Japan's inland sea

Is it a hotel? Is it an art museum? Actually, it's both!

Japan's inland sea The stunning 'Pumpkin' - © Yayoi Kusama
By Edan Corkill

We’ve been expecting you. Edan Corkill retraces 007’s footsteps on an art tour through Japan’s Inland Sea.

When James Bond arrived at the Benesse House Museum, on Naoshima Island in Japan’s tranquil Seto Inland Sea, the first thing he did was case the joint. I decided to do the same. Not that I was trying to foil an assassination plot at an upcoming summit, as the fictional spy was in the 2002 Bond novel ‘The Man with the Red Tattoo’. No, I needed to get my head around the fact that having set out by bullet train and then by ferry from the chaos of Tokyo just four hours earlier, I was now standing on a balcony as stridently modern as any you’d find in Malibu, looking out over a waterway as calm and island-speckled as the Aegean.

A film set in waiting

A series of elegant geometric forms tucked into a wooded headland, the combined hotel and art museum known as Benesse House Museum opened in 1992, and it wasn’t long before visitors were pointing out that architect Tadao Ando’s handiwork resembled the kind of uber-cool hideouts you'd see in James Bond films. Everyone, it seemed, agreed that the fictional spy would fit right in – including Raymond Benson, who visited towards the end of his seven-year stint as the official Bond continuation author, in 2001. Benson was so taken by the place that, as he reported in 2010, he felt he ‘had to use it’ as a location in ‘Red Tattoo’.

Walking from my hotel room along a concrete-floored corridor directly into a white-walled gallery dotted with works by Alberto Giacometti, Richard Long and Jasper Johns, it occurred to me that instead of making Benesse House Museum the site of ‘Red Tattoo’s’ climactic G8 summit, Benson probably should have made it the private lair of the villain. The facility seemed to have been made with the same two ingredients: unimaginable wealth and rigorous commitment to a slightly odd ideal.

The perfect evironment for experiencing art

The ideal in this case not a plan for world domination, but a desire to create the perfect environment for experiencing art. It’s the vision of Soichiro Fukutake, the 65-year-old chairman of Benesse Holdings Inc, a giant among educational publishers in Japan. The second ingredient – the money – comes largely from that empire, although many of the newer additions to the now-sprawling complex are owned by the independent Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation, which was established in 2004.

Walking through the galleries, I came to an outdoor courtyard open at one corner to the sea. The walls were dotted with photographs from renowned photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Seascape’ series. There were more than a dozen works, each about 50 x 60cm in size. A single work from this same series sold at a Christie’s auction in New York for more than $80,000. Here they were, permanently displayed outside, albeit in thick glass cases.

After spending two hours wandering from the headland down to the two new satellite accommodation facilities known simply as Park and Beach – also designed by Ando – I headed back for dinner and wine at the Benesse Museum House restaurant and then took a slightly tipsy stroll back through the galleries to my room.

One stride from hotel room to art exhibition hall

On the next ridge to the west from Benesse Museum House is the Chichu Art Museum, which can be fairly summed up as one of the world’s most stunning facilities for viewing art. Each room has been designed, again by Tadao Ando, with specific exhibits in mind. There are rooms for a James Turrell sky-viewing installation and a Walter De Maria sculpture, but the highlight is the room set aside for five of Claude Monet’s giant ‘Water Lilies’ paintings. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes as they enter the room, which, with white, matt tiles covering the floor and natural light seeping in from slits around the tops of the walls, has an airy weightlessness that allows complete concentration on the exquisite works in front of you.

The Benesse Art Site Naoshima facilities spread out beyond this vicinity into the Naoshima island community, which was once home to copper smelting operations run by the Mitsubishi conglomerate. It now includes many ‘art house’ projects, in which younger artists have been commissioned to turn unused houses into works of art. The highlight of my trip was the very latest addition: a new museum on the nearby island of Teshima.

An art mission continued

After my second night in the Benesse House Museum I made an early start to catch a local bus for the half-hour ride to Miyaura Port, the main ferry hub on Naoshima. Two days earlier I had come through this same port, having caught a ferry from Uno Port, near the city of Okayama on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Teshima is a half-hour ferry ride from Naoshima and, like many of the small islands that speckle the Seto Inland Sea between Honshu and the nation’s fourth largest island, Shikoku, it has only one taxi. When I arrived, the new gallery had only been open for a week, but the driver knew exactly what and where it was. ‘It’s an amazing place,’ he said, as we careened along the narrow road that circumnavigates the island. ‘Even we locals can tell you that.’

The Teshima Art Museum is in fact not really a museum at all. It is a giant sculptural structure created by artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa, who is best known as being one half of the 2010 Pritzker Prize-winning duo SANAA. It consists of a giant, domed cavern made of concrete – rather like the gutted hulk of a crash-landed UFO, half-buried in a small ridge. The structure itself houses a bizarre installation that is best experienced first-hand. Let’s just say that it involves water that appears to run of its own accord, mercury-like, across the expansive floor.

Rest assured that if ‘The Man with the Red Tattoo’ is ever made into a film, then the producers will find themselves ‘having to’ use not only the original Benesse House Museum, but also the Chichu Art Museum and the Teshima Art Museum. More than three decades had elapsed between James Bond’s previous visit to Japan, in the 1967 film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s ‘You Only Live Twice’, and his visit in Benson’s 2002 novel. Something tells me his next visit will come a lot sooner.

Fast facts

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways all fly direct from London Heathrow to Tokyo, returns from £600. All these plus KLM, Air France and Lufthansa fly indirect from various UK airports.

To access Benesse House Museum from Tokyo, catch the Tokaido Shinkansen (bullet train) to Okayama, change for the JR Uno Line to Uno Port, catch the Shikoku Ferry to Miyaura Port on Naoshima and then catch a local bus to Tsutsuji-so bus stop. Each of the facilities within the Benesse Art Site Naoshima charge for admission.


Hotel Benesse House

With four seperate properties – Museum, Oval, Beach and Park – all with superb views of the Seto Inland Sea and wonderful artworks throughout, there’s no point staying anywhere else on Naoshima. One night plus meals starts at ¥20,000 (£152) per person until May 31.

See www.benesse-artsite.jp/en for more details.

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