An island dedicated to contemporary art? Yes it does exist, in Japan, and we were going to spend the next two days there.
Naoshima is a small island in the Seto Inland Sea not far from Okayama. It has been a popular destination for art lovers from all over Japan and the world since 1992 when the publishing firm Benesse opened the Naoshima Arts Centre. The firm had asked Tadao Ando, a self taught architect from Osaka, to design a building to house this international art exhibition centre on the southern side of Naoshima island. This was not the only reason I had booked two nights in the small Minshuku Aisunao in Honmura on the island. This year Naoshima was also part of the Setouchi Triennale 2016, an international art festival that included 12 islands in total. The art festival was first held in 2010 and then every three years. The aim of all these projects was to bring back vitality to these islands that have long suffered from both an aging population and declining younger presence over the past few years.
To get to our Minshuku we drove to Uno port where we boarded yet another ferry to sail to Minoura port on Naoshima. I had booked tickets for the Triennale online before leaving for Japan and these needed to be collected at the information cubicle next to the ferry terminal, which is a good place to pick up leaflets and maps of all the islands and art installations.
The journey to the island took about 20 minutes and the ferry was surprisingly busy. After we docked in Minoura we parked our car and started exploring some of the art and exhibitions in town.
First was the James Bond museum, a room dedicated to the James Bond novel “The Man With The Red Tattoo” by Robert Benson. This follow up novel to the original series is partly set on Naoshima and locals are still hoping that one day there will be a movie adaptation. The museum was very small, really only one room with the history of all the James Bond movies ever made and some art installation, interesting to see, especially if you are into films and James Bond especially.
We then strolled on through the streets of Miyanoura port, which is easily walk able, past cafes, residential houses mixed with art installations.
A must visit is the “I♥︎湯” public sento, here Artist Shiro Ohtake created a modern take on the traditional Japanese public bathhouse together with Naoshima Tourism Association. The bathhouse is meant to be a place for locals and visitors to mix and rejuvenate. When seeing the crazy colourful exterior of the building at first sight, you can already imagine what it might be like inside.
Men and women are segregated, as it is the norm in most public bathhouses, plus in the shared bathrooms in hotels and Ryokans. Therefore Jerome went with Chris and I had to go on my own. As is the tradition, first I put my clothes into one of the lockers provided and then thoroughly cleaned myself with the showers along one side of the wall – in Japan, never get straight into the bath without cleaning yourself, and never get any shampoo or soap near the bath water either – oh and make sure you are naked too! I recommend bringing your own shower gel and shampoo, as this will not normally be provided by the bathhouse although it would be in a hotel.
After a thorough clean, I stepped into the hot water of the bathtub with the other bathers. I was the only gaijin but that did not matter as I enjoyed relaxing while enjoying the art surrounding us.
On the wall dividing men/women was a giant elephant and to the back a winter garden with cacti and other plants, plus a mosaic of tiles. There were lots of woman with their children in the bath – Jerome has always loved going to an onsen since he was little.
After a while I could feel the heat getting to my head and I showered of with cold water, got dressed and sat outside the colourful building waiting for the boys to come out.
After our refreshing bath, we then walked towards the harbour front to see the Naoshima pavilion by Sou Fujimoto. This sculpture consists of a white metal cage that can be entered at the front. We all climbed in and enjoyed the view and light through the mesh.
Our next stop was the “Red Pumpkin” by Yayoi Kusama, also called the “Queen of Polka Dots”, which we had already spotted when we came into Miyanoura port in on the ferry. I have always been a huge fan of her joyful art and Jerome and I had visited her exhibition in London earlier this year and others before. Her art seems to be great for children as it is very colourful and some of her art pieces are interactive. The great thing about the red pumpkin is that we could go inside and look out of the round windows.
By now it was time to check into our Minshuku in Honmoura port, a short drive over the hill from Miyanoura port. Aisunao, our minshuku, was not accessible by car due to its location on one of the pedestrian side streets, so Chris and Jerome took our luggage, while I went to park the car on a public car park next to Naoshima Hall. Our room at Aisunao was a traditional tatami floored space on the second floor of this small B&B.
Around the corner on the harbour front is the tiny Café Konichiwa, our choice for dinner that day. Entering the small cafe it felt like being in someone’s living room. They only served 3 different set menus, however the food was freshly prepared and tasted delicious.
All in all we had already fallen in love with this sleepy little art island, a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the big cities.