I’m going to say what you’re not supposed to say but do it anyway.
I’d like to think I love art.
But in all honesty? I don’t know much about art. I can’t tell the difference between contemporary and modern art. But I know what a Monet looks like. And when I see his paintings, I think they’re beautiful.
In other words: I can appreciate art, I like looking at art, but my knowledge of it is basic. Having admitted this, it seems crazy that I would go to the effort of visiting Naoshima, also known as the Japanese Art Island.
Part of me wanted to visit just to see this baby:
Known to most as the “giant pumpkin” (by artist Yayoi Kusama) it is the unofficial icon for Naoshima.
Visiting Naoshima started off as a crazy pumpkin hunting mission, but turned into a full blown love affair.
I arrived on Naoshima Island to discover a picturesque island. The abandoned beaches are so mind-boggling beautiful, they’d give some of the most exotic islands around the world a run for their money. This beautiful island is filled with art museums and art installations designed to melt the hearts of even the most non-art loving travelers.
And as I rode my bike down the hills and gripped my handlebars, I felt a sense of freedom, all thanks to this amazingly beautiful island.
Want to learn more? I’ve put together a guide on everything you need to do when visiting Naoshima Island:
1. Rent a bicycle
You’re probably thinking – girl, just get to the good stuff already! But genuinely renting a bike will add to your experience here. Naoshima is first and foremost an island, and boy are the views beautiful!
The main mode of transport on Naoshima is via bus. Each bus trip costs 100 JPY (approximately $1 USD), and buses come on average once per hour. They can get packed during peak season, and they don’t come too often. Naoshima is super hot in the summer, so I’d rather be flying down hills on the back of my bicycle instead of waiting in the sun!
If you rent a bicycle not only can you stop whenever you want, but you can also leave whenever you want and do things on your own schedule.
Recommendations for renting a bicycle on Naoshima Island:
TVC Service is the main bicycle shop on Naoshima island and is just across the road from the Miyanoura ferry terminal. I would highly highly HIGHLY recommend renting an electric powered bike, especially if you are not an active bike rider. There are lots of hills here, so the electric bikes get very popular. You’ll probably also enjoy the views much more if you aren’t completely and utterly puffed out (unless you like this, then by all means, go ahead!!)
2. Visit the Chichu Art Museum
Before visiting, I had read so many mixed reviews about the Chichu Art Museum. I um-ed and ahh-ed about spending my hard earned $$ here, but in the end, I was so glad I did. It’s hard to put into words what made this experience so enjoyable. Afterall, as a non-art-lover, it’s hard for me to truly appreciate the significance of work by Monet or James Turret.
I think if I had to put it into words, I loved the idea that the museum was designed with the art work in mind. Here you won’t find stuffy rooms, packed with paintings or statues. You won’t find little plaques filled with dates and names you don’t understand. Instead, there is a focus on bringing the outside world inside. There’s natural lighting to illuminate Monet’s paintings, without the distractions of artificial light. The walls are painted a stark white with soft edges, so you focus on his work.
While I am not an art expert (HA!) I couldn’t help but want to spend hours here. This was my favorite museum on Naoshima Island.
Tips for visiting the Chichu Art museum:
If you’re planning on visiting, make Chichu Art Museum your first stop! I arrived at the ferry terminal around 10, and it took me about 10-15 min to sort out my bicycle rental and ride to the museum. It was already busy when I arrived, and they had only just opened! By about midday, there were lines to see some of the art works.
The other thing to keep in mind that for some art work you will need to take off your shoes. This sounds strange, but doing this will make you feel like you’re in a different world.
Photos are also not allowed in the museum. As someone who is practically a slave to my camera, I strangely liked this rule. It made me focus on the artwork and the architecture.
3. Browse the artworks at Benesse House Museum
Benesse House Museum is worth a visit if you’re already in the area looking at the outdoor installations. They have a wonderful combination of photographs, paintings, and sculptures. While the museum is not as considered as Chi Chu, there is a lot more variety here. The tickets are also significantly cheaper (approx $10 USD vs the $20 USD for Chi Chu). There’s also free locker storage (put in a 100 JPY coin and you’ll get your coin back when you return).
Tips for visiting the Benesse House Museum:
If you’re getting around Naoshima Island via bike, you will have to leave your bike at a nearby stop and take the free Benesse Museum shuttle. My suggestion would be to leave your bike at the Chi Chu museum and take the free shuttle. The buses depart every 15min starting on the hour from each end of the free bus route.
4. Visit the Giant Pumpkin and the many other outdoor installations
No trip to Naoshima Island would be complete without visiting the Giant Pumpkin, by artist Yayoi Kusama. The pumpkin is the unofficial symbol of Naoshima, and probably the most popular art work on the island. It seems to change with its surrounds and is said to even be a different color when the sunsets!
As with most tourist areas in Japan, it’s quite common for people to wait in line to get their photo. So fear not, you’ll get a chance to have the Giant Pumpkin all to yourself!
Another pumpkin that is worth visiting is the Red Pumpkin, also by Yayoi Kusama. The Red Pumpkin is located just next to the Miyanoura Port and is more interactive – you can even climb inside. While it doesn’t appear as photogenic as the Yellow Pumpkin, it is a lot of fun!
You’d mistaken for thinking that Naoshima Island is one big pumpkin party – there are bucket loads MORE outdoor installations than just the pumpkins. I would highly recommend going for a wander around the Benesse House Area.
Tips for seeing the outdoor installations on Naoshima Island:
The Giant Pumpkin is a short walk from the Tsutsuji-so bus stop. If your primary mode of transport is the bus, you can just get off here and walk. If you’ve taken a bike, just remember that you can’t ride your bike between the Chichu Art Museum and the Tsutsuji-so bus stop.
My recommendation would be to take the free shuttle to the Benesse House Museum Stop and check out the museum while you’re there. Then when you’re done, walk to the nearby outdoor exhibitions and then walk to the Giant Pumpkin (about a 10 – 15 min walk).
5. Go house-hopping at the Art House Project:
The House Installations may at first feel like a tourist trap. After all, they’re not nearly as well known as the Chi Chu Art Museum or the Benesse House Museum.
I nearly gave these a miss, but I am so glad that I didn’t because they were the unexpected highlight of my trip!
You’re probably thinking – girl, what on earth is the Art House Project? Well, they are a series of vacant houses (many of which were built more than 400 years ago) which have been transformed with artwork.
These are worlds away from stuffy museums and are a lot of fun. One of the houses even has a Statue of Liberty poking out through one of the windows! My favorite was Minamidera. This house has art work by the artist James Turrell (who also has work in the Chi Chu Museum). Visiting here is more of an experience, rather than “oh here look at this artwork”.
I don’t want to spoil the experience because it is worth the surprise, but the artist has played with the perception of light. My one suggestion would be to 100% make sure that the staff knows that you don’t speak Japanese. This way they can give you written instructions in English when visiting. I made this mistake, and would have struggled so much here if it weren’t for the lovely lady who translated everything for me!
Tips for visiting the Art House Project on Naoshima Island:
If you have time, purchase the multi-site ticket for 1,030 JPY (~ $10 USD). If you only want to visit a single site, these are 410 JPY (~ $4 USD). The multi-site ticket is definitely worth the extra dollars, especially if you’ll be visiting more than 3 houses.
Another thing to note is that not all of the houses have bicycle parking. Since they are walking distance from each other, my suggestion would be to leave your bike at one and walk to the others. If you’re taking the bus, get off at the Yakuba-mae stop, and you’ll be able to buy a multi-site ticket from the “Haisha” house.
6. Visit the 007 Red Tattoo Museum
I am so bummed I ran out of time and didn’t get a chance to visit this museum! I’ve read a lot about this museum, and it is a quirky and fun way to end your trip to Naoshima.
You’re probably wondering… Why on earth is there a James Bond museum on a small island off the coast of Japan? Well, my friends, it turns out that Naoshima Island features in Raymond Benson’s Bond novel, The Man with the Red Tattoo. The residents of Naoshima were so excited to have their Island featured in this book that they started a petition to have the book made into a movie. While this particular James Bond book is yet to be made into a movie, they’ve created a museum dedicated to the book in hope that one day their island will feature in the latest James Bond movie.
Other tips for visiting Naoshima Island:
Getting to Naoshima can be a bit tough. Depending on where you’re traveling from, it will most likely involve a combination of JR train + ferry. From Okayama, it’s about 1 hr via train and then 15 min on the Ferry. When visiting, you should make sure that you look up train and ferry times before departing. Otherwise, you could end up waiting for nearly 1 hr for a Ferry. They come approximately every hour – so do your research ahead!
Another thing to note is that Naoshima Island is not budget friendly. This was definitely one of my more expensive day trips in Japan. Bicycle costs, train costs, and ferry costs can quickly add up. There aren’t too many food options on Naoshima, so my suggestion would be to bring your snacks and food. The food options are limited, but each of the museums has a cafe or restaurant (though they are on the expensive side!)
While I haven’t listed 100% everything you could do and experience on Naoshima Island, regardless of where you go, you’ll definitely find something you enjoy. This is a place for both art lovers and non-art lovers alike.
One of my favorite memories from visiting was whizzing down the hills on the back of my bike. I still remember the wind in my hair, my hands gripping the handlebars and the most beautiful views of the sea to my left. You definitely won’t regret a day trip to Naoshima!
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, make sure to my FREE Japanese survival phrase guide! It’s perfect for those who aren’t great with languages and want a one-stop-shop for the most useful phrases when they’re in Japan. Click the image below to download:
Now, tell me: are you planning a trip to Japan? Are you thinking of visiting Naoshima? Leave a comment and let me know!