The Museum Island

How an eccentric billionaire curated the most amazing island in the world

The city of Okayama, Japan isn’t that interesting. Honestly, even with 700.000 people living there the best part of town turns out to be an enormous mall. Absolutely nothing signals the presence of a hidden treasure about 45 minutes south by train.

When arriving in the port town of Uno, there’s still a short ferry ride ahead. Slowly passing through a small archipelago, Naoshima starts to come in sight. Also known as Museum Island, it’s home to some of the world’s best contemporary art museums and multiple open-air art installations. Besides that, it’s truly a sight to behold. Tiny, old fishing villages blend in beautifully with the surrounding nature. Big, winding hills with temples hiding on top alternate with amazing views of the sea and islands a few miles off. It’s a breath of fresh air. But if it wasn’t for Soichiro Fukutake, it would have been a wasteland.

One of many hidden shrines around the island

What happened?

Fukutake is the founder of Benesse Corporation, one of Japan’s biggest education publishers, that has been curating parts of Naoshima since the 80s. Like most of small-town Japan, it was struggling with people fleeing to ever-expanding cities like Osaka and Tokyo. The family-owned company started a joint effort to invest in the island together with its people and got to building Benesse Art Site and its museums. This way, a lot of jobs were created for inhabitants — ranging from museum guards to cleaners. It brought life back to an almost lost island.

Chichu Art Museum

There’s too much too see to skip everything else. But if there’s only one thing you’re willing to pay for, if your time is limited or if you have any other nonsensical reason to pass on the other museums— this is the one, must-see place you should go to.

I don’t say this lightly, but for so many reasons this is now my favourite museum in the world.

One of many inner gardens

Architect Tadao Ando has succeeded in perfectly combining architecture, nature and contemporary art into one of the most amazing buildings I’ve ever been. A big fan of cold concrete and marble, you can’t enter a room without seeing some. While providing the interior with straight and bold lines, it also offers a great contrast to the bustling nature outside.

There are only three artists hosting a permanent exhibition inside — Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter de Maria all have one or more spaces completely devoted to their work. Even though you can rush through the spaces in an hour, I would recommend taking your time and enjoying every moment.

A small peek into Monet’s space

The Monet space makes clear how the museum combines architecture and art into a space specifically made for the works. Natural light flows in from the hidden rooftop window, bathing the room in pure white. The floor is made up of small marble blocks, and you aren’t allow to stand on them without using slippers provided by staff. Wearing them and moving over the blocks feels like floating over a life size air hockey table.

However, the works that impressed me most were those by James Turrell. Simply speaking, his pieces consist of spaces he fills with light. As any prolific artist his works are found all over the world, but the ones in Chichu feel right at home in the building. Open Field (2000) impressed me most by being a piece of interactive art that surprised me more than any other probably ever will. I won't spoil it for you, as it is definitely experienced to be believed.

Ando even managed to make the cafe look stunning. There’s another great vista to admire, and even a somewhat hidden door that takes you outside.

Taking a break at Chichu is a wonderful experience

It’s hard to explain the power of Chichu, especially because it’s explicitly prohibited to take any pictures. Really, the ones above were taken in laughably sneaky positions. Hopefully this only inspires you more to visit at least once in your life. It’s so worth it.

Other places

Chichu might be the best museum, it’s not the only one. Benesse House and Lee Ufan Museum are two other big projects that are both great places in their own right. If you’ve got real money to blow, it’s even possible to spend the night at one of the various locations in and around Benesse Art Site. You’ll be able to walk through the exhibition spaces late at night and experience what it’s like to sleep inside a museum — but it doesn’t come cheap.

Richard Long’s Full Moon Stone Circle (1997) accompanying yet another great view

Another interesting part of the island is the Art House Project, where Benesse has completely renovated a few houses located on the eastern side of the island. These spaces have then been given to different artists, and for a small fee you’re able to enter them. If you’re only going to see one, head straight for Minamidera. Inside you’ll find James Turrell’s Backside of the Moon (1999) which puts you in a pitch-black room with a group of total strangers, playing a trick on the viewer’s eyes unlike anything I’ve seen before.

One of the best things about Naoshima it that the art doesn’t stop when you exit a museum, as there are multiple open air sculptures scattered around the island. The most famous one is Yayoi Kusuma’s Pumpkin (1994), its seaside location providing a popular photo opportunity.

Online influential and travel buddy Rory posing with Pumpkin (1994)

Some people say one of Fukutake’s favourite hobbies is hopping in his helicopter and flying over the island a few times, admiring his own work. And after visiting Naoshima at least once in your life, you’ll completely understand.

The way back to Uno

All photos taken with iPhone 6.
For more, follow me on Instagram: @juanbuis

A tip for visitors to Chichu Art Museum: it’s possible to reserve a ticket online up to three weeks before your visit, and I definitely recommend it. The museum has limited capacity and during peak season, you might not be able to enter without a reservation.

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