for your visit in advance.)

Lee Ufan Museum
When to visit: Please check the calendar for their open days on their website.
How to get there: You can get there by bus or bicycle, but if you walk, it is about 5 minutes away from Chichu Art Museum.
Entrance fee: 1,050 yen (You can buy the ticket onsite.)

Benesse House Museum
When to visit: Please check the calendar for their open days on their website.
How to get there: You can get there by bus or bicycle, but if you walk, it is about ten minutes away from Lee Ufan Museum.
Entrance fee: 1,050 yen (You can buy the ticket onsite.)

Art House Project
When to visit: Please check the calendar for their open days on their website. There are multiple houses, so make sure you check specific information for each house.
How to get there: I recommend cycling or taking a bus to the houses in Honmura area because it is quite far from Benesse Art Site area. You can take a bus from Tsutsuji-so Bus Stop near Benesse House Museum and Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin.
Entrance fee: You can buy a ticket for each house you want to enter or buy a multi-site ticket. Check the website above for information. Tickets must also be reserved in advance now.

The Naoshima Plan “The Water”
When to visit: Please check the calendar for their open days on their website.
How to get there: It is also in Honmura area near Art House Project.

Naoshima Bath “I Love Yu”
When to visit: Please check the calendar for their open days on their website.
How to get there: A few minutes’ walk from Miyanoura Port. 
Entrance fee: 660 yen (You can buy the ticket onsite.)

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