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Colourful sculpture of a man reading a newspaper.
Benesse House Museum, Photograph by Carol Lin Photo Credit: Flickr / Carol Lin CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mainland Japan is surrounded by many other islands that make up the beautiful country. ‘Many’ to be more precise, is around 6,000! Yes, that’s a huge number of places to explore and a vast range of things to discover. Some weird, some wonderful; the islands make Japan feel like there’s a surprise around every corner. Top of the list to visit often is Naoshima, Japan’s Art Island.

Naoshima Island is famous all around the world for its modern art museums, architecture, and sculptures that make the beachy and rural destination, with breezy sea air, a special dream-like destination for those who love art.

Origins of Naoshima Island

The Island became the attraction it is today thanks to the billionaire businessman Soichiro Fukutake. It all started when he began exploring the smaller islands of the Seto Inland Sea in the late 1980s.

Going against the formula that big cities equal an economic boost, he came up with the magical idea of making three of the islands, which had suffered from the effects of industrialisation, into islands full of, and known for contemporary art. 

The billionaire certainly had the means to make his vision bigger than life and something truly unique. He managed to get the architect Tadao Ando, AKA “the king of concrete”, to collaborate on the Benesse House Museum and so the art island started to form.

Bright pink light artwork in gallery with sun shining down through the roof.
Bruce Nauman, 100 Live and Die, Benesse House Museum, Naoshima by Garrett Ziegler. Photo Credit: Flickr / Garrett Ziegler / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Naoshima Island Art Galleries & Museums

There’s so much to see on Naoshima! The Art House Project is a gallery that turned empty residential houses into art spaces. In this project, artists take empty homes scattered about residential areas and turn the spaces themselves into works of art, weaving in history and memories of the period when the buildings were lived in and used.

The Chichu Art Museum is home to more impressive architectural designs and includes a Monet painting and a James Turrell sky room. Benesse House Museum is based on the concept of “coexistence of nature, art, and architecture”. It has an incredible collection of modern art inside and standing out overlooking the beautiful sea is the ‘perfect creates the perfect balance after wondering and discovering all the galleries have to offer.

Naoshima is also home to the funkiest bathhouse ever. I♥︎Bath is a mish-mash of colour and groovy pattern (on the outside). It’s a colourful sight and inside is a huge elephant sculpture – because who doesn’t want to bath with a giant elephant towering over you? 

Alongside many of the internationally famous artists whose work is part of this special place, the Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, has also left her print on the island. Red and yellow, Kusama Pumpkins can be seen by the port and sitting off the edge of a path into the sea. 

Another architectural gem, on Teshima island (a short ferry ride away from Naoshima), is the Teshima Art Museum which is the genius of artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa. The museum was designed to look like a water droplet at the moment of landing. Two oval openings in the circular shell-shaped building’s ceiling open up to the wind, sound, and light from nature. It looks like a serene spaceship sat on top of a hill and is another example of how art, architecture, and nature combine together to make something beautiful.

Other museums include Les Archives Du Couer, Teshima Seawall House, Yokoo House. In most art galleries and museums, photography is prohibited, making it truly an in-the-moment experience. Each location offers something unusual to look at and another idea to explore. Outside of the museum walls, there are random outdoor artworks to stumble upon as well.

Pool of water on rooftop looking out onto greenery, trees and the sea.
Benesse House "Park" of Benesse Art Site Naoshima in Naoshima, Kagawa prefecture, Japan Photo Credit: KK News

Getting There & Getting Around 

Naoshima Island is situated between Osaka and Hiroshima, and you can travel there by ferry from Uno Port. Most people explore the island and its sights in a day or two, and there are a few small places to stay there, including yurts and fancy museum hotels – if you should want to take your time to take in the art. There is a bus that operates around the island, but it’s only every hour, so a lot of tourists opt for using bicycles for a more reliable way to get around to all the museums.

Naoshima and the Teshima art islands have such an incredible collection of world-class modern, majestic and magical art. It certainly makes for an impressive perspective of how to transform lands into engaging creative spaces. These islands offer the perfect contrast from the hectic busy city offering a simpler, slower way of life, perfect for providing a moment of zen.

Giant yellow and black polka dot printed pumpkin by the sea shore.
Yayoi Kusama's Yellow Pumpkin - Naoshima by cotaro70s Photo Credit: Flickr / cotaro70s CC BY-ND 2.0