A dreamy world of life and light

When approaching Naoshima’s Miyanoura port, a large red pepper with black spots looms into view.

This is the first clue that the tiny island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea is something out of the ordinary.

Naoshima was once just another volcanic island dotted in the calm, blue water, but it achieved star status late last century when one of the world’s richest men fell in love with it.

This man was Tetsuhiko Fukutake, president of the Benesse Corporation; an organisation that offers products and services in education, language study, lifestyle support and nursing care.

Fukutake combined his passion and means to invest in Naoshima, and his son Soichiro continued the legacy after his father’s death.

The company funded the astounding Chichu Art Museum and Benesse House, designed by cult Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

It continues to invest in the groundbreaking Art House Project, where contemporary art meets traditional design, which has helped regenerate the island’s residential Honmura district.

In fact, Soichiro has so enthusiastically picked up the mantle, and is so taken with the co-existence of art and nature, that he wants to make Naoshima an independent nation.

Beyond the realm of reality
“Art and nature have challenged me a great deal,” he says.

“While Japan is currently missing an aspect of this balance, we should encourage an independent nation on the spiritual and conscious level.

“I wish to develop this idea amid these beautiful Japanese islands of the Seto Inland Sea, so that this idea becomes distinguished in the world.”

It may sound like heady stuff, but once you start to explore Naoshima, the vision will begin to take hold.

Hire a bike at the port—or opt for the electric version if you’re feeling lazy—and cycle past rice paddies and sunflowers, turn left into the Honmura district and get ready to be blown away by some mad experimental art encased within a selection of seven traditional-looking houses.

As part of the Art House Project, there’s a replica Statue of Liberty in Shinro Ohtake’s Haisha installation and an optical illusory light piece by James Turrell in Minamidera; another building on the island crafted by Ando. You sit in complete darkness until shapes start to form as your eyes get used to the lack of light. The end result is spectacular.

Local residents man the installations, carefully checking your Art House Project pass as you step gingerly over the parapet and brace yourself for more surprises.

Whatever you do, make both the Chichu Art Museum and Benesse House essential stops on your island tour. The former is built underground so it doesn’t compromise the natural beauty of the site. Only small concrete openings and skylights are visible on the surface.

The space below is otherworldly: Ando uses large, cast concrete blocks set at skewed angles to create disorientating pathways that serve to heighten anticipation. He uses natural light throughout and this contributes to the magic, too.

When the sun is shining the polished concrete glows silver and the shards of light illuminating the room that houses some of Monet’s water lilies make the scenes appear even more lifelike.

Turrell’s Open Sky also celebrates the island’s incandescent light. Here, the lines between art and architecture are beautifully blurred, and as you sit in the concrete-hewn space and stare up at the square of open sky above, you are transported to another realm that sits just beside reality.

Stuff of dreams
The Benesse House has a wider variety of art in a structure similar to Chichu. Andy Warhol’s there, along with Jackson Pollock, David Hockney, and a striking light piece by Bruce Nauman that comprises flashing neon aphorisms. If you’re lucky enough to stay at the Benesse, each room is an artwork in its own right.

Outside the building, brightly coloured sculptures are dotted around the lawn but the eye is drawn first to Yayoi Kusama’s giant spotted pumpkin on the pier; similar to the red pepper found at the port.

Head further down the beach and there’s more art to discover; metal squares that sway in the breeze, three perfectly symmetrical granite balls and driftwood set in a magic grotto. It’s the stuff of dreams.

When night falls, many head to the Miyanoura port, where photos are taken in the now-illuminated red pepper and the ferries take people back to reality at hourly intervals. The city of Takamatsu on the Shikoku island is only an hour away.

Joe, who works at the Chichu Art Gallery, is there, sipping beer and laughing at the girls posing in the pepper. He’s an architect and has taken six months off work to spend time in Naoshima and get some inspiration. He stares up at the stars and smiles. “I love this place,” he says. It’s clear that his plan’s working.

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