During our second trip to Japan, we visited Naoshima, one of Japan's famed 'art islands'. Together with neighbouring Teshima and Inujima, the islands hold an incredible collection of artworks, site-specific sculpture and architecture. Set in the Seto Inland Sea (瀬戸内海 Seto Naikai), often shortened to Setouchi, it's a rich and enchanting place to visit.
Our trip to Uno Port was a long one, and around the halfway point, my husband observed that we were doing a significant amount of backtracking. It was something I’d realised once our four weeks in Japan were locked in, too late to make any changes. I figured the charm of a day of train travel would mean he wouldn’t even notice.
Coming down from Kōyasan
Travelling by train is charming, but Japan’s system isn’t all super-fast Shinkansen. Our day began with a funicular, or cable car, down from Mt Koya, a seat of Japanese Buddhism which sits 650m above sea level. We had spent the night in a temple that believed in both keeping visitors on something of a strict timetable and the merits of reconstituted tofu.
Once back on solid ground, we were headed to Okayama. This meant another strict timetable to make all of our five changes. Our emergency snack supply had been exhausted after the first round of tofu. But we knew with all the confidence of tourists in Week Two that every train station had a platform kiosk selling katsu sandwiches and bowls of udon. We were wrong and wrong again, and spent the day on vending machine crackers and Snickers bars.
We arrived at Uno Port about eight hours after we set off. We drank local red ale at the Uno Port Inn while we waited for the boat.
The particular magic of Naoshima began with the arrival of the ferry. Large, immaculately clean, white, and painted with red spots. The interior was clean, almost Swedish, with the ubiquitous vending machines at both ends of the cabin. A scout around for some cups for our whiskey was fruitless. It was dark now, and the surrounding Seto Inland Sea wasn’t giving anything away.
On Naoshima, Benesse House is the place to stay. We were not staying there. At the port the Benesse shuttle pulled away carrying a collection of people with very smart luggage. My own suitcase was just days away from losing a wheel.
We waited for the small community bus, paying ¥100 each for the trip.
Tsutsujiso was essentially next door to Benesse House, but at the other end of the long beach. The accommodation options were small huts, caravans, or yurts. Of course, a yurt.
We signed in (paying ¥16,200 for our stay), read the rules, and found yurt number one, closest to the beach. The gentle glow coming from just one other tent let us know that it was a quiet campsite that night.
When we booked we had been asked to order meals and I had blindly picked the first option, Buta Shabu (¥2,800 each). We were the only diners, and our table was set with a single gas element holding a large pot. We were brought a tray of rolled thinly sliced pork, slabs of firm tofu, mushrooms with a perfect ‘x’ scored into their cap, chopped cabbage, starchy noodles and a mustardy green. The more we dipped our ingredients into it, the more delicious the hot broth became. We washed it down with large bottles of Kirin.
Back in the yurt, we pulled two beds together (something I later remembered completely disobeyed the rules), got the heater going and slept. I was reasonably sure that the gas heater would lead to poisoning in the night. But in the morning, we were warm and alive.
Our breakfast sitting was 8am. Typically delicious, we ate fish, rice, miso, pickles, nori and a salad of cold spaghetti in a sesame sauce.
The showers were cold, but ¥100 would buy a little hot water. High-school style, we peeled off into our respective shower blocks and emerged feeling like we hadn’t spent the previous day on trains.
The Pumpkin and Bennesse Museum
You see the Yellow Pumpkin long before you arrive on the island. It’s everywhere, endlessly reflected, replicas tucked into every giftshop. It had to be our first stop, and it was better up close but it didn’t make me want to buy a keychain.
The Bennesse House Museum was beautiful, if sparse (we paid around AU$15 each, but it's free if you're staying at the hotel). When we headed down the hill, the Bennesse House shuttle was parked at the bottom of the hill and the white-gloved driver emerged and waved us down. We rode to the Chichu Art Museum where we bought tickets to the museum (¥2,060 each) and collected our tickets for the evening James Turrell installation (¥510 each).
This museum has just five exhibits, one being the building itself. It’s all beautiful. Five of Monet’s Water Lilies are housed in a room tiled with tiny marble chips. To go in, you have to exchange your shoes for slippers. As well as protecting the floor, this makes the gallery almost silent.
We had seen a lot of art over the course of the morning. We walked back to the port to see the Red Pumpkin, which is hollow and you can climb inside. The Naoshima Bath (experience art with your entire body!) is not far from the port but Chris has tattoos which make onsens a no-go.
Next, we jumped back into a community bus. We were making our way to the Art House Project in Honmura. By this stage, we had a little gallery fatigue. Pizza and beer and charcoal burner heater inside what was possibly someone's lounge turned out to be what we needed.
Turrell by night
We headed back to the Chichu Museum in plenty of time to find our Turrell group. We actually had about an hour to spare, and we sat in the cafe of the closing museum, sneaking slices of 7–11 fruit and staying out of the rain.
Durational light-based works are Turrell’s thing and this one was a full 45 minutes. Even though it was cold inside the artwork, more than one person was snoring gently by around the five minute mark.
We were warned that it was going to be a dark walk back to Tsutsujiso afterwards and we had torches ready. I still tried wrangling our way onto the Bennesse bus. Rebuffed, we made our way down the hill, only slightly caring that the bus that passed us was half full.
The other thing I had failed to sort was dinner. Tsutsujiso needed advance booking. The bus service had stopped for the night. We didn’t have bikes. The island reputedly has only one taxi. We holed up in our yurt and ate cups of instant ramen, chunks of raw pineapple and bars of Crunky, chased with a little whiskey.
Leaving the island
The next morning was sunny, like we’d stepped into a Famous Five adventure.The wind was gone and the beach was serene. We separated the beds again, and farewelled all of the local cats. The ferry ride was stunning by day. A coffee at Bollard, followed by a quick peek at the beautiful store, and we were back to Okayama Station, bound for Kyoto.