Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin in Naoshima
You don’t have to do everything to enjoy the Naoshima experience. Get tips and musings from a tired traveler who did it in a day.
There are multiple ways to access Naoshima. You can either take the airplane or ferry. The easiest and cheapest way to get to Naoshima is the ferry from Uno Port.
You can take a train from Okayama Station. You have two options.
① The more direct option is to board a local train bound for Uno Port – be aware, though, that you may have to change trains at Chamachi Station (茶町駅).
② The other option is to take the Marine Liner Express train, bound for the city of Takamatsu on Shikoku. From Takamatsu, you can take a ferry to Naoshima. The Takamatsu route is longer and more expensive, but allegedly picturesque.
Go to Bus Stop No. 2 at Okayama Station and board the Ryobi Express Bus (両備特急バス) bound for Tamano (玉野). Get off at Uno Station (宇野駅).
I have a car and was already staying in Kurashiki, so I drove to Uno Port. The drive took about fifty minutes, and I found parking at a lot called Repark, close to Uno Station and 500 yen per day.
Ferries bound for Naoshima depart from Uno Port at regular intervals. The ferry terminal is hard to miss – just walk toward the ocean. Huge signs in Japanese and English will direct you to the right place. I purchased a round-trip ticket for 570 yen (same-day use only). The ferry ride from Uno takes about twenty minutes. My ride passed pleasantly, thanks to good weather and gentle seas.
The Three Sections of Naoshima
How My Day Started
My first thought after rolling out of bed was, “I just want to go home.” I had intended for weeks on making a day trip to Naoshima, the island off the coast of Okayama Prefecture that is famous as an art hotspot. The day trip would be a perfect addition to my Kurashiki-Okayama travels. I hadn’t considered, however, that I might be too tired to enjoy myself.
I am the princess in the fairytale “The Princess and the Pea.” Light, noise, even my own thoughts – these all have potent power over my ability to sleep. This is exacerbated when I travel and have to fight a battle of wits with the centralized air conditioning and heavy futons (comforters/duvets) often used in Japanese hotels. On that Friday morning, after three nights of sweaty semi-slumber, I was truly feeling the need for a vacation from my vacation.
Adding to my physical weariness was a slew of doubts. “Aren’t people supposed to enjoy their vacation?” “How can I appreciate art when I have the energy of a sloth?” “Is it possible to enjoy the best of Naoshima in just one day?” Unsure, but determined not to waste my time and money by mooching around the hotel, I embarked on my day trip.
Naturally, there was a hiccup. When I inserted a hotel voucher (which should nullify the usual parking fee) into the parking lot ticket machine, a cheerful, automated voice informed me that I must cough up 20,000 yen in order to exit the lot. (My car had been parked in the lot for 3 days by this point.) Stunned, I re-parked my car and returned to the hotel to get an updated voucher. Still, I had to pay almost 5,000 yen in order to get out of that lot. My budget-loving soul was fuming.
As I drove through Okayama’s countryside, I reflected on why I was going to Naoshima in the first place. I had heard of it through a friend who gushed, “It’s wonderful. If you like art, you should go there.” Once used as a dumping ground for industrial waste, Naoshima is now home to innovative museums and installations. Perhaps the most well-known installations are Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkins – one red and black, one yellow and black – which, in my opinion, squat on the island’s shore with all the charm of cancerous growths.
Despite my image of Naoshima being limited to “there are cancerous pumpkins and museums in the sides of hills,” the idea of visiting an island whose identity is entwined with art had intrigued me. Now, in my car, tired and grumpy, I wondered if it would be a worthwhile trip.
My ferry landed at the small port of Miyanoura, on the western side of Naoshima. I recommend this route because Miyanoura is the transportation hub of the island. The large building next to the port houses the Naoshima Tourism Association, where you can get helpful brochures and timetables and ask the friendly staff for guidance, if needed. Next to the Association building are several bus stops. Across the street, three or four rental shops offer tourists a variety of wheeled transportation options.
Naoshima Red Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama
Miyanoura also has Yayoi Kusama’s red-and-black pumpkin, multiple cafes, some lodging options, and a public bath. I Love Yu has an eclectic exterior that invites passersby to stop by for a bath – but since it was midday, I didn’t. Instead, I had elevensies at Sparky’s Café. The quirky, gothic interior kept my eyes busy while I ate a meal of butter toast, salad, yogurt, and boiled egg (800 yen). Fueled up, I walked back to Miyanoura Port.
Naoshima’s surface area is about 7.80 kilometers squared – i.e., not big. If the weather is good and you don’t have much luggage, I recommend renting a bicycle. The rental process isn’t difficult. I approached the owner of TVC Rental Cycle and requested a basic, five-speed bike with a daily rental fee of 500 yen. The shop owner suggested that I rent an electric bicycle. It had a rental fee of 1,200 yen.
My budget-loving soul cringed. However, since I don’t cycle regularly, I conceded that a little help from the electric motor might be nice. I signed the “I won’t sue you if I’m injured” papers (available in English or Japanese), chose a helmet, listened to the owner’s safety explanation, and wobbled off on “my” bike.
The shop owner had not been ripping me off. The southern side of Naoshima is truly hilly. I crested hill after hill with the help of my bike’s motor, stopping occasionally to admire the landscape. Naoshima’s terrain is similar to that of the Mediterranean – dry, orange soil, scattered boulders, stunted pine trees, and azaleas. I admired the azure sea and felt my grumpiness lift a little.
Southern side of Naoshima
The southern side of Naoshima is home to the Chichu Art Museum; the Benesse House, Museum, and Hotel; a swimming beach; and Kusama Yayoi’s yellow-and-black pumpkin.
The Chichu Museum is famous for its elegant, underground design; tickets are reservation-only and are 2,100 yen for anyone aged 15+. Please note that the museum is closed on Mondays unless Monday is a public holiday. The Benesse House is an art museum + hotel that looks expensive and fabulous – if you’re interested in a luxury stay, check out the Benesse Art Site Naoshima website.
Unwilling to spend cash to look at architecture while in a sleepy stupor, I chose the Way of Cheap. The swimming beach is free-access, and so is the yellow-and-black pumpkin.
I took some obligatory tourist photos with the pumpkin and waded in the shallows at the beach, disregarding the suggestion of a local ojiisan (grandfather) that I take a swim in the nude. Sometimes being able to speak Japanese has pitfalls.
A beach on the southern side of Naoshima
My next stop was Honmura, the island’s population hub. It has a scattering of residences, cafes, guest houses, and art sites. Most famous is the Ando Museum, an installation made by the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who (apparently) loved concrete. It’s located in an old house not far from the Honmura Lounge and Archive, which is where you must go in order to purchase a ticket.
The Honmura Lounge and Archive is tucked behind a Japan Agriculture Association (JAA) building. In addition to Ando Museum tickets, visitors can also purchase tickets to the Art House Project. The Project is a collaborative work between the town and various artists. The artists have, over time, transformed vacant buildings in Honmura into interactive art exhibits. There are seven Art House sites; one of them, Kinza, requires an online reservation. However, for 1,050 yen, visitors can purchase a ticket that gives access to the other six sites. A single-site ticket is also available for 420 yen. (All the Art House sites and the Ando Museum are closed on Mondays unless Monday is a public holiday.)
Clearly, the six-site ticket is the economical option. However, tired as I was, and feeling that all these artsy people were just conspiring to get my money, I purchased a single-site ticket. Dear readers, do not do what I did. If you have any amount of energy or time or interest, do yourself a favor and get the six-site ticket.
Hindsight may call my single-site purchase a blunder, but the experience I had was still meaningful. I went to Minamidera, a former temple which now serves as an immersive exhibit on light. Visitors enter the building at designated times (the experience takes about ten minutes) and file into a totally dark room. Using your hands as guides, you find a bench and sit on it. Then you wait.
What happens next is an experience that you should try for yourself. I will only say that when I emerged from the darkness into the spring sunlight, my attitude had shifted. I had been lifted out of my trivial frustrations into simple wonder. This enrichment of our daily existence is one of art’s powers.
A fun photo spot on the wall of a building in Honmura
The rest of my time on Naoshima passed pleasantly. I ate a muffin from a tiny coffee stand across the street from Minamidera, enjoyed a little wander around the quaint streets of Honmura, and chatted with some friendly locals. They gave me a hot tip: the season after Golden Week is a great time to visit – good weather, and fewer tourists. My cycle back to Miyanoura took about ten minutes. I returned my bike and hopped on the 16:35 ferry bound for Uno.
A note on the ferries: There are actually two different boats that connect Uno and Miyanoura. The regular ferry boards passengers and cars, and departs from the dock next to the Miyanoura Tourist Association building. A smaller, people-only boat offers a slightly faster trip and departs from a different dock. The last, regularly-priced ferry of the day departs from Miyanoura at 20:25, and the last passenger boat departs at 22:05. (There is also a make-it-or-break it final flight at 00:15, for a slightly higher price.) In other words, you can extend your day trip well into the evening if you so desire.
Seated on the ferry’s upper deck, I reflected on the day. Internet travel bloggers have a point when they say Naoshima can’t be done in a day – but can any place be known in a day? I say follow your interests and your budget: fans of concrete – I mean, modern architecture – should consider the Chichu and Ando Art Museums; folks who enjoy Japanese fishing villages and eclectic art, check out Honmura; those who are into swimming/camping, cycle to the swimming beach and check out the nearby lodges. There’s something for everyone on Naoshima, but you don’t have to do everything to enjoy the Naoshima experience. Even I, grumpy and stingy as I was, was touched and uplifted by my time on Japan’s art island.
Can’t travel down to Naoshima but really want to see Yayoi Kusama’s work? Visit the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Tokyo now. Already visited that but haven’t gotten your art fix yet, check out Team Lab’s Borderless and Planets Digital Art Museums.