Standing on the end of a pier on Naoshima island, superstar artist Yayoi Kusama’s giant spotted pumpkin stands as a testament to the success of Japanese contemporary art. The nation’s art scene is often reduced to stereotype – cherry blossom prints, blushing geishas, delicate rock gardens – but this island on the Inland Sea dispels these clichés with vigour.
Sandwiched between the mainland Honshu island and the smaller and less travelled Shikoku – Naoshima has, through the patronage of a billionaire benefactor, become a must-see stop for art lovers in Japan, transforming the economy of an otherwise unremarkable fishing island off the south coast of Okayama into a buzzing destination for art enthusiasts.
The draw of Naoshima’s galleries shines like light on contemporary art scene in a country where it’s far from the main attraction. For most international arrivals in Tokyo, the Roppongi district is better known for bars verging on the seedy and a buzzing nightlife, but the enormous Mori Tower houses a viewing space which also has some of the best views of the city – Mount Fuji is easily visible on clear days. Exhibitions vary, with no permanent collection, but two separate visits in the past two years have yielded an enlightening exploration of the use of wood in Japanese architecture – a key concern for one of the most seismically active regions of the world – and an epic retrospective by Takashi Murakami featuring his 100m-long paintins of 500 arhats (saints).
Kyoto is an obvious next stop for art lovers, although it showcases a very different style. The home of Japan's traditional cultures, it can seem like temple overload, particularly in peak season, but its charms win you over, despite the crowds. Early risers are rewarded with dawn views across the city over the more far-flung Ryōan-ji temple, which is across the city from the Kiyomizudera Temple, an enormous wooden structure built without nails.
After Kyoto, the journey to Naoshima feels like a departure from the beaten track. Ferries to the island leave from the mainland, but Takamatsu, the largest city in Shikoku, is a convenient stop before heading to the island itself. Now it is a fairly sleepy provincial city, but in the time of the feudal lords (an era that only ended in 1867) Takamatsu served as a key port. That wealth has left its mark in a spectacular landscape garden, the Ritsuren koen – the largest in Japan, and well worth a visit for its winding paths, serene koi lake, and expert use of so-called “borrowed” mountain scenery as a backdrop, as in the best Kyoto gardens.
The complex, a short ferry hop across the water on Naoshima, is an idyll away from the crowds and a place to showcase wealth. The island’s galleries were built in 1992 at the behest of Soichiro Fukutake, the owner of Benesse Holdings, the parent company for Berlitz Language Schools. Yet despite approaching its three-decade mark, the awkwardly named Benesse Art Site, which takes up a large chunk of the southern half of Naoshima island, still feels new in the power of its design and the world-class quality of its art – not to mention the luxury hotel masquerading as a gallery.
The sheer novelty of a hotel containing its own collection is enough to attract attention, with guests in the main Benesse House, built into a steep hillside overlooking the sea, able to wander the galleries alone for an hour after closing. The art is similar to what you’d expect to find in a billionaire’s collection, with little in the way of organising principle between works from blockbuster artists, but with a Richard Long work of Inland Sea flotsam almost rubbing up against a canvas from Jean-Michel Basquiat, it feels churlish to complain.
It could easily have tipped into Bond villain lair territory, but any threat of it feeling dated or overbearing is eclipsed by the astonishing buildings half-carved into the landscape by Osakan architect Tadao Ando, one of Japan’s foremost artists. Ando’s buildings in themselves are worth the journey, with dramatic concrete lines bisected by light trenches, or dark corridors leading to pristine courtyards.
The integration of art and design into patrons’ lives extends right to the bedroom. The Park rooms, which overlook an outdoor gallery stretching to the shore, are relatively small, but well appointed, each with a private balcony and an original print by revered US artist James Turrell hanging on the wall. The complex stretches closer to the shore, where floor-to-ceiling windows make for a light and airy atmosphere in the Terrace restaurant. Breakfast and dinner are Japanese reflections on French cuisine, with local fish and refreshing green tea cocktails. The Museum restaurant, on the other hand, is more traditional, serving a multi-course kaiseki meal, including sea bream sashimi and fried lotus root buns.
Down the road the Lee Ufan Museum celebrates the eponymous Korean artist, although for those with less patience for severe abstraction, Ando’s building zigzagging back into the crook of the cove will likely be the highlight. The sunken form of the Chichu museum, which opened in 2004, deliberately leaves the profile of the land intact, but once inside it reveals some of the highlights of the island. One Turrell piece appears to be a set of steps up to a blue square on a white wall – until, that is, you are invited to walk through it into an otherworldly space. That rubs up against perception-bending of a different kind in four of French impressionist Claude Monet’s giant water lillies – paintings set in his own Japanese garden, a neat reminder of the huge influence of Japanese culture on Western art over the last 150 years.
With so much art concentrated in three small galleries, not to mention spa treatments for those in need of (rather overpriced) relaxation, it might be tempting to skip the rest of the attractions. Yet, heading out is still worth your while, with a scattering of townhouses taken over by artists in Honmura, another of the tiny port towns dotted around.
Traditional Japanese urban architecture is for the most part quite inward-turning, with only a heavily wooden slatted window and a door turned to the road. Get beyond the lintle, however, and the minimal furnishings combined with tatami mats allow small, secret spaces to feel expansive and airy inside.
Townhouses are a juicy target for artists here, as it gives them the opportunity to contemporise Japanese art in a Western architectural context. Tatsuo Miyajima’s Kadoya house dramatises the meeting of traditions old and new by replacing the tatami with a pool of water, with submerged blinking lights infinitely counting down from nine to zero. At a restored shrine above the town, a flight of crystal stairs by Hiroshi Sugimoto leads into a murky underground stone chamber.
The townhouse project offers a pleasant disorientation, and never more so than in yet another Turrell and Ando collaboration, Minamidera. Little more than a charred wooden box of a building from the outside, albeit with elegant proportions, groups are led in by the hand to what feels like true pitch black darkness – to the point that one unfortunate American in our group walked into a wall.
Yet miraculously, sitting for 10 minutes, the shape of a square starts to form on the wall as the eyes become accustomed to the lowest of lights.
Then, in a thrilling and disorienting coup de grace the square on the wall is revealed instead as another void, leaving the group to stumble, blinking, back into the sunlight on this wondrous island.