Having eventually left Kyoto, we headed south west for a very different taste of Japan. Taking the shinkansen to Okayama and local train through the farmlands, we ended up at the port of Uno.
This was going to be extra special. When we first considered going to Japan, I approached my friend Mal for some top tips. Whilst he recommended some of the usual suspects, one recommendation was completely out of left field. Naoshima was, until twenty five years or so ago, typical of Japanese fishing islands. In the latter part of the last century, there was a significant move of large numbers of people from these rural environments to the over populated cities that generated much of Japan’s wealth. According to World Bank in 1960, 63% of Japan’s population lived in an urban environment. The figure had risen to 93% by 2015. The UK by comparison rose from 78& to 83% in the same period. This movement has left many of these places deserted, struggling to maintain themselves beyond subsistence. The causes are unsurprising – a lack of further education opportunities, poor jobs and a scarcity of culture for young people. The Japanese government is struggling to reverse it via tax breaks for businesses but it is going to be tough. You can read more about it here.
Naoshima and its neighbouring islands took a different path though. The Benesse Corporation, a large Japanese corporation specialising in education and publishing, decided to invest heavily into turning the islands into living breathing art exhibits from the 1980’s onwards. Consequently, I think there is nowhere quite like them on earth (and if I’m proved wrong, then fantastic, as it is going on the bucket list).
We got the twenty minute ferry journey across the Seto Inland Sea and arrived in Naoshima. It was late afternoon so we took the opportunity to visit the Lee Ufan museum. The building is a collaboration between the Korean artist Ufan and the Japanese architect, Tadao Ando. The gallery itself is subterranean and relatively small. The theme of the museum of brutalist bare concrete is common to many of the museums on the island. This combines with Ufan’s art which uses rocks and steel and is incredibly physical.
It was a wonderful introduction to the island’s art. We then made our way back down the hill to the Museum’s hotel. Mal had recommended that we stay in the Oval or the House itself but travelling as a family, we opted for the Beach House, directly overlooking the Seto Sea.
The room was beautiful, spacious with a nod to Japanese home design in the use of wand and the screen to the balcony doors which disappeared into the wall when the doors were opened.
We made our way back up to the House for dinner, taking a wander through the museum before and after dinner.
This was unfortunately the only mis-step of the museum stay and possibly the whole of the holiday. The set menu at the Issen Restaurant was pretty underwhelming and very expensive. It was a typical traditional Japanese tasting menu but did not even come close to the food we ate at the Ryokan stay, for example.
The following day was a Monday, which meant that the museums on Naoshima were closed. We therefore headed over to the neighbouring island of Teshima, an experience that was one of my favourite of the whole trip.
Disembarking from the ferry, we each picked up electric bikes and made our way to the Museum. The bikes themselves were a revelation. The initial pedalling was strange as the bike took off at an unexpected pace. However, once we got to the not unsubstantial hills, they were a godsend.
The beauty of cycling around is that you could stop en route to enjoy the art installations that were on the side of the road.
“Particles In The Air” is above a water tank and adjacent to a temple. Opposite the sculpture is a vending machine and small seating area which we used as a pit stop on a couple of occasions as we cycled past.
And so to the extraordinary Teshima Art Gallery.
It houses a single exhibit called “Matrix” by Rei Naito. The website describes Matrix as follows:
Water trickles out from the ground, here and there, throughout the day. As light, wind and the voices of birds ー on occasions also rain, snow, and bugs ー enter through the two openings and come in resonance with each other, an infinity of expressions are revealed as time passes. Immersing calmly in this space, feeling united with nature, we may sense the joy of life on earth.
This kind of hits the nail on the head but doesn’t tell the half of the story. It is like nowhere that I’ve ever been on earth and even thinking back now, I’m getting quite emotional.
We approached the building from the road. Having bought our tickets, we took the left hand path.
Having arrived at the entrance to the museum, we were asked to remove our shoes and place slippers on our feet – not an uncommon request in Japan. What was unusual though, was being told to mind where we were walking.
We gingerly walked into the museum and were in a place like no other.
The building had been designed by architect Ryue Nishizawa. It is significant in size, measuring 40m by 60m, with a maximum height of 4.5m. It is a low concrete-shell structure without pillars or columns. The building disappears into its surroundings. All the plants used here are indigenous weeds growing on Teshima, so that the museum becomes part of the environment of the Karato area.
So that’s the outside of the building dealt with.
The interior is incredible. The floor is smooth concrete, with holes about the size of a pinhead distributed randomly around the building. Water flows upwards through these holes. The buildings next trick reveals itself. The floor is laid to imperceptible falls and the drops of water meander and join into larger droplets. It is immaculate – there is no mildew or moss growing. As photography wasn’t allowed, these stock images and the video below gives a decent idea of how the space was constructed and what it contains.
As we look around, the space is being enjoyed in a number of ways. There is man sitting cross legged meditating. There are groups of people trying to see every droplet from every angle. Someone is doing yoga. When Nicola whispered something to my daughter, they were 10m away but sounded like they were next to me. I work in the construction industry. My degree is in civil engineering. I know how difficult it is do this stuff. So to conceive and execute something as incredible and yet so simple is just bewildering. I was moved to tears by the combination of technical and artistic excellence.
The building is a triumph of collaboration. The architect Nishizawa has created a space that works completely symbiotically with Naito’s creation “Matrix”. Naito is a very low key artist. She describes one of her temporary works as follows:
I always feel it’s very unfair when things that exist before my eyes are dismantled. It seems especially futile because I know there was something really good there. When there’s sheet music like there is in music then later generations can become involved, and even with theater and literature, people can enjoy a relatively close personal experience even as the times change, but visual artworks tend to be truly ephemeral. I’m well aware of this ephemerality, yet my work is still on the very limits where it’s a question of whether people notice it or not, whether they can see it or not. I make things that are so ephemeral they almost make people feel helpless.
One of the beauties of the Teshima exhibit is its permanence. Whilst the content appears to be almost non-existent, it is there as a living part of the building that contains it. It is simply stunning. This is an image of Naito in the space from a film called “A Room Of Her Own”. It shows the peacefulness of the space that she had created with Nishizawa. From the brief trailer below, Naito seems a troubled character, apparently walking away from the movie before it was completed.
We must have stayed almost an hour enjoying this single space. We left slowly and walked over to the gift shop and cafe.
The gift shop was an echo of the main museum space, serving simple rice dishes and the coolest gifts to take home – little glass vases for single stems of flowers.
We left the museum and cycled down hill to “Les Archives Du Coeur”, another different but extraordinary experience, next to Karato Port. Initially installed in the Serpentine Gallery in 2010, this was a sound and light installation.
On entry, you had the choice of directly entering the gallery space or entering one of a number of small anterooms. If you chose the gallery, you walked into a pitch black space with a single light bulb. The light bulb pulsed on and off in time with the sound of the hugely amplified heart beat. If you chose the ante rooms, you had the opportunity to record your own heart beat. Having done this with a microphone attached to a stethoscope, you then could chose to select your own pulse and play it back in the space. Both me and my daughter recorded our hearts. It was emotional experience for her mother to enter the space and hear her child’s heart beating so strongly.
The video below shows the space in all of its dark glory.
The artist Boltanski has created something intensely personal. There is something incredibly romantic about capturing heartbeats and archiving them on the other side of the world.
We cycled back to the ferry, enjoying our final taste of Teshima.
Our final morning was spent exploring what is the jewel in the crown, the Chichu museum, back on Naoshima.
As per the Lee Ufan museum, the Chichu was designed by Tadao Ando and featured much brutalist concrete in a semi-subterranean environment. It houses a total of just eight works by only three artists – Claude Monet, Walter De Maria and James Turrell. The art is only part of the story though. The building is more than equal.
Despite much of the museum being buried, the key design element of the building is the way that it interacts with the outside environment and light. You are guided through the building in a typically orderly fashion but the indirect meandering route takes you inside then outside and then back in again. The concrete seems to float at times, with long cantilevers and fascinating angles.
The first room you arrive at is Walter De Maria’s “Time/Timeless/No Time”.
A polished granite ball seems to be poised to topple down the staircase. The slots in the walls throw the light in different places around the room as the day passes. The gold leaf on the mahogany panels glitters as they stand guard. It is all very “Fifth Element”.
We moved on to the room containing four of Monet’s “Water Lilies”.
These are observed in silence before we head to the queue to see three of James Turrell’s light works.
You are invited into an elevated room to walk toward the blue screen. The effect is discombobulating. You aren’t sure if you are walking upwards or downwards.
After a cup of coffee, we walked back to the shuttle bus via the Chichu garden, inspired by Monet’s “Water Lilies”.
After a walk through the grounds, we made our way back to the port for the journey back to Tokyo.