One of the outdoor sculptures on Naoshima island in Japan. Picture: Diane de Beer
One of the outdoor sculptures on Naoshima island in Japan. Picture: Diane de Beer

If your travels are driven and dominated by art and architecture, Japan’s art islands seem designed specially for your desires — and then they deliver so much more.

Hearing about them the first time, they sounded magical, almost unreal — islands filled with art — which I couldn’t believe I had never heard about.

Only once you journey there, the fantasy and fun of it all materialises majestically. The island landscape that’s the backdrop for this art-inspired world often determines the art you will be viewing in what should be an extended trip — as many days as you possibly can pack in.

Google was my first port of call when starting my research. And coming back following the visit, returning to that information, much of it only makes sense once you’ve been there.

When your research says that you need at least three days, even that isn’t quite enough, but it will be worth your while. Some 3,000 islands are dotted in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, which separates Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, three of the four main islands of Japan. Three of these — Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima — form the main part of what is described as Japan’s art islands, but there are more and they’re multiplying as islanders understand what it can mean for the future of a particular island.

This unique art project began in 1987, when a businessman, Soichiro Fukutake, the chairman of Fukutake Publishing (now known as Benesse Holdings), bought the south side of Naoshima. He enlisted Pritzker prize-winning architect Tadao Ando to design his dream. Most of the architecture you visit on this main island, all the established museums (and the hotels) — are the work of Ando. If you haven’t heard of him before, you will appreciate his architecture once you witness his work. He has also designed, for example, a museum to form part of the cultural precinct planned for Abu Dhabi with the Louvre the first finished project.

Unique architectural vision

One of the strongest visual pleasures of Naoshima is that it is one architect and his unique architectural vision that determines the impact. He sets the tone, not only of the museums on the main island, but also of the art.

When you embark at your port of call, it’s all sea, sky and islands, with boats of all sizes as far as the eye can see. And once on the ferry, the landscape, dominated by shades of blue, is completely enveloping and an inviting sign of the excitement that awaits. As you enter the port at Naoshima, one of the famous dotted pumpkins, this one in bright red, of one of Japan’s most prolific artists, Yayoi Kusama, is the first thing that greets you. You know you have arrived.

Then it’s on a bus (or a bicycle, motored for the hilly countryside) and you’re off to see either the mainstay of the island, the Benesse Museum complex, which is furthest from the port, or, on the way there, the Art House project, which includes the architect’s own house with his architectural plans explaining his art island mission and his design ethos. We started off there, but it would probably have made more sense once we had seen all his buildings, even if they speak with great clarity for themselves.

Six other buildings have been used to create special artworks, which include anything from an artist playing with light in almost fairground fashion with extraordinary results, an outdoor shrine with a spellbinding glass stairway, to a mesmerising pool of darkness, which takes viewers on a specific journey.

Even though I would leave the Ando house until later, the rest of the project is a great introduction, playful and out of the box, while giving individual artists and their unique voice a chance to shine. This is where one could probably also find accommodation (but more about this later).

Then it’s on to the three major museums and the outdoor sculptures on the main Benesse site. It’s a fusion of architecture and nature with the island and the surrounding backdrop, the perfect setting for Fukutake’s expansive dreams. Importantly, the Ando environment-sensitive designs are part of the landscape as he plays with light and hidden delights in a way that fashions and informs his designs.

His buildings are all different yet have a similar sensibility. His building blocks are concrete with natural light the premiere design feature to show the art in a way never seen. This is especially true of Monet’s Water Lilies, which are given a fresh perspective.

From the detail of the floors in the passages and specific rooms and even the toilets (or, as some would say, especially the toilets), every detail is put out there, full tilt. The Chichu Art Museum, for example, is built like a bunker, all underground, but with shafts of light encouraged and enticed to play with the space and the art.

The art includes many familiar names but there’s much to discover and learn, for example, the Lee Ufan Museum is dedicated to this octogenarian Korean artist quite spectacularly. And in especially the Chichu and the Lee Ufan museums, there are only a few rooms with minimal art displayed in a fashion that grabs both your attention and your soul. You are gifted time to appreciate each piece and to absorb the impact. It’s the the best way to view art.

Outside sculptures

The outside sculptures have similar effect. Pieces speak to one another unexpectedly, and others simply because of their placement, sometimes like driftwood on a beach, have a special charm. Because of these outside pieces and the museums which are in walking distance, you engage with nature as much as with the art and the day strikes a particularly balanced note without you even trying.

We were there for two days, thinking we could do three islands, but in the end, only managed the one. It was one of the most unusual art excursions of my life and one I could easily repeat — often. But it takes careful planning and thoughtfulness about where you want to stay, on or off the islands. The ferry is a joyous ride, but takes time depending on the port you choose. Probably the best, if you can afford it, is the Benesse Hotel on Naoshima Island, which is part of the museum complex and allows you to see the art in  a way that is completely deluxe — early in the morning and late at night.

You can travel from either Tokyo or Kyoto toOkayama and then one of the ports, either Uno or Takashima, both of which have ferries that travel to and from the three islands daily.

Take note though that it isn’t as easy as jumping on and off a ferry as they’re scheduled very specifically and it’s tough to squeeze in more than one island on a day. If you make the train journey as we did from Kyoto (two hours), once passing through Okayama to Takamatsu, you’re travelling surrounded by the sea — seemingly everywhere — over expansive bridges, and this is the beginning of the discovery of the breathtaking backdrop for the next few days.

It’s a fairy-tale journey for art and nature lovers.