Yayoi Kusama pumpkin on Naoshima
Photo: Anthony Shaw/DreamstimeUndated photo of Yayoi Kusama's yellow pumpkin on Naoshima

Naoshima art island: the best museums, where to stay and what to do

How to have the best art experience on Naoshima, Japan's foremost art island, including the best way to get there

Emma Steen

Dotted along the Seto Inland Sea off the southern coast of Kagawa prefecture is a series of islands that comprise one of Japan’s largest – and more successful – art initiatives. Established roughly 30 years ago as a scheme to boost tourism in the region, the project spans several islands including Teshima, Inujima and Ogijima, each houses a series of site-specific art installations and galleries. The most famous art island of the lot, however, is Naoshima, where the first permanent artwork of the project was installed in 1989. 

More than a destination that just happens to feature a lot of art, the entire island is a walkable canvas of public installations and revered buildings designed by luminary architects including Tadao Ando. You’ve seen pictures of the island’s most iconic permanent art pieces including Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin, but photos will never compare to the near-transcendental experience of exploring Naoshima on foot and seeing these pieces in-person.

RECOMMENDED: Want to see Yayoi Kusama's work closer to Tokyo? Check out these art day trips from Tokyo

Miyanoura Port

Miyanoura Port is one of two entry points in Naoshima, but there’s more to see here than the polka-dotted ferry that sails between the islands. On top of the bright red Yayoi Kusama pumpkin that greets visitors as they arrive on the island, the port is also home to Sou Fujimoto's 'Naoshima Pavilion'.

Like the pumpkin, this steel mesh sculpture is one that people can clamber into and appreciate from the inside. The sculpture is especially beautiful at night, when it is lit up to accentuate its framework.

A three-minute walk from Fujimoto’s sculpture is a public bathhouse called I Love Yu (yu means hot water in Japanese). While public baths are a common feature in any part of Japan, this one is a little different from your average sento.

The whole building is an exhibit by artist Shinro Ohtake, who also created mosaic murals for the sento interior. He even planted an elephant statue on top of the wall dividing the men’s and women’s baths. For obvious reasons, you can’t take photos during bath operation hours (1pm-9pm), but if you don’t fancy taking a dip, you can come by before lunch to take snaps of the whimsical interior (viewing fee ¥660).

Chichu Art Museum

Built in 2004, the Chichu Art Museum is an architectural marvel designed by Tadao Ando, where the structure itself is every bit as breathtaking as the art it houses. Brutalism done right, this concrete sanctum boasts geometric slats and open ceilings that take advantage of the natural light, meaning most of the exhibition spaces are illuminated with just skylight, making them unbelievably atmospheric. 

The museum is full of large-scale installations with their own dedicated gallery, including Maria’s ‘Time/Timeless/No Time’ – a room featuring a giant marble sphere on a set of stone steps – and James Turrell’s ‘Open Field’, which visitors must take their shoes off to enter. It’s hard to name a favourite, but the Claude Monet room – designed specifically to showcase the Impressionist master’s ‘Water Lilies’ paintings – is easily one of the most fascinating exhibition spaces in Japan.


Lee Ufan Museum

Another one of the island’s unconventional museums is this collaboration between Korean artist Lee Ufan and Tadao Ando. The founder of the Mono-ha (School of Things) movement, Lee is famous for his simplistic pieces that combine both East Asian and Western concepts to depict tranquillity and clarity.

As both luminaries are known for their love of minimalism and use of materials such as stone and concrete, this small yet remarkable landmark represents the harmony in their visions. Built semi-underground so as to not disrupt the view of the seascape, the museum features paintings and sculptures created by Lee from the 1970s onwards.

Benesse House Museum

Opened in 1992, the Benesse House Museum was the very first structure to be built on Naoshima as part of the art island initiative. Designed to be a hotel as well as a museum, this cardinal facility is based on the concept of the coexistence of nature, art and architecture. 

Walking through the museum’s concrete corridors (yes, it was designed by Tadao Ando) you might spot some weeds growing from the wall crevices. But even these tiny green shoots are an art installation of their own, because they’re not really plants. The vegetation is actually a series of wood carvings by artist Yoshihiro Suda, which comprise the 2002 site-specific installation ‘Weeds’. Ironic, isn’t it?  

Each of the museum’s guest rooms feature unique pieces of art, but most notable installations are scattered about the property, with both permanent pieces as well as rotational works belonging to Benesse’s extensive private collection. 

Visitors who aren’t staying overnight can purchase admission tickets for ¥1,300 (free for children age 15 or younger), which grants access to the museum's indoor and outdoor installations as well as the Benesse House Park. Highlights include Teresita Fernández's 'Blind Blue Landscape' (2009) and Yoshihiro Suda's 'Weeds' (2002).  


Valley Gallery

In March 2022, Naoshima Island welcomed the addition of a new gallery, Valley Gallery, designed by the renowned architect Tadao Ando. This gallery marks Ando’s ninth architectural contribution to the island, positioning itself between the Lee Ufan Museum and the Benesse House Museum, and opposite the Chichu Art Museum.

Maintaining the signature aesthetic of Ando’s portfolio, Valley Gallery is sculpted from concrete, featuring angular walls and a slit roof, a design choice allowing natural light to flood the interior spaces. The gallery houses Yayoi Kusama's iconic 'Narcissus Garden' installation, which has been a permanent feature of Benesse House since 2006, but was recently expanded to occupy spaces both inside and outside of Valley Gallery. 

Hiroshi Sugimoto Gallery: Time Corridors

The Hiroshi Sugimoto Gallery on Naoshima is a special place that links the island with another significant location, Enoura, important in Sugimoto's creative journey. Sugimoto has been involved in Naoshima for a long time, and this connection inspired him to create another masterpiece, the Enoura Observatory in Odawara.

Unlike Enoura, which focuses on architecture and gardens, this gallery on Naoshima lets visitors see a wide range of Sugimoto’s famous photos, designs, and sculptures. The gallery features a Corridor of Time, designed to make visitors think about time, nature, and life as they walk through it. This idea comes from both the gallery's architect, Ando, and Sugimoto’s long interest in time and his connection with Naoshima.

Note the the tearoom requires a reservation in advance and a fee of ¥1,500 per person, which covers the cost of the tea and sweets.


Art House Project

A highlight of Naoshima is the Art House Project, which saw the renovation of seven former residences into immersive contemporary art galleries. While the art houses are small, expect to spend a full day touring and cycling between the seven locations: Kadoya, Minamidera, Kinza, Go'o Shrine, Ishibashi, Gokaisho, and Haisha.  

The buildings range from a former dentist’s office to a Japanese tea house, and have been transformed into one-of-a-kind, site-specific works of art. The artists who contributed to the project include Hiroshi Sugimoto, Rei Naito and James Turrell, who each have separate installations on other parts of the island.

You can buy a special multi-site pass at the Honmura Lounge & Archive for ¥1,050 to access all the houses except for Kinza, which is only available at certain periods of the year and requires a separate ticket and advance reservation.

Where to stay

While the Benesse House, which is both a museum and a hotel, is the most prominent accommodation on the island, there are more than a handful of options for every type of trip and budget.

Backpackers can comfortably snuggle into sleeping bags at Shimacoya – a hostel and book cafe known for its enormous crème caramels. Meanwhile, mid-budget travellers would do well to spend a weekend at Francoile or Batonworks. The former is a family-run bed and breakfast crossed with a cafe, where guests start their day with homemade french toast and freshly brewed speciality coffee. The latter is a stylish chalet-like apartment hotel, which has electric bicycles reserved for guests to borrow for free – essential for getting around the winding hilly roads that stretch between the island's attractions. 

Looking to splurge? The recently opened Naoshima Ryokan Rokasumi combines time-honoured Japanese ryokan experience with modern luxury, complete with private onsen and a restaurant dishing up kaiseki courses for lunch and dinner. 


Getting there

Getting to Naoshima is a little more elaborate than hopping on a bullet train from Tokyo station, but the journey is part of the adventure. The quickest route is to first catch a flight to Takamatsu city on Shikoku Island. Then, take a bus to the Takamatsu Port and board a Shikoku Kisen ferry directly to Naoshima. This entire journey takes just under three hours (not including transit and waiting time).

Alternatively, you can get a seat on the Tokaido-Sanyo shinkansen bound for Hakata and change to the local Uno Line at Okayama Station. Ride the train to Uno Station, where you can catch a 20-minute ferry ride to Naoshima. This entire trip takes just over four hours (not including transit and waiting time).  

There are only a handful of boats shuttling between the islands on a daily basis, so keep an eye on the ferry timetable for your trip.

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