Before our trip to Japan we were given a recommendation about a unique art experience towards the southern coast on the small, tranquil fishing island of Naoshima. Miri and I had originally planned to visit only Tokyo and Kyoto but given our friend’s enthusiasm along with some pretty inspiring photos we decided we had to fit it in. After ten days of traveling we woke up in a Kyoto hotel room exhausted from the non-stop input overload that Japan serves up and hardly stoked on the idea of traveling further. We both just wanted to sleep in and head back to Tokyo but we motivated one another to get our asses to Naoshima praying it would be worth it.
The trip from Kyoto to Naoshima required commitment: it took a city train, a bullet train, another city train, a ferry and a bus to deliver us to the tiny, picturesque fishing village of Honmura. The streets are romantically narrow, only fit for walking or riding bicycles while the small, traditional island homes are pressed tightly next to one another, each individually intriguing and piquing our interest of what lay inside. We instantly knew we made the right decision to adventure beyond our laziness. If Tokyo and Kyoto were pop songs, Naoshima was the ballad.
Miri and I decided to stay in a private residence so that we could have a more authentic experience. After dropping our bags off with the friendly owner, we rented bikes and rode over the hill towards the Chi Chu Art Museum. I can’t think of a better way to get around the island than by bike. We instantly felt like kids with no responsibilities as we road over the island’s hills flanked by dense nature on each side and raced down with warm, perfumed air blowing across our faces.
When we arrived at the base of the entrance our first artistic moment greeted us, Yayoi Kusama’s giant “Yellow Pumpkin” provided a perfect photo op for our jump series. From there we walked the rest of the journey up the hill. Designed in 2004 by Tadao Ando, the Chi Chu Art Museum was mostly built underground to respect the island’s scenery as well as provide an unconventional venue for some of the world’s most compelling artists. The museum is an artistic feat in itself as Ando’s minimalistic labyrinth guides you through meditative chambers housing jaw dropping art. An abundance of natural light fills each room, changing hourly and altering each visitor’s experience. This is honored by one of the artists we were especially excited to see, James Turrell, who presents light as art in “Open Sky”, a spiritual chamber inspired by his Quaker past. We sat uninterrupted inside with nothing but a rectangle cut out of the ceiling, watching clouds drift across a saturated blue sky. The sunset viewing is the ideal experience as the room’s color shifts between intense hues of orange, red and purple. Turrell’s “Open Fields” is another moment that made an indelible impression on us a we climbed a set of steps into a room that feels like we entered a scene from Tron. A museum attendant guided us through a purple-lit box that toys with your sense of perspective and distance.
Our adventure through this fantasy kingdom became even more surreal after entering Walter De Maria’s “Time/Timeless/No Time” where a giant orb sits atop a staircase waiting to be honored like a deity. We were surrounded by absolute silence, you could hear a whisper across the room and it may be the first time art had provided me a religious experience. I don’t have the words nor the images that can help me describe the feeling I had in this sanctuary.
At some point in exploring Chi Chu you think to yourself “how could this get any better?” And then you walk into a room where an expansive white floor is made up of one inch marble cubes and natural light illuminates five massive paintings from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series, created in the last years of his life. And then you think to yourself “what the fuck?”.
It was a struggle to leave this place. Knowing it may be years, perhaps decades before we visit again and all I wanted to do was consume each room one more time so that I could take as many impressions as possible home with me. Overflowing with inspiration I was unable to process everything I had just experienced. Miri and I left the museum and slowly walked down the hill in silence with no need to acknowledge the lack of conversation as we both understood what each was feeling.
The rest of our time spent in Naoshima only increased our love of the island and its offerings. Another highlight was visiting the Benessee House, a hotel where guests spending the night can roam the attached museum at any hour they choose and casually stumble upon incredible art like Bruce Nauman’s installation “100 Live and Die”. We enjoyed eating freshly caught sashimi while listening to old funk at Cafe Salon and being taken across to a neighboring island the next morning by the waiter there who befriended us. Another big highlight was touring the Art House Project, a series of traditional Japanese homes and shrines converted into art spaces and scattered throughout Honmura, each providing a unique experience for the senses. “Minamidera”, although not a converted house, was built by Tadao Ando and pays homage to a temple formerly on the site. Inside is pitch black and indecipherable as you enter and feel your way along the wall to a seat where slowly and steadily a rectangle of light appears towards the front of the room. What you realize is that James Turrell’s concept here doesn’t include any lighting tricks but instead utilizes your eye’s ability to adjust to darkness and notice what was there the whole time.
Although it felt like days, our time is Naoshima was merely 22 hours in total. The journey there and back was well worth it. Amazed at how much we had experienced in such a short time we left wanting more but confident we would return. It isn’t difficult to find unconventional, modern art in a city nor find peacefulness on a secluded island but to find both living symbiotically is a once in a lifetime gift that left a deep impression on the two of us.
Chi Chu Art Museum:
Art House Project: