Naoshima island, also known as Art Island, is a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea. The island is best known for its many contemporary art installations and museums. It’s a truly magical place, so let’s take a look at the history of the island, and some of its most incredible art.
Until the early 1990s, Naoshima was a remote and sleepy island, but — thanks in large part to an art-loving Japanese businessman’s vision — it has gradually become one of the world’s most unique destinations for art lovers and travelers seeking one-of-a-kind experiences. The island was included in National Geographic’s 19 Places to Indulge Yourself, featuring tips from Boutique Japan founder Andres Zuleta. While usually missed by first-time visitors to Japan, Naoshima is just a short ferry ride from Japan’s main island of Honshu, and has an atmosphere like nowhere else. In addition to its tiny traditional fishing villages, Miyanoura and Honmura, you’ll find stunning architecture by Tadao Ando, museums, colorful galleries and installations, and charming cafes – all in a laid-back atmosphere amid beautiful scenery.
The museums and beauty of the island draw many tourists, whose visits help support the local economy. However, it is Mitsubishi Materials, loosely affiliated with other Japanese companies of the Mitsubishi name, that dominates industry on the island, as Naoshima has been the site of massive refining by Mitsubishi since 1917. Benesse Corporation (one of the largest education companies in Japan and based in Okayama) has directed the creation and operation of the island’s museums and other projects since the late 1980s.
The History of the Island
The island of Naoshima, located about 3km south of the city of Tamano in Okayama Prefecture, and its surrounding islands constitute the town of Naoshima in Kagawa Prefecture. It is characterized by an irregularly shaped coastline, granite soil, hilly terrain, white sands, and green pine. According to the local history, the island was named after Ex-emperor Sutoku who was fascinated by the islanders’ naivety while making a brief visit on the way of being exiled to Sanuki after his loss at the Hogen Rebellion in the 12th century. Naoshima became the territory of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 17th century, and it became a prosperous port of the inland sea for maritime transportation. Since the 1910s, the northern part of the island Mitsubishi Materials Corporation has been producing copper and has therefore been an industrial area. The central part is the school district of the island, while on the southern part the Seto Inland Sea National Park is located.
The copper smelting industry, which has been active since the Taisho era, and aquaculture focused on yellowtail and seaweed are the main industries there. About 3,100 residents live in the island’s three villages: Miyanoura, where ferries arrive and depart; Hommura, modeled on seaside castle towns of the Warring States period; and Tsumuura, a fishing port from long ago. Naoshima is a hilly island covered by granite and weathered soil. The population of the island has dropped from around 8,000 in the 1950s and 1960s to a little over 3,000 now. In Japan, this is not that strange. Populations of small towns are declining all over the country. Some towns are disappearing altogether. The reasons are a combination of the country’s overall shrinking population and an increase in the number of people moving from rural areas to big cities.
The natural beauty of white sand and blue pines unique to the inland sea has been shaped by a coastline with few flatlands and many bends. The southern part of the island is contained within Setonaikai National Park and retains its beautiful nature. During the Edo period, Naoshima occupied a strategic point for maritime transport within the Seto Inland Sea as a demesne of the Shogunate, and prospered under the shipping and salt industries. Copper smelting is carried out on the north side of the island, which together with related businesses in the surrounding region creates a large-scale industrial area. The activities of Benesse Art Site Naoshima begin with the Naoshima International Campsite, which opened in 1989. Since the opening of Benesse House in 1992, the organization has melded art with the landscape of Naoshima for many years.
The Birth of the Art Island
The common denominator for all islands is Benesse Art Site Naoshima, a grand project initiated by Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake. Namely, after inheriting the company from his father in 1986, Fukutake changed the name of the business to Benesse (Latin for “well-being”) Holdings, Inc. Its best-known brand is Berlitz, the language school company. Benesse’s other claim to fame is its world-class modern art collection, including paintings by Claude Monet, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol, as well as many Japanese artists less famous in the U.S. At one point, the wealthy businessman started exploring the islands of the Seto Inland Sea and came up with the idea to transform the three islands into art resortsand change their industrial landscape (refineries on Naoshima and Inujima, and illegal landfill on Teshima). To house the art, Fukutake persuaded the famous architect Tadao Ando to construct the museum on Naoshima; he practically envisioned an art utopia, a specific space for a quieter, contemplative way of living in a landscape saturated with rich cultural and historical context. Over the next two decades, he designed museums and adjacent luxury lodgings. The buildings follow the natural contours of the landscape. One museum is mostly underground, with open courtyards and skylights bringing in natural light.
Throughout the years, Fukutake commissioned numerous site-specific installations by some of the world’s leading artists such as Lee Ufan, James Turrell and Walter de Maria, and so the visits to the Naoshima island became a sort of an art pilgrimage which attracts international visitors. Although the islands are considered remote, they can be easily reached via aircraft from Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka to the cities of Okayama and Takamatsu, from which several ships take visitors to the islands.’
Masaaki Yamagishi, 38, is one of the island’s new shop owners. His place, Shimacoya, is part cafe, part bookstore, part campground and part community center, where neighbors gather to learn English or watch movies. Yamagishi first came to Naoshima from Tokyo as an art tourist. “I was so struck by the kindness of the people and fell in love with the whole island,” he says. “And I thought, ‘What a wonderful place to be.’ ” The Art influx has brought some revival of population to the island, although it is more niche. It seems like you can bump into art anywhere on this island. Benesse has commissioned several site-specific works. Visitors can see a couple of sculptures near the harbor before they even get off of the ferry. A giant red pumpkin covered in Yayoi Kusama’s signature polka dots has become a Naoshima icon. A similar piece of hers — a yellow pumpkin on an undeveloped beach — perches at the end of an old concrete pier.
10 Must-See Sites On Art Island
1. Chichu Art Museum
Founded in 2004, Chichu Art Museum is one of the most popular art museums in Naoshima. Most of the museum is underground, which makes it an unique structure that perfectly matches the surroundings in harmony with nature. You can enjoy stunning artworks by world-famous artists and talents such as Claude Monet, Walter De Maria, and Tadao Ando who designed this museum. Natural light coming through the modern structure helps you observe the authentic pieces with different impressions depending on time and the weather. Online reservation is required for all visitors prior to their visit. Chichu Art Museum was constructed as a site rethinking the relationship between nature and people. Artworks by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria are on permanent display in this building designed by Tadao Ando. The natural light changes the appearance of the artworks and the ambience of the space itself with the passage of time, throughout the day and all along the four seasons of the year. Taking form as the artists and architect bounced ideas off each other, the museum in its entirety can be seen as a very large site-specific artwork.
2. Yayoi Kusama Pumpkins
Once you arrive at the Miyanoura Port, you will be welcomed by a symbolic piece, Red Pumpkin created by a famous Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. It has lots of black dots on it, and is always packed with tourists to try to take pictures! Another famous pumpkin can be found in the place which is 10 minutes away by bus. Yellow Pumpkin stands silently in perfect harmony with the peaceful sea.
In August 2021, Yellow Pumpkin got washed away by Typhoon No.9 and unfortunately got damaged. Currently it’s not on the exhibit but still there are many people visiting the spot on the pier where the yellow pumpkin used to be.
Yayoi Kusama has created many artworks with dot motifs and it is said that she has suffered from schizophrenia from her childhood and she kept drawing dot motifs to get away from the hallucination. These dot motifs are considered as protection from her disease and she chose pumpkins for her artworks with a message that nothing is the same, everything has different shape and size and that makes it beautiful.
3. Lee Ufan Museum
Lee Ufan Museum is another museum also designed by Tadao Ando, in collaboration with Lee Ufan. The simple and sophisticated design resonates with a large collection of artworks by Lee Ufan, a world-renowned artist. The stunning paintings and sculptures give us an opportunity to reconsider ourselves and the modern society through an artificial experience. The Ando-designed semi-underground structure houses paintings and sculptures by Lee spanning a period from the 1970s to the present day. Lee’s works resonate with Ando’s architecture, giving visitors an impression of both stillness and dynamism. Located in a gentle valley surrounded by hills and the ocean, the museum offers a tranquil space where nature, architecture and art come in resonance with each other, inviting to peaceful and quiet contemplation, in a society overflowing with material goods.
4. Benesse House Museum
As one of the biggest and most popular museums on Naoshima, Benesse House Museum offers a range of services and experiences for tourists. Benesse House Museum opened in 1992 as a facility integrating a museum with a hotel, based on the concept of “coexistence of nature, art and architecture.” Designed by Tadao Ando, the facility is built on high ground overlooking the Seto Inland Sea and features large apertures that serve to open up the interior to the splendid natural surroundings. In addition to exhibiting the painting, sculpture, photography, and installations in its collection, the Museum also contains permanent site-specific installations that artists have created especially for the building, selecting locations on their own and designing the works for those spaces. The Museum’s artworks are found not just within its galleries, but in all parts of the building, as well as in scattered locations along the seashore that borders the complex and in the nearby forest. Benesse House Museum is truly a rare site where nature, art, and architecture come together, in an environment containing numerous site-specific works created for the natural environs of Naoshima or inspired by the architectural spaces they inhabit.
5. Ando Museum
Don’t forget to check the Ando Museum which houses informative photos and sketches on Aondo’s works and achievements! It also helps you learn about the history of the island while walking around the 100-year old traditional Japanese house in Honmura village. Gokuraku-ji Temple is another must visit spot just across from the museum. It is a Shingon Sect temple dating back about 1,200 years ago. Designated as Tangible Cultural Property, it gives you a traditional experience completely different from modern museums around. The Ando Museum, a Tadao Ando-designed inner space, framed by unadorned concrete walls, infuses new life in this about 100-year-old traditional wooden house in Honmura. Here, contrasting elements of past/present, wood/concrete, light/shadow overlap in this space which condenses the essence of Tadao Ando’s architecture. Learn about Ando’s work and Naoshima history through photographs, sketches, and models, and see how the museum itself has revived this venerable old house.
6. Gotanji Beach
While surrounded by contemporary art, it’s important not to forget that one of the all encompassing artworks is in fact the landscape. Situated in the south of the island, Gotanji Beach offers a relaxing time surrounded by nature and the beautiful sea. The sea is shallow and doesn’t get deep for a quite distance, which allows you to swim in the clear water. In summer, the Naoshima fire festival is held around the beach with more than 1,800 fireworks beautifully lighting up the sky.
7. Naoshima Hall
With his new community centre and sports hall, architect Hiroshi Sambuichi has created a central space of gathering and representation for the island dwellers on Naoshima in southern Japan. Part of an overall strategy to revitalise the island, the new buildings are intended to foster social and cultural life in the local community. For Naoshima Hall, a community center project in the Honmura district of Naoshima, the research process took more than two and a half years. A tight collaboration between architect and citizens, the building rediscovers local architectural traditions. An examination of the older houses in the area revealed that floor plans were consistently laid out on a north-south axis and that the arrangement of the houses together allowed wind to move through the town on the same axis. Together, the arrangement seems less like an urban plan than it does like a machine. Every space is designed to take advantage of the existing currents, no extra air conditioning is needed.
It’s not needed at Naoshima Hall either, though this isn’t common in the region’s more contemporary structures. Every angle, geometry, and material is designed to harness natural energy. An opening in the hipped roof allows the southerly winds to pass into the space, eliminating the need for additional air circulation. It’s a simple solution that required a profound knowledge of the site – but as the impact of artificial heating and cooling becomes increasingly detrimental, it’s one architects might be wise to learn from.
8. Teshima Island
Teshima is an island located in the Inland Sea of Japan, between Naoshima and Shōdoshima islands, and is part of Kagawa Prefecture. It has an area of 14.5 square kilometres and a population of about 1,000 people. The main attraction on Teshima is the Teshima Art Museum, one of the most intriguing contemporary artworks in Japan. Standing amongst terraced rice fields, the simple concrete structure stimulates its visitors’ senses with the play of water drops on a concrete surface. Several more artworks are scattered around the island’s three fishing villages. Most are open almost everyday, especially the larger museums and outdoor installations, however some of the smaller artworks are open only on weekends and holidays. Without previous knowledge, visitors will not notice that Teshima once made news due to a toxic waste scandal in the 1980s in which a company illegally dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic waste on the western tip of the island. Cleanup efforts were completed in 2017.
9. Art House Project
A highlight of Naoshima is the Art House Project, which saw the renovation of seven former residences into immersive contemporary art galleries. While the art houses are small, expect to spend a full day touring and cycling between the seven locations: Kadoya, Minamidera, Kinza, Go’o Shrine, Ishibashi, Gokaisho, and Haisha. Started in 1998 with “Kadoya”, the first renovated location, there are currently 6 other locations including “Ishibashi”, “Haisha”, “Gokaisho”, “Kadoya”, “Go’o Shrine”, “Minamidera”, and “Kinza”. Each of them has respective features and offers a variety of benefits for both locals and tourists such as galleries and a helpful information center. It is a perfect place to enjoy artworks that can be found in harmony with the local community while exploring the historical area! The buildings range from a former dentist’s office to a Japanese tea house, and have been transformed into one-of-a-kind, site-specific works of art. The artists who contributed to the project include Hiroshi Sugimoto, Rei Naito and James Turrell, who each have separate installations on other parts of the island. You can buy a special multi-site pass at the Honmura Lounge & Archive to access all the houses except for Kinza, which is only available at certain periods of the year and requires a separate ticket and advance reservation.
10. Naoshima Bath
This bath is an unique public Onsen designed by Shinro Otake, a famous Japanese artist. This bathhouse is decorated with fabulous artworks such as paintings and sculptures. The staff is welcoming and friendly, and you can purchase a cute designed towel with an original logo on it. The exterior and fittings of the bathhouse, from the bath itself to the pictures decorating the walls, the mosaics, and even the toilet fittings, all reflect the universe of the artist. The bathhouse is operated by the Town-Naoshima Tourism Association.
he baths are designed and finished mostly in plain, white tiles surrounding a collage of erotica on the floor of the bath. While soaking in the hot waters, visitors can view the brightly painted glass ceiling, large tile murals depicting female abalone divers (ama) on the walls and an elephant statue at the center of the room. The art is ever present throughout the rest of the bath house as well with paintings, posters, video displays, painted ceramic and collages decorating the changing rooms, toilets, entryway and the entire exterior of the building.
Naoshima is a unique and splendid place that arose out of the plans of a few wealthy people, but it has become a place that thousands of people flock to every year. It hosts some important artwork, as well as an incredible natural scenery to create a complete immersive sensory experience.