In the middle of the Seto Inland Sea, there is an island called Naoshima, one of nearly 3,000 that lie in the calm waters near to the coast of the main Japanese islands of Honshu, Shikiku, and Kyushu. Naoshima once thrived on its fishing industry, but as the population aged and the youngest citizens moved away to more active locales, the prosperity of the island waned. Enter billionaire art-lover Soichiro Fukutake, head of Benesse Publishing. He dreamed of a creative destination, a mecca where art loving pilgrims would travel to be immersed in art, architecture, nature, and light. Naoshima is but 3.15 square miles, but in that small land mass lies a surreal world where the lines between art and nature converge, with unprecedented accessibility.
Fukutake hired one of Japan’s greatest architects Tadao Ando, a native of nearby Osaka, to make this dream real. Since beginning their collaboration in 1992, Ando has designed seven buildings on the south end of the island, now commonly referred to as the Benesse Art Site. Here, contemporary art lovers enjoy the impressive Benesse collection housed in a series of equally impressive architectural structures.
The jewel of the Benesse Art Site is the Chi Chu Museum – a intensely curated collection devoted to the work of just four artists: Claude Monet, Walter de Maria, James Turrell, and Ando himself. Completely subterranean (Chi Chu means “within the earth”), the structure blends seamlessly into the steep hillside overlooking the Seto Sea. Despite the concrete caverns extending below grade, the space is entirely naturally lit and flooded with stunning light. One cannot help but focus on the light in the space and the works themselves – there are no distractions.
As the visitor approaches the museum, a beautiful water lily pond references the Monet paintings contained within the forthcoming galleries. The Monet room is nearly as stunning as the artwork – natural light is reflected from hidden windows above, softly lighting the five Monet pieces before falling to the tumbled Carrera marble mosaic floor. This glow from above hints at what the visitor will find when they view “Open Sky,” by James Turrell in an adjacent gallery. A few steps away, a small line forms to await another Turrell experience – marked with ceremony, a half dozen guests ascend a black marble staircase and step into the artist’s “Open Field.” To be surrounded by light and color in the way that only Turrell can accomplish is a stunning moment. Finally, visitors make their way into the great hall containing the sole work at Chi Chu by Walter de Maria, “Time/Timeless/No Time.” De Maria conceives as the whole space as part of the artwork, and the light from the waning sun sets the gilded wood elements aglow.
Despite Naoshima’s small size and remote location, a pilgrimage to the island is simultaneously relaxing and inspiring, calming and uplifting.
Visitors can day trip to Naoshima by ferry from nearby Uno or Takamatsu. However, for a more indulgent experience, guests can stay at one of the four lodgings at the Benesse Art Site. Hotel guests have access to the museums long after the day-trippers have left, and there is something magical about wandering the Benesse Museum’s Cy Twomblys, Bruce Naumans, and Hiroshi Sugimotos in your pajamas.
More photos can be seen here.