Late Checkout: A Must-Visit Art Island in Japan

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You’ve probably seen a perfect Instagram shot of a couple or a young family posing at Yayoi Kusama’s iconic “Pumpkin” on a pier surrounded by blue sea. This is the quintessential photo of Naoshima, an art-filled island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. It takes some effort to get there from Tokyo, but it’s worth the journey for anyone who appreciates art and museums.

A Quick History Lesson

The Seto Inland Sea sits in between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Shikoku, and is marked by Hiroshima to the west and Kobe to the east. It contains a series of islands within it, among them Naoshima Island.

Once known for its port, manufacturing, and agriculture, Naoshima is now most known as a hub of contemporary art. Its genesis as an art center can be traced back to the mid-eighties when

Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the founding president of Fukutake Publishing, and Chikatsugu Miyake, then mayor of Naoshima, came together to develop a cultural and educational area on the island.

Several years later, in 1992, Benesse Art Site opened as both a museum and hotel. In the decades since, the island has filled in with many more museums, installations, and art sites that make it a worthwhile destination for any art appreciator. It includes works from well-known artists like James Turrell, Tadao Ando, Yayoi Kusama, and Claude Monet, as well as lesser-known artists.

How To Get There

From Tokyo, getting to Naoshima takes 6-7 hours and typically requires a bullet train, 2 regional trains, and a ferry. This sounds intimidating at first glance, but with some advanced planning and the precision of Japanese transit, it’s totally manageable, particularly with the help of Benesse House’s website.

With some advanced planning, the trip to Naoshima Island is seamless.

Here’s the basic overview:

  • Take the Shinkansen to Okayama (it’s the same bullet train from Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka or Kobe).
  • To get from Okayama to Uno, you take 2 regional trains, between which the transfer is just a walk across the train platform.
  • When you arrive at Uno, you’ll see the port just to the right and across the street when you exit the station. Walk 500m or so, and you can purchase tickets to take the ferry from Uno to Miyanoura Port on Naoshima Island.
  • If you’re staying at Benesse House, a dedicated van to the hotel is available when you arrive at Miyanoura Port.

Staying at Benesse House Hotel

While you can find other accommodations on Naoshima, I’m a firm advocate of saving your pennies to stay at Benesse House. Prices are steep, starting from JPY50,000 (about $350) for a twin room and go up to JPY140,000 (about $950) for a suite in the luxurious Oval section of the hotel.

The Oval section of Benesse House is reserved only for guests staying in its six rooms, and is accessed by a funicular to the top of the hotel property. Image courtesy Benesse House.

Benesse House Hotel sits on the other side of Naoshima from the Miyanoura Port and is reachable by the hotel’s private van or the island’s bus service. Your introduction to the hotel is a drive past the aforementioned Yayoi Kusama “Pumpkin” and onward to a welcoming lobby. It offers “Park” guest rooms closest to the sculpture garden, “Beach” rooms along the sea, “Museum” rooms within the hotel’s museum, and “Oval” rooms atop a hill and separated from the rest of the property by a funicular.

The view from the Park wing of the hotel boasts a sneak peak of the art installations on the hotel grounds. Image courtesy Benesse House.

While you could easily spend a day or two enjoying the hotel’s comforts and exploring its artwork, be sure to get out-and-about so as to not miss everything else that the island has to offer.

Where to Eat

Dining options are limited on Naoshima, but there are a few gems. The first and most obvious choice is the restaurant at the Benesse House Hotel. If you’re staying there, it’s best to budget for breakfast and dinner each day of your stay. The breakfast buffet offers abundant options–both Western and Japanese–and the sit down dinner is an excuse for a fancier date night on vacation.

Benesse House’s restaurant offers a breakfast buffet and prix fixe dinner, with views overlooking the sea.

If a hotel meal isn’t your speed, there are two casual options on Naoshima worth checking out. Yamamoto Udon is a ten-minute walk from the Miyanoura Port. If you feel like you’re lost or at the wrong place, you’re in exactly the right place—just be sure to check opening hours before you go. If you’re checking out the Art House Project, Apron Café is your best bet. It’s a yummy lunch spot with a charming outdoor patio and a cute gallery and shop inside. And, in a pinch, stop by the island’s 7-Eleven for snacks and pre-made meal options.

What to See And Do

I recommend spending at least two days and two nights on Naoshima, with a day trip to Teshima. There’s an abundance of recommendations, but my suggestions for a 2 day itinerary are below.

Day 1

  • Go to the visitor’s center near the Art House Project and buy passes to all the Art Houses. This is a great way to spend a couple of hours before check-in at Benesse House Hotel is available.
  • Eat lunch at Apron Cafe, then hop on the bus to check in at Benesse House.
  • Once you’re checked in, visit some of the museums near the hotel—the hotel shuttle can take you there.
  • Chichu Art Museum is one of the best museums in the world, though it features installations by only 3 artists: Claude Monet, Walter De Maria and James Turrell.
  • Lee Ufan Museum is a collaboration between the artist and architect Tadao Ando, whose work you’ll become very familiar with while visiting Naoshima.
  • Benesse House Museum, which offers later opening hours (last entry at 8pm) and can be done either before or after dinner at the hotel.
Most of the art sites don’t allow photography. Here’s a quick selfie in the #DanGraham oval mirror box in front of our room at the Benesse House Hotel.

Day 2

  • Go to Teshima in the morning. After a buffet breakfast, the hotel shuttle can take you back to Miyanoura Port to catch the 9:20am ferry to Teshima.
  • Once you arrive on Teshima, either rent electric bikes or jump on the bus to the Teshima Art Museum (in my opinion, this is the best thing to see on either island). Then, stop off at small art installations such as Les Archives du Couer and Yokoo House, another favorite of mine.
  • Head back to Naoshima at either 1:35pm or 3:55pm (last boat).
  • If you’re there on a Friday, reserve a ticket for James Turrell’s Open Sky at the Chichu Museum (entry at 6:40pm), or have a leisurely evening exploring the Benesse House Hotel grounds and having a cocktail at the famed Oval Bar.

We obeyed the rules, but if you look online, you'll see illicit photos from inside the Teshima Art Museum—a massive, oblong semi-submerged pocket of concrete. The museum is a collaboration between sculptor Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa; its ceiling features two large openings to let in light and sounds from the surrounding rice paddies and their wildlife and the floor is punctured with tiny holes that release droplets of spring water.

This is just scratching the surface of what Naoshima has to offer, and it’s one of those places that you have to see to believe. From the landscape to the art installations, there’s an immense amount to soak in, making it entirely worth the journey there.

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