Japan’s Art Islands

An African art lover’s pilgrimage to the East

By Dion Chang

My heart skipped a beat when I first caught sight of Yayoi Kusama’s giant red pumpkin as the ferry entered Miyanoura Port, the main entry point to Naoshima Island – one of three art islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.

As the ferry docked, another public art installation came into view: the Naoshima Pavilion. Resembling a small iceberg that has run aground, this sculpture is made up of 250 stainless steel mesh triangles and is large enough for visitors to step into.

I had finally made it to one of Japan’s best-kept tourist secrets: the art islands.

The three art islands – Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima – are amongst the cluster of almost 3 000 uninhibited islands in this inland sea. The art islands was a passion project of Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake. Horrified by the environmental damage caused by toxic waste from the copper smelting industry to the formerly pristine islands, he approached renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando in 1988 to help him fulfil his vision of transforming the desolate and economically crippled islands with art and tourism.

It was a wise choice. Tadao’s minimalist concrete architecture has been described as having a “haiku effect – emphasising nothingness and negative space to represent the beauty of simplicity. While some view his architecture as brutalist, his buildings somehow sit lightly in their natural surrounds on the islands.

For example, the Chichu Museum on Naoshima is built mostly below ground level to coexist with the natural scenery, rather than dominate it above ground.

Soichiro, who is not a fan of “white cube galleries”, wanted to create harmony between art, nature and architecture, so most of the installations and galleries on the islands are site specific. For anyone who appreciates art, this is indeed an immersive experience.

The centre piece on Naoshima has to be Benesse House, which doubles as a museum and a stunning boutique art hotel. This museum is home to some iconic works of art, such as The World Flag Ant Farm by Yukinori Yanagi, which I first saw at the Tate in London in the 1990s.

I had only planned to visit Naoshima island – my trip already included Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka – but then I stumbled across a New York Times article entitled The 25 Travel Experiences You Must Have. On the list at number 17 was Teshima Art Island and, in particular, the Teshima Art Museum, a white dome meant to resemble a water droplet on glass, with two oculi open to the sky. I was intrigued enough to make the additional journey, and I’m so glad I did. This proved to be the highlight of my art island experience.

On entering the dome, you are hit by its aura. A zen-like space with a smooth, concrete floor where spring water bubbles up intermittently from 168 tiny holes. These rivulets of water move along the Teflon-like surface like liquid bullet trains, pooling then separating, and eventually draining into strategically placed holes. The sound of the water draining is amplified by the dome’s acoustics, as if you have your ear to a plug hole. It’s mesmerising, and visitors settle on the floor to observe them up close.

The NY Times writer said about this installation: “So many people, from billionaires to meditation teachers, have told me this is the single most moving place they have ever been”. I would agree. It will stay with me for as long as I live.

The only regret I have is that I didn’t have time to visit Les Archives du Couer by Christian Boltanski, who recorded thousands of heartbeats from people all over the world. The installation is a tunnel with a wall of speakers playing a random person’s heartbeat, with a light flickering in sync. There is even a recording studio where you can add your own heartbeat to the collection.

It’s a good reason to make a return trip. Getting to the art islands is not easy, but I would happily make the return journey. The art islands stole my heart;

I might as well leave a trace of my heartbeat there.

Side Bar: Getting there and lessons in hindsight

  • From Kyoto, the journey involved two shinkansens (bullet trains) to Okoyama, then a local train (switching trains mid-journey) to the port of Uno, a ferry ride to Naoshima, followed by a local island bus to your accommodation.
  • Plan your stay (I stayed two nights on Naoshima) around the ferry schedule, which is infrequent –especially the ferry between islands. If you don’t want a rushed experience, I recommend three nights on Naoshima with a full day trip on Teshima.
  • Cycling around the islands to see the installations is encouraged and there are numerous rental companies. Some hotels provide complimentary bicycles for guests.
  • Restaurants are limited, but there are family run eateries that made delicious meals. Don’t expect a shopping mecca – these are remote islands and the art immersion beats any retail therapy.

Dion Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends visit fluxtrends.com

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