Palette Places: Naoshima


One taxi, one bullet train, one railway train with a transfer and four hours later, we had reached our last checkpoint. The faded seaport of Uno; where we would finally take a boat out to the small remote island of Naoshima. As soon as I saw the clear blue sea ahead, any sense of preceding hassle instantly melted away. I knew it was all going to be worth every minute…  

Located in southern Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, Naoshima Island is devoted to an impressive series of museums, contemporary art and architecture that deserves going 400 miles out of your way to experience. Predominantly designed by Tadao Ando, the island has clever and unexpected ways of bringing art, nature and sky all together.


Outlined by the most precious little beaches and surrounded by low mountains thick with bamboo and palm, it felt like a dream. Especially surreal when I spotted in the distance the Sugimoto picture frame tacked directly on to a rocky mountainside. I loved how all of the art here was indirect, hiding quietly and meant for discovery. But in open view, the highlight of the island is clearly Yayoi Kusama’s giant pumpkin that shines on top of the sea like a polka dotted star.


The island is full of other favorite artists, some of which we literally got to spend the night with. Andrew and I stayed at Benesse House Museum, a small hotel set inside the contemporary art museum. The interior of each room is designed by Ando and has original artworks (ours was Bridge, Boat, Dog). As a hotel guest of the museum, you are allowed to wander around after closing hours. So there we were late into the night, in our pajamas with a Cy Twombly scribble and a David Hockney pool.


Before our nighttime museum visit, we sat on the balcony outside of our room, which had the best view of the beach and the teardrop shaped Seto Island. It was amazing to watch the sky turn an electric pink before heading downstairs for dinner in the Warhol-flower lined Museum Restaurant, Issen. The kaiseki ended with strawberry and a cup of roasted buckwheat tea, my new favorite combination. Early the next day, our breakfast view at the nearby Terrace Restaurant was just as imposing with a silver mist that swallowed up the mountaintops.


After an American style breakfast, we rode bikes to the Lee Ufan Museum and underground Chichu Museum. At Chichu, you can experience Monet water lilies more compelling than l’Orangerie in Paris, lit by sunlight and in a room lined with hundreds of thousands of minuscule uniformly cut white marble tiles. Rounding out the water lilies are abstract installations by Walter De Maria and James Turrell that are just as memorable.


The most haunting (and my favorite) of Turrell’s work, Minamidera Backside of the Moon - which is better felt than explained in words - is a bus ride away in the bijou village of Honmura. Finding the different installations in Honmura was like a scavenger hunt of modern sensory art hidden inside old traditional houses and temples. All set against the village living in real-time, we got green tea soft-serve from the tiniest shop and watched people in their everyday moments.


It was this in-between time of just taking in the surroundings that I really remember the most. With every detail so magical and beautiful, it was the most overwhelming visual trip. Because of this we had spent a lot of time just walking and sitting on the cute beaches, with no art to see, the place all to ourselves; and that could’ve been enough of a perfect day for me. Naoshima was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Next time I am in Japan, I would gladly take the trip to see it all again.


All photos, handwriting and watercolor illustrations by me.