Part 3 of Japan: Naoshima and Teshima in One Day

Part 3 of Japan: Naoshima and Teshima in One Day

This fall I spent 12 days in Japan with my best friends from college. You can read the overview of our trip herePart 1 on Tokyo herePart 2 on Kyoto here, and Part 4 on Hakone and Tokyo here. Scroll to the bottom for the tldr on where we stayed, what we ate, and what we did.

I tried to remember how we got our initial inspiration to visit Naoshima and Teshima, the famous art islands in Japan, and honestly I'm not sure. I know we'd seen Yayoi Kusama's famous yellow pumpkin on Instagram, and I have friends who'd been and raved about the islands.

But I didn't have a clear sense of what the experience would be like before we went. I had serious doubts as to whether it was worth the lengthy journey when we'd only have 3/4 of a day to spend there. We came close to scratching it from our itinerary.

I'm so glad we didn't. Visiting the islands was the highlight of our trip. It was the kind of day where, when it was over, I wanted to re-do it immediately (making only a few adjustments).

Here's how the morning's transit from Kyoto went down. The trains run pretty often so it's not essential that you follow a particular timetable -- we just picked when we wanted to arrive and worked our way back using Google Maps transit directions. But this gives you an idea of the effort it takes to reach the islands:

  • 7:30AM: Taxi from our Airbnb to Kyoto Station (20 minutes)
  • 8:09 AM: Shinkansen at Kyoto Station bound for Okayama (1 hour)
  • 9:54 AM: JR train from Okayama Station to Uno Port, with a transfer at Chayamachi station in the middle (45 minutes) 
  • 10:40 AM: Arrive at Uno Port Station
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We got off the train at Uno Port and walked two minutes to the Uno Port Inn, where we were staying on the recommendation of a friend. With Japanese-style futon beds in large private rooms with tatami mats, it was basic but very functional (and super affordable).

The nice lady at the front desk gave us paper maps and told us that doing both islands in one day was "an aggressive schedule." (Lol, we should have known then.) She explained that we'd arrive at Teshima at noon, and we had to leave the island on a 1:30 ferry to make it to Naoshima before the museums on the second island closed.

We thought this was fine -- we'd just move quickly through the Teshima Art Museum and be on our way. We hopped on the 11 AM ferry to Teshima, just a few minutes walk from the Inn. The ferry was gorgeous and dramatic in the rain:

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But somewhere during the 55 minute ferry ride in a typhoon, as I read the maps and ferry schedule more closely, I realized if we got off at the port near the Teshima Art Museum, we'd have an hour-long walk to get to the other port where the ferry left for Naoshima. Giving us about... 15 minutes to see the museum before we'd have to leave.

We thought about a couple options:

  • Seeing the museum for 15 minutes and then walking the hour-long trip across the island (not ideal in a pouring rain).
  • Giving up and going straight to Naoshima, skipping Teshima entirely (seemed a waste of the hour already spent on the boat to Teshima).
  • Take a bus or ferry from the port near to the museum to the one we needed to get to (amazingly neither one ran on time to make the 1:30 departure time. Wtf.)
  • Taxi? (There's apparently only one on the whole island and you have to reserve it in advance via a Japanese-only phone line. Haha no.) 

Some Googling later, we discovered a company called Setouchi Karen that offers scooters and electric bikes for rent on the island. You can pick them up near the port where the ferry leaves for Naoshima.

The only catch was that A. we'd have to bike in the pouring rain and B. we'd have to bike to the museum and back across the island in said rain.

None of us thought biking in the rain was a good idea, but we were out of other ideas. So we got off the ferry at 11:55, and set out to find the bikes, rent the bikes, bike 4 km to the museum, see the art, and bike the 4 km back -- all in time to catch the 1:30 ferry.

So we put on our rain gear and set out:

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The rain briefly paused, and we had one of the most gorgeous bike rides of my life across this remote island in the rain, following the curve of the road along the cliffside. We passed tiny houses, fishing boats, and trees covered in ripe persimmons. Sadly there was no time to stop for photos, since we were on a tight schedule:

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Fifteen minutes of vigorous biking later, we pulled up to the Teshima Art Museum, which is perched at the edge of a cliff. The view was breathtaking:

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We parked our bikes and headed in around 12:15. The museum consists of just one exhibit -- Rei Naito's Matrix. We took off our shoes, put our cameras in plastic bags (per the museum's no-photo request), and headed in.

Discreetly-snapped iPhone photos don't do it justice:

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Here's a description of the space:

Uniting the creative visions of artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa, Teshima Art Museum stands on a hill on the island of Teshima overlooking the Seto Inland Sea. The museum, which resembles a water droplet at the moment of landing, is located in the corner of a rice terrace that was restored in collaboration with local residents.

Structurally, the building consists of a concrete shell, devoid of pillars, coving a space 40 by 60 meters and with a maximum height of 4.5 meters. Two oval openings in the shell allow wind, sounds, and light of the world outside into this organic space where nature and architecture intimately interconnect. In the interior space, water continuously springs from the ground in a day long motion. This setting, in which nature, art and architecture come together with such limitless harmony, conjures an infinite array of impressions with the passage of seasons and the flow of time.

The room was so striking, we all said we could have spent the day just sitting in the installation, appreciating the sounds and sights. It was my favorite moment of the entire trip, by far.

But after about 45 minutes, we reluctantly grabbed our bikes and booked it back to the other side of the island to make the 1:30PM ferry:

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A 20 minute ferry ride later, we arrived on Naoshima. We hangrily picked up snacks at the Naoshima ferry terminal, and then set off on a 30 minute walk to the Chichu Museum. We would have taken a bus, but tbh the bus system on both islands leaves a lot to be desired re. route frequency.

It ended up being a pretty walk around the edge of the island in the rain:

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By 3PM, we reached the Chichu Museum. Built in 2004, it was designed by Japanese architect and concrete master Tadao Ando at the direction of Japanese billionare Soichiro Fukutake

Fukutake, who made his fortune in the test prep industry, acquired several of Monet's "Water Lilies" paintings in 1998 after seeing them on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. He commissioned Ando to design a building to house them, and artists James Turrell and Walter de Maria to create works that would bookend Money.

Fukutake wanted to rethink our concept of museums. Instead of building the Chichu Museum in an urban area, he brought it to the remote island of Naoshima. The museum doesn't allow photos, and the staff cultivates a silent, austere feeling of contemplation.

The building is buried deep in the ground to fit the natural landscape of the island. Yet thanks to Ando's design, the art is lit by natural daylight through cleverly-architected windows and skylights. When you approach the building, there's even a water lily pond to put you in the right mindset to view Monet's works:

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Ando is a master of concrete, manipulating the material to make the spaces feel light and bright inside:

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Each room brings a new surprise, ending with Walter de Maria's truly trippy masterpiece:

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Even after a long day of travel, extremely wet clothes, and lack of lunch, we spent more than an hour at the small museum. It might be the best museum I've ever visited. There's something about seeing a Monet all by yourself on a museum on a quiet fishing island that is unlike anything I've ever done.

At 4:30 we finally left, walking about 25 minutes to the Benesse House, the original Ando structure on the island that's both a hotel and a museum.

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Nearby is Kusama's famous yellow pumpkin, perched at the end of a pier on the water:

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Kusama's exhibits draw notoriously long lines in cities like NYC and LA, so it was fun to jump around the comparatively quieter site in Naoshima. But even in the middle of pouring rain in a typhoon, this pumpkin was not abandoned.

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We waited for other people to finish up so we could take some photos, and then called it quits for the day around 5PM in torrential rain. A bus and a ferry later, we made it back to Uno Port in time for a sushi dinner. We even visited one of Japan's best onsens, Tamanoyu, which happens to be in Uno Port.

Did we miss out on some amazing art on both islands? Yes, for sure. We never made it to the Benesse House Museum, the Art House Project, the Ando Museum, the Lee Ufan Museum, and the Yokoo House, all of which came recommended by friends. I'd love to come back another time to see them. 

But we had an amazing day with no lowlights (we can laugh about the transportation issues now). It's hard to know in advance what will strike you, and I think we managed a pretty great day.

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I think if I'm lucky enough to go back, or if I were sending a friend, I'd recommend one full day devoted to Teshima and at least one day on Naoshima. You could really see more art and enjoy leisurely biking around the islands without stressing about ferry times.

Next up, we headed to Hakone for some onsen relaxation.

Uno Port, Naoshima, and Teshima

Where we stayed: We loved the Uno Port Inn, an inexpensive Japanese-style hostel situated an equal distance from both islands. I'd also look at Airbnbs on one of the islands, despite transportation challenges -- this one in particular looks stunning. While the idea of staying at The Benesee House's hotel slash museum is compelling, I read enough mixed reviews that it didn't seem worth the crazy price tag (although a big benefit is the museum's private shuttle bus on the island that we gazed at longingly many times in the rain).

Where we ate: We didn't stop to eat much, and food options were limited. Uno Port Inn provided a solid American-style breakfast, and I wish we'd picked up lunch there too. The Naoshima ferry terminal had snacks and random hot food (curry bowls, fried chicken etc) although no one spoke much English and it was a hangry, cranky transaction on our part. We had tea and a light meal at Konichiwa on Naoshima, and someone suggested the Apron Cafe for lunch.

Where we went: I wouldn't visit the islands without seeing the Teshima Art Museum and the Chichu Museum. We also stopped by the Kusama pumpkin at the Benesse House, and people recommended the Art House Project, the Ando Museum, the Lee Ufan Museum, and the Yokoo House.

What we read for advice: The Benesse Art Site website for descriptions of the different art projects and island information. Google Maps for transportation to Uno Port, and paper maps from the kind Uno Port Inn folks for inter-island transportation (of course I just found them available on their website here). This Medium post about visiting the islands, and Google Docs from friends which are incorporated above (thanks Julia, Jane and Percia!)

Part 4 of Japan: Hakone, Tokyo and Home in Four Days

Part 4 of Japan: Hakone, Tokyo and Home in Four Days

Part 2 of Japan: Kyoto in Two Days

Part 2 of Japan: Kyoto in Two Days