It had reached the point of embarrassment. The business of ‘not yet’ having visited the ‘art island’ of Naoshima.
Many of my clients had made the trip and raved, or were seeking my advice on a regular basis… ‘what’s it like?’ ‘when’s the best time to go?’ ‘where should we stay?’ ‘what’s the food like?’ I could only share what I’d heard reported from friends so I had no choice but to do some first hand investigation.
Of course it had been on my Japan-travel bucket list for some years. While I’ve travelled from the head to the tootsies of Japan there is much amazingness yet to discover and only so much you can fit in between hosting tours, researching and writing, scouring the country for products for our upcoming online store (zenbuhome.com opening soon! nudge nudge, wink wink) and catching up with good friends in our second home.
Finally, last December (2016) we made it. Freshly hitched – it was a good excuse to taste a bit of island life.
I wasn’t prepared for the truly laid back vibe, the lushness of the trees, the rugged coastline, the strange sadness in parts nor the outgoing friendliness of the local obaachan (grandmothers/older ladies) in others.
Or the sunsets. Oh my. The glorious background to wine-o-clock.
It was an all too brief two nights however I learnt so very much during our short stay that I thought it would be rude not to share it! I hope it helps you to make the most of your own Naoshima travel. Please note that there are a couple of different approaches and entry points to the island but I’ll only refer to the journey from Kyoto – from where Naoshima and the Seto inland sea are popular sidesteps.
1.Getting there. Although, as the crow flies, Naoshima is not too far from Kyoto – it ends up being about a 5 hour trip door to door so if you are only there for a weekend – go very early on the day you are due to arrive and don’t underestimate how much there is to see !
The train trip from Kyoto to Uno Port is pretty damn lovely. Especially when you pass through the farming area closer to the inland sea end of your journey, seated in old fashioned carriages, after a train swap or two, filled with character and the rhythm of the tracks is a special kind of relaxing fun.
Note that you need to switch trains a couple of times before arriving but it isn’t too complicated – on the final change you arrive on a small platform and may immediately decide to follow everyone else down the stairs. But don’t! Because you’ll just have to lug your bags back up again! All you have to do is hold fast at said platform for the connecting train – just a few steps away from where you sprang out of your carriage with intention to run to find the next platform in case you missed your next train .. Of course it pays to double check with a local if unsure (someone is bound to understand you if you look panicked enough) – you simply never know when they might change platforms on you.
From Uno Port. There are in fact a couple of choices of transport across the waters to Naoshima (which we didn’t find out about until after the first boat trip) .
The cheaper option, used by locals, and for transporting cars and ‘bulky stuff’ over is somewhat rustic and the smoking indoors thing has not yet been banned – consequently a stale musty stench is embedded in the soft furnishings. But for a short trip, even on a frosty day, sitting rugged up on the deck in the sunshine – it’s perfectly fine.
However, next time I’ll try the fancier ‘visitor’ carrier version which is likely to be a little better set up for lugging bags onto and I’m guessing has a sweeter smelling cabin. I will be going back as some stage so I’ll update this at that time ( but don’t hold your breath or anything… well not unless you choose to sit indoors on the local ferry).
2. Accommodation. Being that we were attempting a mini honeymoon (ie research disguised as such due to perfectly convenient timing) we decided to opt for the justifiably luxurious accommodations of Benesse House.
We chose the ‘Museum’ rooms instead of the Oval, Park or Beach accommodations – based mainly on cost but also because the view was spectacular as they are at the top of a hill (as are the Oval rooms).
Each room offered large (for Japan) decks and as you don’t see a lot of deck action in Japan it was a novelty for us. Especially as we were so very keen on the outlook of wide blue skies and the sea.
The rooms presented very well on the website but we did find them to be showing a little age, and the bathrooms were very small (common in Japan but we were anticipating something a little newer and more spacious here for some reason), however it was only 2 days and everything was very comfortable and clean.
The service was minimalist but friendly. A small bottle of wine (not yet chilled…hence ice) was waiting for our arrival with a message of marital congratulations . All was well with the world. And that view… nothing else really mattered to us – even the somewhat unromantic twin (ie 2 x single ) beds couldn’t ruin our excitement.
An aside, staying at the Museum is actually pretty cool because you get to wander around the relatively people-free installation space until 11pm. Bonus!
3. Sunsets. The Inland Sea sunsets were the most spectacular I’ve encountered – their potency has been forever etched in my mind. I’d return for the sunsets alone. Warning – potential sunset overload…
4. Days of closing. Next time I’ll be sure not to visit the islands on a Monday or Tuesday -unless we’re staying a whole week -because it turns out that many of Naoshima’s sites are closed on a Monday. On Tuesday’s the neighbouring art island of Teshima has its day of rest too – so pop that in your travel planner now ! Needless to say we were rather disappointed to discover, after arriving around 11am on a Monday (after a 5am start) that we’d just missed the last boat to Teshima and most of Naoshima’s sites were shut. As I said – we need to go back. It really pays to do your research.
5. The Food. OK – settle in now because this might ramble on for a bit…
The Museum has 2 spots to eat – the cafe (which is only open until about 5pm) and the restaurant which serves a Japanese or Western breakfast and then opens again for dinner – Japanese – offering a choice of several different Kaiseki style courses, including one vegetarian version. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.
We slurped up pasta for lunch one day at the cafe and, although the space itself is lacking in any real personality, the view was very relaxing and the grub surprisingly good.
We sampled the western breakfast at the Museum and felt, for the money, that it wasn’t overly exciting, and the service was almost uncomfortably formal. Next time I’d choose their Japanese breakfast.
The dinners were not bad.. that’s probably unfair, they were in fact well presented and technically pretty spot on – but if I was to have just one Kaiseki meal in Japan it would be elsewhere…. I’d be guessing this is the only restaurant on the island serving Kaiseki style cuisine – and most other restaurants are quite a trek from the museum so it is certainly convenient.
If you haven’t experienced Kaiseki before I’d say this was a good entry level place. I chose the vegetarian Kaiseki and the husband’s course included meat and seafood – I was excited to see what they would come up with in the veggie option as I love good shojin ryori (buddhist vegan cuisine) but, sadly, I ended up with total food envy. My meal was fine but his sashimi looked pretty amazing and listening to him devour it as I flapped my konnyaku (devil’s tongue root jelly) ‘sashimi’ about was a little soul destroying… however my Nasu dengaku (fried eggplant was sweet miso sauce) was superb! In fact I could have eaten several of them and left the rest of my meal – except the tempura perhaps… but then his had fat, juicy prawns… oh stop it!
Right ! now we also had the buffet breakfast at the Terrace restaurant which is in the Park/Beach accommodations complex, right down by the water. Splendid – surprisingly high quality house made breads, pastries and jams, both Japanese and western specialities – think a very simple chawan mushi (steamed savoury custard), perfect omelettes made to order, a range of Japanese vegetable dishes, quality yoghurt, fruit, soup etc.
It ranks high on my personal hotel breakfast buffet scale. The outlook certainly doesn’t hurt either!
It isn’t the cheapest place for breakfast on Naoshima but as the museum and terrace restaurants are pretty much your only choice in this part of the island – I know where I’d be dining every morning.
We also enjoyed a degustation dinner in the same restaurant – French/Japanese. It was very good, a teensy bit old fashioned if I was being picky, but well executed with great flavours and textures using local ingredients. Fresh, flavoursome and a little bit of magic.
It didn’t hurt that they poured us champagne on arrival, sent out a plate with some strawberries and congratulatory message handwritten in chocolate and handed us a small carry bag when we left, inside was a gorgeous mini stollen (as it was just before Xmas). A lovely touch. The hand-luggage squished Stollen was repurposed as a gift to a friend so I can’t vouch for the flavour but it looked authentic!
We heard that there are a couple of decent places to eat near Honmura art house village (where the hotel shuttle bus stops FYI) -an Italian place, a burger joint and a ramen shop – we didn’t get to any of them. So do ask the hotel concierge what they recommend if you are staying longer and wish to try elsewhere.
The only thing is… that the evening hotel shuttle stops running rather early in the scheme of things but if the hotel knows you are eating at one of the Benesse house restaurants they seem to be able to arrange a car to pick you up. Saying that, even if you go with the dego – it is timed well enough for you to make it to final shuttle bus of the day – should your fork not dawdle over the pretty plates. If you eat in Honmura or down near the port you will need to arrange a taxi to get you home unless you eat early. Get your hotel to book that for you as I suspect there are not many on the island.
6.Miyanoura Port Area. I was a tad reluctant to add this next bit, and please allow me to state that this is only an observation based on our couple of days on the island so I’m hoping the vibe was simply because we were travelling in winter and the place was a bit flat being off-season…
Despite Yayoi Kusama’s cheery red pumpkin by the water’s edge, Naoshima’s Miyanoura port area ( where you’ll arrive when coming from the mainland’s Uno port) has a rather sorrowful energy.
Perhaps due in part to the skeletal remains of the ‘industry that was’? As can happen in any place over time. It’s as though the community around the port area has been quietly fading away over the years and everyone under 90 has relocated to the mainland for work or something ‘more’ than island life.
The only youthful looking residents we did spot seemed to own or work in one of the handful of tourism relevant businesses – small eatery, bicycle rental etc. The staff in the largish gift shop/cafe area at the ferry terminal seemed a little resentful to have to deal with foreigners. To be fair – their demeanor could have been due to shyness or a perceived language barrier…. They did seem very surprised, perhaps a little scared, when, during our transaction and attempted conversation, they realised we could speak Japanese . However they did not follow our cue.
It felt so very far away from the Japan we know and love. Even though tourism is clearly injecting cash into certain areas on the island I guess it could feel like they had no real choice in their community being inundated at times? And as we know some tourists are not very good it treating locals with the respect they deserve.
We have to wonder whether the reason for the permanent art project and the, ‘wonderful’ by all accounts, annual Trienale Art Festival was as a way to attract much needed life into the island. And indeed it has but I have to wonder if it’s what the locals were expecting.
Of course our discomfort with this is so minor in comparison with the joy experienced on the island but it did make me wonder how it has truly impacted the locals. Has anyone else had a shared experience in the port area?
10. The Art. As you would anticipate – is spectacular.
The outdoor sculpture installed around the island, sometimes in distant or almost hidden spaces against a canvass of raw nature.
The wide spectrum of artworks and artists both Japanese and foreign.
The fascinating purpose built architecture which plays a part in the art itself.
The practical-use installations – like the bubbly construction used as both a bicycle parking station and rain cover for those waiting for island transport.
The surprise of finding a little bit of something gorgeous around the next corner.. keep an eye out for the pictures in string that pop up now and again on the side of a house or in an alleyway.
The deep cultural significance in many of the works in the living art house village of Honmura. All of it. Just took our breath away.
On that note. In direct opposition to the personal interactions experienced in the port area was the joyous experience of Honmura. It totally rocks!
Traditional architecture, laneways and temple areas interspersed with installations and friendly older folk who were more than happy to start a conversation (in Japanese) as they performed their daily shuffle from their homes to the grocery store.
The local community centre up the road looks like THE place for meet ups and neighbourhood activities but the architecture and design alone makes it worth a visit as an ‘outsider’ and they have very clean public toilets too!
11. Size. Naoshima is bigger than you think. We spent 1.5 days excitedly wandering and didn’t see it all. Ideally try to stay a minimum of 3 or 4 days if you want to take in as much as possible, visiting the other islands in the vicinity too (eg Teshima, Inujima, Shodoshima etc) . And a week or more if you have time up your sleeve and like a bit of relaxation in with your art – you can always hop across to Shikoku too. There are some houses available to hire, yurts and minshoku around the islands so do your research if you fancy a more affordable , longer stay. Did I mention the sunsets?
12. What are you waiting for? Just go!
If reading about Naoshima sparked an interested in joining us on one of our luxurious Japanese Cuisine and Culture Tours then please take a look at our line up for 2018 – but hurry – they are filling up quickly – the Spring Tour is almost at capacity!
Do make sure you take advantage of the earlybird special if you can – it runs out in early July! We apologise that that they’ve all been snapped up for our Zenbu Haru spring tour.
If you prefer DIY travel (but with a lot of the groundwork done for you!) we are now also offering detailed, personalised itineraries for amazing Japan.