1. Naoshima
    Photo: N_Fujita/Shutterstock George Rickey 'Three Squares Vertical Diagonal' (1972-82)
  2. Red Yayoi Kusama pumpkin at Naoshima
    Photo: Sucha Kittiwararat/DreamstimeThe red Yayoi Kusama pumpkin at Naoshima
  3. Naoshima
    Photo: Emma Steen

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
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Emma Steen
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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 – which sadly is still missing from its rightful place at the pier – but photos will never compare to the near-transcendental experience of exploring Naoshima on foot and seeing these pieces in-person.

RECOMMENDED: The Setouchi Triennale art festival is happening this year

Miyanoura Port
Photo: Rayints/Shutterstock

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).

Benesse House Museum
Photo: Avim Wu/Shutterstock

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 ¥1,050 (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 Hiroshi Sugiomoto’s site-specific piece ‘Coffin of Light’ and Teresita Fernández's 'Blind Blue Landscape' (2009).

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Art House Project
Photo: Emma Steen

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.

Chichu Art Museum
Photo: Emma Steen

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.

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Lee Ufan Museum
Photo: YingHui Liu/Shutterstock

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.

Every three years, Naoshima, Teshima and ten other neighbouring art islands including Megijima, Ogijima and Shodoshima play host to a collection of installations and artists for the Setouchi International Art Triennale. While Naoshima is worth visiting at any given time of year, it's worth planning a visit around this momentous art festival.

Held across three seasons, the 2022 festival is set to run from April 13 through November 6. The triennale includes the islands’ permanent site-specific art installations like the Hiroshi Sugimoto Gallery Time Corridor (including Sugimoto’s ‘Mondrian’ glass teahouse), as well as temporary exhibitions that will only be displayed for a single season. 

Exhibiting participants hail from all around the world; they include artists invited by the festival as well as some selected from an open call. The international crowd features names like Azerbaijani artist Faig Ahmed, known for his surreal artworks of reimagined carpets, and sculptor Sopheap Pich, who uses natural materials like rattan gathered from his home country of Cambodia to create abstract 3D figures.

As for the creatives from Japan, expect to see art by Akari Yamashita, Rio Toyofuku and Yoshitaka Nanjo. Also, the Kinoshita Kabuki theatre troupe, who stage contemporary ensemble pieces rooted in traditional Japanese performing arts.

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Where to stay
Photo: A&C Ltd

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 newly 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
Photo: Akio Miki JP/Shutterstock

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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