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Japan: Art and architecture in Naoshima

Never mind the priceless Monets, transcendental James Turrell light installation and giant pop art pumpkin on the end of the pier, it was the monorail I loved most. To get to the only bar in the only luxury hotel on Naoshima island, you catch a funicular rail car that’s straight out of a 1970s James Bond film set.

Japan: Art and architecture in Naoshima
Benesse House 'Museum'. Image: 663highland / CC BY 2.0.

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As it glides up from the ‘Museum’ wing of Benesse House — which doubles as a hotel — and approaches the Oval (another accommodation wing), with its fabulously elliptical building, pool and open roof, the 007 aspect seems even more pronounced, bordering on parody. Here is a fantastical supervillain’s lair, with the slowest retro sci-fi mode of conveyance possible, an abundance of black-and-white Hiroshi Sugimoto wall-sized prints, and a cocktail bar that only opens for two hours on Friday and Saturday nights. Naoshima might be an aesthete’s paradise, but you don’t come here for the nightlife.

I’d travel quite some distance to spend a weekend inhabiting a town created by Japanese ‘starchitect’ Tadao Ando, and effectively that’s what Naoshima is — with a collection of big-name, iconic art in an around it. It’s definitely worth the trip to this island within the Seto Inland Sea, via a variety of trains and ferries from Kyoto. My only regret is in sticking to Naoshima. Neighbouring Teshima and Inujima islands have a similar set up of modern architecture and art installations, and I know I missed out by not allowing enough time to visit each.

Benesse Art House, which is the nerve centre of Naoshima for visitors, consists of a collection of stark, chic concrete bunkers, woven around some phenomenal art, and some not so phenomenal art. The Richter editions I can do without, and I really believe Turrell’s light-out-of-the-dark spectaculars only work if you have them to yourself (which you won’t). But Ando’s angular, skewed and beautiful buildings are worth the journey alone. Even if the furnishings in the allegedly ‘luxury’ hotel smack a little of upmarket student digs done by Muji, the spatial qualities and the textures are thrilling to the modernist. I’d happily live in Benesse House. And to be able to sleep in a museum overnight is a thrill.

I spent two full days exploring the island on foot – most people cycle or hop on the shuttle bus. I began, after breakfast, by posing for a de rigeur photograph beside Yayoi Kusama’s giant yellow-and-black pumpkin, and then went on to tour the seven houses in the Honmura district, each of which has been given over to a different artist to transform.

Turrell’s ‘Backside of the Moon’ sits inside, in near total darkness, within the Minamidera building. Over a period of 15 minutes sitting on a bench, my eyes adjusted and a huge glowing screen of light appeared. Everyone was invited to walk towards it, and to reach out into the glowing abyss. Sadly, I’d caught sight of one of the lamps at the side of the room when I walked in, and had been staring at that the whole time, so the intended effect was scuppered. Far more powerful – for me at least – was the nearby temple that Hiroshi Sugimoto has transformed with what resembles an ice staircase. You see it first leading into the temple, from ground level, and then below ground, at the end of a narrow cave, with a torch. It’s sublime.

The most powerful pieces of work on Naoshima, to my eye at least, sat at different ends of the spectrum of scale. Walking into Walter De Maria’s ‘Time/Timeless/No Time’ in the Chichu Art Museum inspired awe, exhilaration and a sense of foreboding. Here is a vast, cinematic staircase, with gold painted pillars set into its white walls, and a sinister ten foot wide polished granite sphere halfway up the steps. How could it possibly have arrived there? The room felt almost otherworldly, perhaps futuristic, as if created by a strange cult. As I walked towards the orb, a uniformed guard ran to silence a small child on the stairs to maintain the sci-fi sepulchral mood.

If De Maria’s work is the most impressive on the island, then Yoshihiro Suda’s is the quietest, and perhaps loveliest. “Look at that,” I remarked to my companion in the House Museum, as we headed back to our bedroom. “Something has started to grow in the grooves of the concrete. Amazing!” It actually turned out to be a deliberate and subtle installation, ‘Weeds’. Naoshima is an environment that is rigidly curated and controlled: that bar closes at 11pm on a Saturday, and bloggers who run their own photographs of any of the buildings or artworks are swiftly invited to cease and desist. So the idea that something could be intervening and happening organically is strangely thrilling. But this being Naoshima, it is, of course, very much on purpose.