Trip to Naoshima Art Island, November 2019
The Trust is planning a visit to Naoshima in November 2019. The below essay was kindly written for us by Stephen McDougall as a record of his recent trip. If you are interested in visiting Naoshima with us please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Naoshima and Benesse Art Site
By Stephen McDougall
Leaving Tokyo on the Shinkansen [fast train] marks the beginning of an immersive and unique two-day experience.
I had just completed the Tokyo Marathon the afternoon before and I could feel the stresses of the Big day and proceeding months’ efforts washing through me. While my body was still feeling the effects, my mind was at last fresh and clear. Tokyo had been a blur, I was so focussed on the race, and now sitting back I enjoyed soaking up the speeding-past scenes of outer urban Tokyo and then rural landscapes - at 220km per hour!
An hour or so in Mount Fuji appears through the right hand windows as strangely familiar [perhaps not surprising given the family connection and time spent in Taranaki].
After three trains, at each change becoming more and more slow and antiquated we arrive in Uno, a non-descript industrial and port town. It’s a short, direct walk from the train station across to the ferry terminal. A seamless connection that we’d come to expect from Japanese public transport.
It’s late February, the weather is cool and there is hardly anyone else on the ferry. It’s a quiet feeling we will get used to over the next few days on the island.
The ferry docks adjacent to the Sigima-designed, very slender and mirrored ferry terminal. Commanding the end of the wharf plaza is a signature Yayoi Kusama red and black dotty and playful sculpture.
The Benesse house mini bus takes us through several low-key townships before arriving at the Benesse compound. On arrival we are greeted by another Yayoi beauty – this time in yellow and black, squatting on the end of a smaller concrete wharf.
A vast spacious lawn leading down to the water edge is the fitting canvas for other sculptures and also the foreground for the first two of four Hotel Benesse accommodation options - the Park and the Beach.
The bus continues around the coast and winds up to the original Benesse hotel - The Museum. To enter, is to proceed up a ramp between Ando’s perfect and signature concrete and stacked stone walls to the main lobby which overlooks an internal concrete drum with a flashing neon sculpture at its base.
The broad fronted rooms are very quiet and understated and perhaps a little tired.
Shedding bags, we enjoy a short walk in the cool dusk and fading light, discovering more sculptures in the immediate vicinity. The lights of the bridge connecting to Takamatsu [the alternative way to access the island] in the distance flash in the evening haze.
Dining here is a truly rare experience. The dining room is accessed through the museum’s permanent collection and with so few people staying in the ten rooms – we feel like its our own private gallery.
No less than five Warhol’s provide a backdrop for our dinner! It’s a set ten-course ensemble of the most exquisite and beautiful artful arrangement I’ve ever seen. Every course served in a selection of unique ceramics all as special as the food itself.
Breakfast is a similarly, artfully displayed array of delicious-ness. After, we choose to walk into town along the coast through small sleepy villages.
We have a plan of the township identifying a cluster of artworks where houses and structures have been converted in to specific artworks.
The town is a series of fractured narrow quirky lanes bounded by largely one storey equally quirky mostly charred larch houses.
The installations are hidden within structures throughout the town. They range from the crazy to the very thought provoking to the calm and peaceful and the jaw dropping clever and the very beautiful. Each have been specifically commissioned by the Benesse Trust.
The town is making as much as it can from the influx of new visitors with a number a cafes and quirky retail offerings springing up. An open garage serves as an honesty box style 2nd hand store where I purchase two retro dipping bowls reminding me of the ceramic collection from last night’s dinner. Lunch is in a caravan and skyline garage-style café. The only offering on the menu is a fish burger and beer served by a character from the old tv programme “Monkey” eaten in the garage furnished with a selection of unmatched retro furniture. Absolutely perfect!
More discovery and delight in the early afternoon before meeting the Benesse bus where we venture up to the Chichu underground art museum, another extraordinary Ando structure. Largely underground it includes a series of chambers, each housing its own significant art work. These are an eclectic collection but beautifully created ensemble. They range from three huge Claude Monet’s, a Walter de Maria installation and James Turrell’s light works including the simple and very clever sky lit work.
Circulation is via a series of ramps cut in to the concrete where you pass through open roofed chambers.
The staff, all in white sculptured outfits straight out of a sci-fi movie ensure silence and museum decorum is strictly adhered to and the focus is clearly on the works.
An open terrace garden off the café [where strangely photography is banned] provides a high level expansive view over the inland sea.
We walk back to the hotel around the hillside calling in to the Lee Ufan Museum of Art and past more sculptures carefully arranged in the landscape and on the beaches. Everything is so well placed you start to question whether a rock is a placed art work…or just a rock. Perhaps it’s both?
We have chosen to move to a room within the Oval hotel for our last night on top of the hill above the Museum. It is accessed via a Wellington-style cable car, its green roof appears buried in the hill top.
The rooms on the outside of the oval form are arranged around a perfect infinitely style black water feature. The expansive views look out across the bay where the busy shipping lane comes to life at night.
We dine in the French restaurant within the Beach hotel opening on to a terrace above the beach. Once again, dinner is a culinary delight - a beautiful, delicate and extraordinary experience.
The next morning we leave via the same route [with our transport speeding up as we get closer to our next destination, Kyoto]. Happy again to sit back and looking forward to the next, very different but equally rich experience.
Our Benesse time was short but left indelible memories – of total quiet immersion and sensory fullness from so many different scales and types of art and food.
Sadly, we did not visit the other two art islands within the Benesse stable. These are shut during certain times over winter. But we left with an urge to revisit …next time with the kids, something we did two years later.