Naoshima: A Modern-Day Treasure Island
How about this for a tantalizing itinerary stop: a semi-secret “art island” filled with world-class modern masterpieces, many of them displayed in the dreamy structures of Japanese starchitect Tadao Ando.
That mythical spot is called Naoshima, a five-mile island about 150 miles west of Kyoto in the Seto Inland Sea — and for art and architecture lovers, it’s a must-see.
Haunting and serene, Naoshima was originally an industrial spot, known mostly for its Mitsubishi plant. Then came intrepid billionaire publisher Soichiro Fukutake, who purchased a large tract of land on the southern side of the island in the 1980s with a utopian vision to turn it into a world-famous cultural destination. With that in mind, he enlisted award-winning Ando to design the structures that would house his impressive art collection.
Ando spent the next two decades developing the area with multiple buildings, including three museums and a hotel complex called the Benesse House, named after Fukutake’s company. Connecting architecture with the natural landscape, Ando’s buildings blend the elements of sea, sky and earth, and act as stark backdrops for a range of arresting modern art. Take, for example, the giant, red polka-dotted pumpkin by artist Yayoi Kusama that’s framed against an expansive view of the Seto Bay. Or James Turrell’s Open Sky installation, where a sharp cutout in the ceiling of a museum turns a blue horizon into a visual meditation.
Over the years, Benesse Art Site Naoshima (BASN), the collective name for all the galleries and exhibitions across the island, has expanded to include installations on neighboring islands Teshima and Inujima. The Teshima Art Museum, designed by architect Ryue Nishizawa, mimics the shape of a drop of water, with oval openings that create an interplay with the outside elements of wind, sound and light. Another stand-alone museum called “Les Archives du Coeur” features an immersive installation by French artist Christian Boltanski that envelops visitors with the rhythmic sound of human heartbeats. The Inujima Art House Project consists of a group of small buildings designed as quirky, single-subject modern art galleries.
For travelers who want to make this art pilgrimage into more than a day trip, the most enthralling accommodations by far are at Hotel Benesse House, Ando’s hybrid hotel-museum. Guests can access the secluded lodgings via monorail and are encouraged to wander the galleries after-hours. More affordable traditional Japanese-style inns (ryokans) are also available — all excellent options for absorbing the magic of Naoshima by night.