Islands of Art

  Our journey takes us next to Benesse Art Islands.  To get to this spot in Japan southwest of Kyoto, we traveled by high speed train, taxi and ferry. The Islands are south of the tiny Port of Uno.  Although the islands themselves are just small dots on the map, they are part of the much larger Seti Sea, the “inland sea” passage located between the south side of Japan’s main island and two of Japan’s other large islands.


 The taxi took us to the “private” ferry (the “Thunderbird”, the same “public” ferry we would ride the next day) to get to the Benesse Art Hotel on the island of Naoshima.  It was a cold, windy afternoon and the forecast wasn’t promising.  In fact, the smaller inter-island public ferries were canceled on our arrival day. We got to our room and it was quite small.  The design was upscale dorm room.  The art at the hotel was very modern, minimalist .  

If the weather didn’t improve, hanging out in the room and the “minimalist” hotel would be disappointing for 3 nights.  The grounds and beaches are very nice, but we were beginning to question how wise this location was for this time of year.  I think we were going through Kyoto withdrawal.  

Throughout our trip very few people have spoken English, but it really hasn’t hindered our travels.  This night, after a scrumptious dinner, we had a problem with the bill and very little ability to clear it up.  We were beginning to think we would cut this part of or trip short.  But, after talking to our agent by email and phone we decided to wait until the next day and see if the weather improved so we could explore.

It did!  


 The wind calmed down and the temperature increased enough that the sun felt warm.  Our art explorations by ferry took us to 2 nearby Islands:  Teshima and Inujima.  Jim and I have never really appreciated modern art. But the instillations on these islands are quite unusual, combining old villages with architecture, art and nature.

Once again our itinerary was perfect,

  We were met  at the small ferry dock on Teshima by cab and our driver swept us to 3 different spots beginning with Les Archives du Couer. We wove through a little village then came to a building by a lovey beach housing a long dark room with a single light bulb and speakers amplifying individual heart beats from people all over the world.  


 Clever, but not worth the trip. The art got much better from there.

Our next stop was enchanting and perfect.  The Teshima Museum is a collaboration of art and architecture, dug into a hill surrounded by rice paddies. After walking the beautiful grounds you come upon a white concrete dome.   

 Before entering we removed our shoes, put on slippers and were told to be quiet and not step on anything on the ground.  From there you enter a perfect environment with moving water, wind, and openings to the sky.  It is absolutely impossible to describe but I’ll try.  It’s a metaphor for life.  Some drops of water enter from small holes in the floor, they grow in size until they move toward a distant well.  Along the way, the traveling water “beings” join with others, separate from others, and ultimately merge with a large pool or disappear down a well.  If it was a bit warmer we would have stayed much longer.  I’ve taken some photos from the book we purchased because photos weren’t allowed.  

We stopped for some coffee in the second building before moving on to our last stop on Teshima and our first “art house” experience.  Here is a photo of a group of children visiting the exhibit. 

   I love the matching hats to designate the group.  One of the children was clearly visiting her Mom. You don’t see a lot of children in Japan because of the extremely low birth rate.  We read an article just a few days ago about the lack of desire for many young people here to date, have children or even have sex.  If you remember our gold leaf artist who’s family had the studio for 5 generations, they have three 40-something children and none of them are married.   

  An “art house” is an old local home in a hamlet that’s transformed by an architect and artist into an art experience.  The Teshima Yookoo house surprised and enchanted us. This one included a wonderful water element, garden and very cool tower.  Sorry no photos allowed.  When you enter you look through red glass to the rock garden and court yard.   

 The concept of these small architecture and modern art projects was really new for us.  The fact that they were in these small, rural and old areas infusing young people and art lovers was delightful and ingenious.  Would this work in the states?  We think it would in struggling WA communities like Aberdeen.  

When we began our day we weren’t sure if we were going to go on to our third island, Inujima, but we were hooked now.  The weather was good and we were up for the adventure to continue.

Our enthusiasm was rewarded.  After departing the small ferry there was a building with a cafe and the ticket site for the returning ferry and the art projects on the island. After ordering a lovely small lunch we sat and looked at the water.  The table in front of us was filled with a group of ladies doing origami led by an origami Jedi master.  

 After I took pictures of her, she made Jim and me a gift of origami.  No English, just smiles and bowing to give our thanks. 

Our hearts and tummies full, we walked to the first stop at the largest art building, Seirensho, created from the remains of a copper refinery.  It’s designed By Hiroshi Sambuichi.  




  The bricks used are from the original smoke stack and have a metallic sheen.   The exhibit is hard to explain, but it used long dark hall ways, mirrors, solar projections and natural light in a magical way. We loved it!


From there we strolled through the village visiting other art house projects. Some we looked at, some we sat in, but alas no photos were allowed. I snuck a few plus some photos of the walk around the Island.


This is one of the young people who have moved to the island to work at the art houses.  They are well cared for by the elders who still live on the island.


The coast here is full of  actual “sea hawks.”

After the return ferry we had time for a shower before a traditional Kaiseki Japanese dinner.   

 The restaurant is located at the main museum up the hill above our hotel.  The dinner was perfect.  We’ve been doing quite a bit of sake testing and enjoyed some more with our dinner.  After dinner we ended our day by exploring the museum.  Now this was the modern art we were used to seeing. All white painting, wood and rock circles on the floor, toy soldiers in a circle, “junk on a shelf”. . . it was a fast tour.

This morning we got to sleep in before exploring the Chichu Museum and another collection of art houses in an old area.  The Chichu features three artists Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria in a building designed by Tadao Ando.  We loved it all, the interplay of art and architecture once again opened our eyes to a new appreciation of the possibilities in this kind of art. No need to explain Monet, but the light, shapes and interactive aspects in Turell’s and Maria’s installations were so engaging.  Again no photos allowed.  This is a picture from the book.  It’s a huge room that you walk into and around.

On our way out we stopped to chat with the gardener who was proudly tending and planting flowers despite the winter weather. 

 The best part of the art houses here was walking through the village to find them.  We also passed by a really beautiful shrine.  The curve of the roof (which we learned on this trip, represents the ocean) is particularly dramatic. 





   We stopped for a leisurely, delicious lunch at small spot with only 3 tables.   

 The food was scrumptious. At our favorite art house here we are led into a dark space using our hands to guide us along the walls before we sat on a bench.  It is pitch black.  This is what it must feel like to be blind. Over time light appears.  A few specks at first and then a full screen. We were then told to stand and walk towards the screen. It turns out the light was there all along.  It just took ten minutes for our eyes to adjust. Really cool. 

Tonight we enjoy one last dinner at the fine hotel restaurant before traveling again by ferry, taxi and high speed train to Matsomoto. The adventure continues!

2 thoughts on “ Islands of Art

  1. I can assure you, both postings of this segment of your Japan for Non-Japanese trip worked properly. While I really enjoy your descriptions and photos, I think my inability to talk to the local citizenry (words) would be quite frustrating for me. That said, please continue your fine reporting of the Japan most US tourists never experience.

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