Naoshima: 21 hours on an art island

It took four train changes and a ferry to reach Naoshima, a timy island in the Seto Sea. However, Naoshima was the linch pin for our Japan trip.

I had first heard about Naoshima and the Benesse Museum years ago in a travel article. The sight of Yayoi Kusama’s iconic spotted, yellow pumpkin at water’s edge captivated me. And then a few years later, representatives of Benesse House came to tour the JCC campus in Palo Alto where I worked and I vowed to visit their campus one day.

However, we didn’t want to pay the steep cost of actually staying at Benesse Hotel. However, most other island accommodations were “rustic” guest rooms so that’s where we ended up …at La Curacion.

On the plus, we were a 10 minute walk away from Benesse and there was a tasty ramen place right around the corner for dinner and a great $5 breakfast across the street at another guest house.

On the minus, the air conditioning in our place was weak. There was no hot water for our badly needed showers (we cold washed) and the “air dry” washer dryer was actually only a washer! So we hung our wet laundry all over the room to dry overnight,

But you’re not interested in the airing of our dirty laundry… so on to the art.

We arrived late afternoon at Benesse after hoofing it over at top speed. We saw the iconic Kusama pumpkin at the tip of the beach and a grassy field of Nikki de St. Phalle fantastic animals. We hustled sweatily uphill to visit the first of 3 museums: Benesse itself. We are informed that no photos are allowed. Inside are several massive rooms where the small collection gives each work spacious breathing room to speak. There’s a Hockney, a Nevelson and other works both indoors and out as you viscerally experience Tadeo Ando’s remarkable minimalist architecture. You step outside small doors to curated views of the sea beyond which were mesmerizing in the glittering late day light.

It was getting towards closing time. We walked back down to the pumpkin on the beach to patiently wait our turn to cuddle with Kusama. We ask a fellow tourist to snap the proof we were there.

The next morning, we pack our bags, eat breakfast across the street and hike back to Benesse . But this time we grab the free Benesse Shuttle up to Chichu Museum at the top of the hill. Chichu is an Underground museum with geometric window cutouts throughout to let in skylight. It is another Ando design, all grey concrete outside and white walls within. Three artists works comprise entire museum. But the Japanese proclivity for standing in lines, for taking off shoes and for creating moments of surprise and delight made our visit last longer than the typical breeze through galleries that is our normal mode.

There was a gallery room of 5 Monet garden paintings. Another large space held a shrinelike installation by Walter de Maria of golden bars placed along white, stepped walls with one huge black orb in the center of the room.

But piece de la resistance was a work by James Turrell whose light-infused spaces always compelled me. This time, we,along with 6 other barefooted guests, walked slowly into the light in an optical revelation illusion. It was a remarkable moment of awe…broken only by the alarms going off when my beloved partner took a step too far!

There were more more musums and art installations to see on Naoshima but our time was up. We hurried back to gather our bags and found the cleaning crew already in our room.

We got a ride back to the ferry, marred only by our host’s car getting a flat tire mid way. Fortunately, he quickly rustled up a friend to drive us the remainder of the way and our 3 1/2 hour journey to Osaka proceeded uneventfully.

We could have gladly stayed another night on Naoshima’s quiet shores had we known more about what was there to experience …and what was to come after!

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