Naoshima: The Island of Art

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Ocean and Nadia allowing Naoshima’s charms to work on them – Gotanji Beach

Naoshima is an example of the power of the arts to transform a community. It helped to have an art-loving billionaire invest in the island. His vision is reviving this small island.

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Kusuma’s red pumpkin greets visitors at the port on Naoshima. 

Soichiro Fukutake is the son of the founder of Benesse, a huge publishing and education company headquartered in Okayama, a city 2 and 1/2 hours’ drive from Osaka. His father, Tetsuhiko, used to lead summer camps on a small island (3 miles square) just off the coast of Okayama called Naoshima. Soichiro had fond childhood memories of the island and wanted to help revive the economy. Naoshima is one of the thousands of islands in the Seto Inland Sea (瀬戸内海) the 400 kilometer part of the Pacific Ocean between the main Japanese islands of Honshu and Shikoku and Kyushu (see map below). It is an important shipping route and more importantly for me, it looks and feels like the Mediterranean. We visited the island of Miyajima, just off the coast from Hiroshima this past Christmas.

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Naoshima’s fishing industry was dying and young people were leaving for economic opportunities on the mainland. Fukutake decided to build several contemporary art and architecture museums on the island and commission works all around the island. The Chichu Art Museum displays 5 original works from Monet’s series “Water Lillies”. When sold at art auctions, they go for $15-20 million dollars each! Publishing and education are big industries in Japan, a society that values education where families pay billions for out-of-school classes in language, mathematics, test preparation, etc.

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Oliver on Gotanji Beach at sunset

There were some powerful pieces in the museums. I best liked the Benesse House Museum with the large art/architecture works. “Spirit of the Sky” was super cool and we spent a lot of time just looking up at the sky. I am ambivalent towards contemporary art. Some of the works inspire me and recharge my soul, but others, like Lee Ufan’s minimalist “Mono-ha” style, which consists of huge canvases with a single stroke of a paintbrush, felt like a practical joke on the patrons, paying 1,060 yen to enter the museum devoted to his work.

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Nadia and Ocean contemplating the changing sky “Spirit of the Sky”

For example, Yayoi Kusuma’s pumpkin at Gotanji Swimming Beach brings hundreds of tourists to photograph. It turned a regular pleasant beach into something special, with just that addition of one, large yellow polka-dotted pumpkin at the end of a pier.

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Root beer! Shioya Diner

In between viewing art, we swam at the beach, ate some good meals and relaxed at our cute/clean/cozy hostel. I especially recommend the Shioya Diner, with its retro American diner decor and delicious cajun chicken dish.

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Oliver at the top of the Benesse House Museum

I managed to go for a hike one morning to a secluded beach near the fishing pier. I saw a trail on Google Maps and thought there might be some birds. I did get some excellent insects photos, but the birds were the same kinds found in suburban neighborhoods. The tourist commission of Naoshima should develop the trail and clean the beach where it ends. It could be another nice activity to do and promote the preservation of forests on the island. We did not get to see some of the abandoned homes that were transformed into art pieces or see many of the large works spread around the island.

Without Benesse, Naoshima would be just another small town of elderly in rural Japan. Instead, international tourists visit the museums and residents are able to make a living catering to them.I find it interesting when megacorporations invest in the small town of their founders like Walmart or Lego. It does have a relaxed rhythm and is a perfect get-away from Osaka/Kobe/Kyoto city. Because Nadia and Ocean love art so much, we’ll probably go back to visit. I highly recommend staying on the island.

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Yayoi Kusuma – “Yellow Pumpkin” 

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