Nao-shima: An Object of Art

Are these art or merely playful installations?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter that much as long as it stimulates the imagination.

In a country that has lost its appetite for silence, an unremitting commentary typically accompanies the ferry trip from Takamatsu to Nao-shima, a small island in the Inland Sea. Once on terra firma, things quickly improve, and public address systems, where present, are only discreetly used.

The island, known in the dim recesses of history as a place of refuge for the exiled Emperor Sutoku, was in free fall by the early 1990s, with its population down to little more than 3,000, as younger members of families left for better prospects on the mainland. The opening of the upmarket hotel Benesse House and a flurry of art projects in 1992 revived the island’s fortunes, transforming a fishing community with a hideous industrial waste recycling plant into an art island. Vending machines are entirely absent from the roadsides of Nao-shima, and only pop up at designated spots set back from routes and views. This conscious exercise in good taste, though no doubt a deliberate directive from the Benesse Corporation high command, characterizes the island’s environment.

The main art sites lay southeast of the main port of Miyanoura, but before cycling or walking out of the village, spare a few minutes for a small venue near the dock. The Man with the Red Tattoo Museum, seems a curious anomaly until you know that much of the James Bond novel of the same title was set on Nao-shima. The author, Raymond Benson, took over the spy franchise from Ian Fleming, and a couple of his novel creations based on the MI5 character have made it into big box office movies. The island has been campaigning like mad to get location shots for any film in production done here. In cinema terms, it’s a long shot. As beautiful as the island is, it would be easy enough to substitute its landscapes with less costly locations to access in Europe. The tiny museum has a mostly retro feel to it, with the visual emphasis on Sean Connery and the Japanese Bond Girl (actress Mie Hama) who appeared in the 1967 movie You Only Live Twice. Models, streaming videos of 007 films, memorabilia, and a bibliography of Benson’s work make up the rest of the contents.

Heading south from the port is a pleasant journey. The hills are manageable and the raised views of empty beaches and wind-sculptured dunes are a good introduction to the island’s scenic side. After some 20-minutes by bicycle, a left turn rises in a winding road to Chichu Art Museum, founded by Benesse’s president to house four paintings in Monet’s Water Lily series. The corridors leading to the paintings contain sculptures and installations by important contemporary artists like James Turrell and Walter de Maria. Chuchu Garden, sited on the approach to the museum, hints at the kind of flowers and plants cultivated by Monet in his garden at Giverny.

Back on the coastal road, public installations begin to materialize. You’ll need to keep your eyes open, though, for the sign directing you through a glade above the beach to the Cultural Melting Bath (artist Cai Gui Quang’s open-air Jacuzzi work) surrounded like a Druid’s circle by 36 limestone rocks brought from China. Benesse House Museum, the cultural highlight of the island, is just up the road. The Tadao Ando-designed building overlooking the Inland Sea boasts the work of world-class artists like Bruce Nauman, Jasper Johns, and David Hockney.

If Nao-shima by this time is beginning to seem something of a Benesse concession, it is hardly surprising. They have bought up the very best tracks of land. If you happen to be renting a bicycle in one spot in particular, a very steep road climb up and down a hill is necessary in order to skirt their seafront plot. The entry along the sea line here is pedestrian only. I managed to sneak my bicycle onto the Park Beach on the way out, but had to push it up the interminable hill on the way back after a Benesse attendant stopped me. The park area is well worth a look, though, if only for Kusama Yayoi’s Pumpkin, an installation at the end of the quay that has become a symbol of the island.

Leaving the iconic vegetable, the road veers inland, rejoining the coast as it hits the eastern shoreline and the route to the old fishing village of Honmaru. The avowed aim of the Honmaru’s “Art House Project” is to restore ageing properties and transform them into works of art under the creative direction of specific artists and designers. Architecture and space are the dominant factors throughout, with those involved in the project making the utmost effort to collaborate with the former occupants, and create environments that are in harmony with Japanese aesthetics and traditions.
Benesse approached home and shop owners and, with the input of many artists, turned the village into a concept.

Suddenly, ordinary homeowners and simple fisher-folk, found themselves part of the Benesse Art House Project. Some Honmaru houses (gray-tiled wooden homes) have charred pine planks for walls and touches of bengara, a dark red solution used to dye traditional Japanese buildings. Several of these houses are open to the public as galleries, coffee, craft and souvenir shops. Climb the hill above the village and you will discover more public art installations.

Apart from giving immense pleasure to visitors, these permanent exhibitions should guarantee the longevity of the buildings themselves. The village is full of detail. So much, in fact, that it is easy to miss things. It was only after an hour or so that I started to notice, for example, that the “noren” (the hanging entrance curtains to homes, galleries and stores) were of an extraordinary quality. Later I discovered that the curtains, all individualized for each building, were designed and handmade by the textile artist Yoko Kano. And there are over fifty of them.

Beside the more arty aspects of Honmura, you will find the template of a century’s old community in the fishing quays, shrines, temples, and barely discernible ruins of an ancient castle. All the attention has inevitably led to small eruptions of commercialism, seen in boat cruises, souvenir shops, kiosks selling twenty flavors of shaved ice, and a cat café called Meaow Shima, where you can play with the critters. It is mostly done in good taste, although no doubt under the supervision of a Benessee committee somewhere.

Honmura’s exhibits are mildly interesting, though compared to the Monet’s and David Hockney’s at the main Benesse sites, this is in the realm of the craft artist and gifted novice. There are pretensions to solemn art, an attempt to be taken seriously at Hiroshi Senju’s 2006 Ishibashi (Stone Bridge) garden, an affected dry landscape that appeared to be having the desired effect of silent, reverential treatment from visitors who, duly awed, sat staring at the void of grass and single slab of stone. Art or art fraud? I leave the visitor to decide for him or herself. The same, of course, could be said for the giant pumpkins, hybrid animal statues, the buried hulk of a fishing skiff, solitary boulders and other objects placed around the island. Are these art or merely playful installations? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter that much as long as it stimulates the imagination. And children, yet to develop habits of analysis, seem to take instantly to the installations. As for Honmaru, the real pleasure of being here is simply to wander its lanes and admire the modest but distinctive architecture of its homes, tiny gardens and storehouses.

Nao-shima is a small island, but its still possible to lose your bearings, as I did when trying to find an alternative way back to Miyanoura. On such a well-managed island, though, there is little fear of taking a seriously wrong turning, and I soon found official help. Benesse doesn’t do things by halves. Even the island’s gardeners, park attendants and museum security guards have been groomed to speak a very passable English.


There are regular ferries from Takamatsu to Miyanoura Port, the main center on the island. Minshuku Yokombo (090-1573-7735) in Miyanoura has a nice sea view garden. Benesse House (087-892-2030) in Tsumura is a splendid place to stay, but expect to pay for the privilege. Ishi Shoten (087-892-2480) is a comfortable guesthouse in Honmura. The village’s nicest restaurant is the Café Maruya, with a beautiful garden. The Marine Station “Naoshima” at Miyanoura Port contains the information office, a café, as well as the counter for renting bicycles. It’s just ¥500 to rent a bicycle for the day. You then step across the street to the rental shop. There is a bus service around the island, but you may have to wait a while.

Story and Photo by Stephen Mansfield
From J SELECT Magazine, January 2011