Naoshima: Are you kidding me with this place?

grounds of benesse art house, naoshima japanSometimes a place is so special that you miss it while you’re there, sick at the thought that time passes and moments end. You’re reeling for weeks after your return home, desperate and scrambling to find a way back. This is Naoshima for me. Our trip there has left me comatose, emotionally hungover.

Naoshima is a small island off the coast of Tamano city in Kagawa prefecture. It was transformed into an arts hub starting in the late 1980s, when an educational publishing company called Benesse financed a series of major creative and community projects. I wonder what Naoshima’s longtime residents think of the island’s influx of tourists, whether it’s good for business or disruptive (I suspect a little of both).

We squeezed in a day there while visiting a friend in Okayama. The three of us were blissfully unaware of how much longer the island demanded. It didn’t help that we made a detour to the wrong port town along the way.

Soon after we got off the ferry, we ran into an information center/tent-stay/used book store/coffee shop. While the bespectacled owner made our lattes on a picnic table, a couple from Oregon gave us their recommendations: You might wanna get ahold of one of these maps. If you only have time for one museum, go to Chichu. We rented clunky mama-charis for ¥500 each (naturally they also offered bike rentals) and went on our way.


We started with the nearby Art House Project. The ongoing project hands houses and shrines in the area over to contemporary artists and architects for reinvention. Its points of interest are tucked between neighborhood residences, sometimes only obvious by a small wall plaque or a greeter. One thing that makes the Art House Project so spectacular is the artists’ respect for the original architecture, much of it centuries old. Where we expected bright, mish-mash folk art, we found tranquility and restraint (even the mish-mashiest, Haisha, was thoughtfully crafted; how did they get that two-story Statue of Liberty in there?)

Our favorites were James Turell’s Minamidera and Tatsuo Miyajima’s Kadoya. In Minamidera, we were led by guides into the pitch black interior, where we could sense nothing but echoing chatter and our fingertips running against the cold walls. Staring ahead for about eight minutes, our eyes adjusted to the subtle light installations within.

Kadoya is a 200-year old house whose entire dim interior is a mediation pond. Twinkling in the pond are LED counters, each hand-set to a different speed by a resident of the island. It made me think of that quote from The Fault in Our Stars, “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”

haisha, naoshima art house, naoshima, art house project, naoshima, japankadoya, naoshima art house project, naoshima, japan
After lunch, we wobbled our unwieldy bikes to the other side of the island, in search of “that gourd in the brochure” (an oversized pumpkin sculpture overlooking the ocean by Yayoi Kusama), and trying to make Chichu Art Museum’s 4pm cutoff.

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin, Naoshima, JapanWe missed Chichu but we found Pumpkin, nestled on a beach so breathtaking that I could muster was “Are you kidding me with this place?”

Our awe continued as we took a bus up a mountain to the Benesse House Museum. The museum’s architecture was set perfectly against its seaside environment, as if it had existed as long as the island itself. And each artwork was placed perfectly, with room to breathe. In fact we joked that the scene was too perfect, like the backdrop of an ominous James Bond briefcase exchange. (I found out later that the James Bond novel The Man with the Red Tattoo was indeed partially set in Naoshima; there’s even a oo7 Museum nearby!)
Kan Yasuda, The Secret of the Sky, Benesse Art Museum, Naoshima, Japan

Kan Yasuda, The Secret of the Sky, Benesse Art Museum, Naoshima, Japan
Kan Yasuda, Secret of the Sky, Benesse House Museum. Photos by Krissy Estrada

Benesse House and its striking natural surroundings were an appropriate finale, epitomizing the feeling you get from Naoshima—so picturesque that it’s surreal, that you’re left dazzled, delirious, wondering where the art ends and “real” life begins, or even where you end and the island begins, and not particularly wanting to return to a world that knows the difference.



But, of course, we did return. We listened to so-so Japanese pop and drove through small industrial towns. We ate tasty Hawaiian mall food and slept on a hard futon.

As tid-bits of memory emerge from this daze—the grit of the Nakatsu arcade, my favorite dingy falafel house in Chicago, banter I’ve shared at my old retail job, I’m drifting closer to the real world, away from my dream where I hide in quiet luxury in Naoshima. Or at least I’m drifting closer to the knowledge that I can’t hide, that hiding isn’t fair, that hiding is a privilege probably not even afforded to the residents of Naoshima themselves.

But even so, Naoshima, I’ll be thinking of you, until we meet again. xoxo

 art in Naoshima, Japansculpture in Naoshima, Japan

Kadoya image by Nanosanchez (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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