Art island

Naoshima 直島

Contemporary art co-exists with nature on this remarkable island.

A four-metre high red polka dotted pumpkin greets me as I arrive at Miyanoura Port, Naoshima. It is the day after a typhoon and after a somewhat rocky boat ride from Japan’s largest island Honshu, it is a welcome sight. Naoshima–a small island situated in the Seto Inland Sea is also known as ‘Art Island’, and since the late 1980s it transformed into a home for world class contemporary art.

As I disembark the ferry, visitors are already inside the hollow sculpture, peering at the disappearing rain out of cut out polka dots. Red pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama is one of two outdoor sculptures by the celebrated nonagenarian artist. The second, and the unofficial symbol of Naoshima, is the 2 metre high Yellow pumpkin. In 2021, during one of the island’s frequent typhoons, it was unfortunately swept into the sea and has been subsequently taken away for repair, serving as a dramatic reminder to all who visit just how close to the elements one is here.




It is not just pumpkins that are on the island.

I hire a bicycle–one of the best ways to get around the island, as buses run but are infrequent. It is easy to traverse the different areas of the 42km sq island. Artworks are integrated all over the terrain, designed to exist in harmony. Featured below are: Three Vertical Squares Diagonal by kinetic artist George Rickey and Shipyard Works: Stern with Hole, 1990 by Shinro Ohtake.

Naoshima transformed when president of the Benesse society, Soichiro Fukutake had the vision to change the island to a centre for world art. Many of the museums and galleries are in the southern part, including the Benesee House, a complex designed by architect Tadao Ando in 1992. Designed with the same ethos of integration with the natural surroundings, the museum houses paintings, sculpture and photography.

Map of Naoshima

On the eastern coast is the once sleepy fishing village of Honmura. The traditional architecture and quirky cafes are in contrast to the modern concrete constructions of the Bennesse House area. Here I have a glimpse of the old Naoshima–with a twist. Honmura is home to The Art House project which began in 1998. Once abandoned buildings are now art installations and venues.

One of the most notable works is the Go–Oh Shrine (seen below) which has its origins in the Muromachi period (1338-1573). Artist and designer Hiroshi Sugimoto worked on the reconstruction project of the shrine in 2002. A stairway of light links the shrine hall to an underground chamber linking heaven and earth. Although forbidden to walk over the grounds of the shrine, I enter the chamber close by, perhaps designed to be reminiscent of a Kofun (an underground mausoleum), daylight from the glass stairs punctuates the dark.

I started my brief journey on Naoshima with Kusama’s work and it seems fitting to finish with the icon of the island–Yellow Pumpkin, illuminated at the end of the dock at night. Naoshima is a popular destination for a day trip but I highly recommended to stay at least a night to take in more of what this inspiring island offers.

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