I woke up warm, even though the other room was absolutely frigid. A shower helped, and we walked up to Honmura. There were bikes we could take from the guest house, but Jake wanted a helmet and I was unsure if I trusted the bikes to work (or if one would fit me), so we decided to rent some better ones in Honmura. We stopped for breakfast at Cafe Konichiwa, where I had a good coffee and a pancake and chocolate cake with ice cream.
We went to the bike rental place but found it completely shut, and the other place nearby was also closed. There were bikes everywhere, but we couldn’t rent one. I was pretty frustrated, as I’d been really looking forward to riding, but we were already late so we waited for the town bus towards the museum area. It was crowded but we got there quickly and switched to the free museum shuttle bus to Chichu Art Museum, where we had timed tickets for 11:15. Although we were late, we had no problem getting in.
The Chichu Art Museum, opened in 2004, is a Tadao Ando designed building that is almost entirely underground and built into a hill on the southern part of Naoshima. There were no photos allowed inside (as was true in all the museums on the island), and it was enforced pretty strictly, which allowed for an ideal viewing experience. The museum was mostly lit naturally via sunlight. It was a lot of sparse concrete and stone and wood. Despite its small collection, the museum was stunning and really succeeded in its mission to bridge art and environment.
The first room, with five Monet landscapes from his water lilies series, was wonderful. You’re asked to take your shoes off and wear white slippers that match the floor and walls. The floor is made of textured little square tiles that seem to shimmer in the light. The ceiling has a square overhang and light filters in between it and the top. The light reflects off the blues and greens of the paintings. I’ve never been moved much by Monet’s work before, but these were filled with emotion and color. Generally I’m used to seeing water lilies in a crowded museum space that’s artificially lit. The natural light, ban on photography and bright floors and walls magnify the impact of the paintings. I’ve never examined Monet’s work so closely before either, and you can’t help but feel calmed by the soft shades of the water and greenery and feel the nature amidst the brushstrokes.
I go outside and sit in the outer chamber with white everywhere and light coming from the Money room, to collect my thoughts, and then I return. Despite three loud Spaniards talking incessantly, I feel nothing but calm. These are also the most beautiful Monet pieces I remember seeing, somehow abstract and vividly clear at the same time, and they fit the space perfectly. Maybe I’m just paying closer attention than I usually do. The centerpiece is a two-paneled, huge canvas covered in blue and green and a little purple. The smaller pieces offer lilies that look like little green fish and wavy trees and a little purple and red amidst the blue and green. Waves of emotion radiate from each.
There’s something arresting about viewing art like this on a beautiful island, too. On the walk between museums and from some spaces within, especially the Benesse House Museum, you’re gifted with vistas of the blue sea and surrounding islands. There is something about the architecture and art that reminds me of a surreal video game level or a minimalist paradise.
I move on to the James Turrell exhibit, where you wait in line to view his piece “Open Field.” We didn’t get here in time to attend last night’s sunset viewing of “Open Sky,” where the colors slowly change as you watch the sun set, but I’m excited to see both pieces. We wait for one group and then take our shoes off and enter the room.
You step into a quiet room facing a kind of orange lit rectangular space with a larger lit rectangle behind it. The attendant directs you to walk up a set up black stairs towards the light, and just as you reach the top she tells you to walk through it. What had looked like a wall or at least just a viewfinder becomes a portal and you step into the room. Everything is off-white and a blue light around the entrance lights up the wall you walk towards. When you turn around, the entrance has turned purple. It’s like walking into a painting. You move back and forth between the two rectangles for a while and then exit, and the installation turns back into a distant viewing. I’m not sure how to describe it exactly but certainly an emotional experience. We stop in the cafe after, but it’s loud and full and despite the nice view of the water we decide to keep going.
James Turrell’s “Open Sky” turns out to be a disappointment, as the sky is pretty bare and all you really see is white and a little light blue from the clouds and sun. The space, with an open square skylight and benches and slopes walls, is nice, but I don’t feel much of anything. I can imagine it’s gorgeous at sunrise or sunset or when there’s a more complex sky with changing colors. What is cool for now is that the view changes as you move around, and you see different shapes in the clouds and the light slowly changes a little.
We walked down another set of stairs to the Walter de Maria area, where you enter a big room with another skylight and steps leading up. There’s a big black reflective, almost monolithic sphere in the middle, and golden columns that are arranged in sets of three, with three, four and five sides. Each set is different. The way the light reflects off the columns and the sphere is pretty and the room was obviously designed with that in mind. The Turrell and de Maria pieces were designed specifically for the museum spaces, and it shows. The way out doubles back, so we experienced the exhibits again. The building itself is fascinating, too, and seems to almost act as an extension of the topography.
We walked outside and back down towards the other art sites along the road, which mostly winds along the coastline. I was envious every time someone sped past on a bike, but at this point it didn’t make sense to rent one. It was a short walk down the road to the Lee Ufan Museum. Ufan is a Korean-born artist who has worked in Japan since the 60s and has been an important figure in the country’s contemporary art movement. The building is also partially built into the landscape, and you enter through a courtyard with sculptures. The main room is mesmerizing, with geometric blues fading away and another overhang with light coming in. I really liked the minimalistic pieces, certainly more than I expected. The other rooms are interesting too. One has sculptures with a ceiling opening showing trees and sky. One has a rock with images of nature cycling through in its shadow. The third (the “meditation room”) has identical small gray shapes painted right on the walls.
We walked towards the Benesse House Museum. Benesse House was built in 1992 as a hotel combined with a museum, and was the initial art center on Naoshima. For a long time it was the only hotel on the island (now there are many) and it sounds amazing to stay at, if ludicrously expensive. The Benesse Corporation has been responsible for much of the art development on Naoshima and neighboring islands such as Teshima. A side note I found interesting: A Mitsubishi metals processing plant is still the islands biggest employer (the population is just over 3,000, with over a million visitors each year). The hotel consists of four buildings and guests have the privilege of viewing the art 24 hours a day. The museum is filled with quality pieces, including “100 Live and Die,” a Bruce Nauman installation I particularly liked. The black and yellow boats I had mistaken for abandoned resurfaced, in a painting and related sculptures. There really is art everywhere here.
We had lunch in the Museum cafe overlooking the water. I had a totally fine plate of pasta and enjoyed the view. If I had a couple more days I would have liked to stay at Benesse. I wandered through the art after lunch, pausing to lie outside on big rocks that you access by opening a supremely heavy door. The rocks are enclosed so as to frame the sky, and you could sit and watch the clouds go by for hours (at least, with sunglasses on). The Seto Inland Sea is beautiful. There was an even heavier door you slide to open with some photos arranged on an outside wall and a stunning view of the beach with the two boats and the sea and islands. The attendant laughed as I struggled with the door but she was very friendly.
When I finished with the museum, we walked down through a variety of sculptures on the beach and on hills overlooking the water and finally ended at Yayoi Kusama’s famous pumpkin, on a little pier, which is so playful. A lot of people were jostling for photos with the pumpkin, but I still enjoyed it, although I thought a lot of the other installations were more powerful. We decided to walk to Honmura because it would take about the same amount of time as waiting for the bus.
Jake walked slowly but I was impatient to get there, and when we arrived we made a quick stop at the Ando Museum, which charted Tadao Ando’s work on Naoshima and also a couple of projects in Osaka. It was interesting to see the buildings we had just been to and more about his intentions, and his sketches were colorful and precise.
Time was running short so we bought tickets for the Art House Project and tried to get to as many of the sites as possible before they closed at 4:30. The Art House Project turns abandoned houses into contemporary art installations in the port town of Honmura. The houses feel totally enmeshed in the town. I liked Kadoya, a restored old house with a walkway around a pool of water with lit up numbers counting from 1-9. The speed they count was chosen by residents of the town, and the colors in the darkness as you encircle the water was a nice touch.
Minamidera, another Ando-designed building that contained a James Turrell installation, was a highlight. You enter the room in total darkness and make your way forward by feeling the wall. You end up on a bench, where you sit and stare into the blackness. It takes a few minutes, but you slowly make out a rectangle of light in front of you, which you’re directed to walk towards. You realize it’s caused by hidden light projectors, but the experience of acclimating to the darkness is still eye-opening. Then we walked up to the Go’o Shrine, which features a glass ladder down into an underground stone chamber under the restored shrine. We didn’t have time for the last two, so we walked to Franciole, a cafe in the town, and I had an affogato and we killed some time before dinner. We walked to dinner at Cafe Salon Naka-oku, on a hill overlooking Honmura.
Luckily, we arrived early and were seated at the counter. The place had Japanese-style floor seating as well as a counter, and felt kind of like a Japanese living room. I was happy to sit at the bar, and we ordered soup, rice, kara-age and edamame and a beer. The kara-age hit the spot, and I was still hungry so I got a plate of really flavorful sautéed octopus and two more bowls of rice. I’ve been working on holding my chopsticks higher up, and I think I’m improving. The people working spoke good English, as did everyone we encountered on Naoshima (because the island is overrun with tourists, maybe, although it was pretty quiet away from the major sites).
We walked back in the cold and dark night (it was cloudy, so no stars) to the guest house.
Ready to return to urban life,