Melissa's Travels

Know Before You Go: Naoshima, Japan's "Art Island"

There is a reason that art lovers from around the world rank Naoshima, Japan's "art island," as a must-visit. Few places so perfectly integrate the beauty of nature, art and architecture.

Benesse Art Site was founded in 1992 by Soichiro Fukutake. One of the richest men in Japan, Fukutake made his fortune in educational materials and language schools. He commissioned Pritzker-prize winning architect Tadao Ando to help him mastermind an art destination that would blend natural beauty with art and architecture to create a special experience to magnify the power of all three elements. Over the past two and a half decades, the project has grown to encompass multiple museums and hotels—even nearby islands—but they all complement each other, thanks to the shared purpose of Ando and Fukutake. Every building has been designed by Ando, and the art has been picked by Fukutake and his art curator, so the experience has an incredible unity of vision. Some have compared Ando’s works here to haiku for their use of space, light and simplicity; others have likened them to poetic video games. I doubt anyone can visit and not come away awed by their power and a feeling of being blessed and enlarged by the experience.

Ten Things To Know Before You Visit Naoshima

1) It’s an Overnight Visit—at least—and Worth Two Nights.

You arrive at the three-square-mile "art island" by ferry (private or public) and you won’t want to miss any of the five main attractions: the Chichu Museum, a below-ground museum, which contains works by Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter de Maria; the Lee Ulfan Museum; Benesse House Museum (with works by David Hockney, Cy Twombly and more); the Tadao Ando museum (which covers the history of the island and Ando’s career) and the Art House projects, installations scattered throughout the town in abandoned houses. But there is also sculpture, like the famous Kusama pumpkins, scattered around the island, and the project has been expanded to nearby islands, so taking a ferry to Teshima Island is also worth doing.

2) Reserve Early. There are four top hotel options, and three have very few rooms, so you need to book early to stay in one of the better accommodations. All are designed by Tadao Ando. The Benesse Beach hotel (eight sea-facing suites) is best for families. The Benesse Park hotel is best for larger groups and is set in a sculpture garden. The Benesse Oval (six rooms) is accessed via a private monorail and features rooftop gardens. The Benesse House Museum (10 rooms) allows you to sleep in a museum and gaze at Richard Prince or Jasper Johns works in your pajamas, though guest rooms in each hotel feature art works as well. For those who want spa services, it is best to book at the Park or Beach hotels, as the spa is between the two of them.

3) Photos are prohibited. In each museum, cameras are forbidden. Some say it is because the founder wants visitors to experience the art in person and not through preconceived ideas from images. Others say the reason is because he wants visitors to be fully present and engaged with the art experience not trying to capture it. The result: the immediate impact of the works is primal and profound and yet lasts only in your memory.

4) Dining Is High and Low. There are not many dining options on the Naoshima with the best restaurants in two of the hotels. The Benesse Park features a Michelin-starred French restaurant in the evenings with a prix fixe menu. The Benesse Museum is home to Issen, a fine Japanese restaurant with Warhols in the dining room. As these are by far the best options on the island, you should book ahead. Most visitors choose to have lunch in one of the museum cafés or a simple vegetarian restaurant in town; breakfasts are buffets with no room service option. For an off-property meal, don't miss Cafe Salon Nakaoku, a cozy restaurant that is open for dinner and serves casual fare like rice omelets and curries.

5) Biking is the best way to tour. Naoshima island is small and picturesque, and since there is only one taxi on the island, you will be stuck to catching the local or hotel shuttle bus, unless you choose to walk or bike. There are multiple bike rental shops in town, and you can choose motorized bikes to make going uphill a cinch.

6) Guided Tours. It is possible to book tours with curators of the museums in advance and scheduled tours exist on certain days.

7) Turrell Twilight. James Turrell’s Open Sky installation takes on a special glow—literally—at sunset but you have to reserve one of the thirty-five spots in advance and be willing to be still and quiet for forty-five minutes. The night program is possible on Fridays and Saturdays only.

8) Special Bathing Options. There are two special bathing rituals on offer on Naoshima: the I Love You bathhouse, a communal public bath in town, and the Cultural Melting Bath, an artwork by Cai Guo-Qiang centered around a hot tub surrounded by rocks based on Feng Shui. The I Love You bathhouse is open daily. The Cultural Melting Bath is only open to six people on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays from 4 to 5 pm. Reservations are suggested.

9) The Architecture and Art Are First-Class; Service Is Not. With some of the world’s best Monets and Turrells and Tadao Ando’s greatest hits, the art experience here is as good as it gets. However, the hotels are not run like four star properties. There is no room service or concierge desk. Transportation is by shuttle bus or bicycle (and even then you have to go to the rental shop yourself for pick-up and drop-off). So, those who are used to tip-top service need to adjust their expectations and accept guest rooms, which feel a bit like Ikea-does-a-dorm-room, and focus on the beauty of the location and the uniqueness of the art.

10) Ideal Add-on. Naoshima is an easy add-on to a trip to Tokyo or Kyoto and a great way to return to Tokyo is by flying out of nearby Takamatsu, where you can make a stop at the Noguchi Garden Museum and one of Japan's most highly regarded gardens, Ritsurin.

More Inspiration

Plan Your Trip With Us

We only feature hotels that we can vouch for first-hand. At many of them, Indagare members receive special amenities.

Get In Touch
Indagare employees walking up stiars

Enjoy 30 Days On Us!

Start your Self Planner
membership trial today.

Unlock access to 2,000+ first-hand hotel reviews, 300+ Destination Guides and the most up-to-date travel news and inspiration.

Already a member?

Welcome back,
log in to Indagare

Not a member?

Forgot Password

Enter your email and we’ll send you a link to reset your password.

Type the first 3 letters to begin