islands

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On Monday morning, I took the train from Kurashiki to Takamatsu, where I switched to a boat bound for Teshima island. Teshima is one of several ‘art islands’ in the Seto Inland Sea - the most famous one is surely the neighbouring Naoshima, which is known for its pumpkin statues created by Yayoi Kusama.

These islands have a long agrarian history, producing things like citrus fruits, dairy and olives (I never knew olives are grown here, but actually there are large olive groves particularly on Shodoshima island, so things like high-quality olive oil and olive pasta are produced locally). As for Teshima, it was known for its strong welfare system and its milk production in the 1950s-1970s; in the 1990s, however, it was in the centre of an environmental scandal, as it was discovered a local development organisation had been dumping large quantities of industrial waste on the island. The Seto islands have also been suffering from the de-population typical of rural Japan. In recent years, however, art has become a force of revitalisation in this region.

Naoshima was the first Seto island to develop art projects (Benesse House opened in the early 90s), but others followed suit. Today, the islands have numerous world-class museums, installations & events that attract visitors as well as some new inhabitants. In 2010, the contemporary art festival Setouchi Triennale was held for the first time, and the Teshima Art Museum opened. The Triennale is happening this year as well, actually opening later this week. I visited just a few days before that, which was a pretty fortunate timing - during the Triennale, the infrastructure on the islands might get quite strained, with crowds and inflated accommodation prices. When I visited, the buzz of the upcoming festival was in the air with people constructing various things, but it wasn’t crowded and I could easily find affordable accommodation.

I really enjoyed getting on the tiny passenger boat, standing on the deck and feeling the sea breeze. The journey from Takamatsu to Teshima’s Ieura port took about 50 minutes via Naoshima.

After arriving to Teshima, the first thing I did was to rent an electric bicycle for the day. I wouldn’t have minded getting a regular bicycle, but the shop I went to only had electric-assisted ones, and the clerk explained there are some very steep hills on the island, so riding a regular bicycle isn’t recommended.

This turned out to be correct - I’m sure it would be possible to ride around on an old-fashioned bicycle, but it would definitely be a workout. It was my first time riding an e-bike, and I really enjoyed just whizzing through the island almost completely effortlessly. I could focus on admiring the landscapes. The air smelled like hay and flowers, and the inner parts of the island were filled with terraced rice fields, vegetable gardens and some forest. There is even a mountain in the centre of the island, called Danyama, which has been important for agriculture by providing spring water.

From Ieura port, I rode to the ‘heartbeat archive’ on the other end of the island. Created by Christian Boltanski, it’s true to its name. The heartbeats of thousands of visitors have been recorded (it’s possible to add your own to the collection for a fee) and are played in the exhibition room. As with almost all of the exhibits on the islands, no photography is allowed inside, but it was a really interesting experience.

The heartbeat archive is a dark room where a singular light bulb flickers to the rhythm of the recording being played - the loud thumping sound combined with the bright pulsating light create a very strange atmosphere. At first, it made me feel anxious, and I had the urge to just leave. After forcing myself to stay and listen to a few recordings, however, I started to find the heartbeats almost calming.

The archive was located right by the sea, and there was a sandy beach where I sat down for a while eating the midday snack I’d bought from the bicycle rental place (a couple of inari sushi). After recharging for a bit, I continued to the Teshima Art Museum.

Like many other art spaces on the islands, the museum attempts to add to the landscape without detracting from it, encouraging visitors to appreciate the environment through art (sort of like a borrowed landscape garden). Knowing the environmental track record of Teshima, it feels particularly meaningful. No photography is allowed inside, and because it’s so strongly tied to its place, it’s not really possible to share the experience through images alone.

I wanted to go visit an installation called ‘La Forêt de Murmures’ or ‘The forest of whispers’, which is located in the woods on the Danyama ridge. It was a fairly steep climb, and I really understood why the bike-shop guy recommended using electric bicycles here - thanks to the extra power, it didn’t really take that much effort.

However, after reaching the supposed location of the installation, I ran into a sign saying it’s closed. Apparently the installation is only operated on the weekends, but there was no mention of this anywhere in the information booklet or the street signs. To be honest, I didn’t really mind, because bicycling in the quiet forest was very enjoyable in itself.

After riding back down, I decided to find something to eat, which turned out to be surprisingly difficult. There was a cafe I had wanted to visit that was supposed to be open, but when I got there, a sign on the door simply said they were taking a day off. A nearby restaurant had already finished serving lunch. There were plenty of citrus fruit hanging on tree branches around me, but it would be pretty rude to just grab one. So I rode back to the Ieura harbour area, where I finally found a cafe that was open and willing to sell me something to eat. I guess this unpredictability of opening hours is kind of endearing - it does obviously feel a lot more chill than big cities where things are open non-stop (there are zero convenience stores on Teshima). I ended up getting a veggie quiche, the only option they had on the menu that time of day.

After eating, I headed to the Ieura terminal and got on the last passenger boat of the day to Naoshima, where I was spending the night. The guesthouse, located in Honmura (the main residential district of Naoshima), was really cute. It felt like a grandma’s house, complete with a cat, tatami floors and a kotatsu. I spent a while there just resting and then headed out to find dinner.

Again, a lot of places were shut as it was Monday, which is the weekly day off for most art museums in Naoshima (on Teshima, it’s Tuesday). I found a busy little place serving okonomiyaki, however, and they even did a version filled with just vegetables. I ate on the counter seat and talked to the French guy sitting next to me, who turned out to be quite interesting. I ran into him by chance several times the next day - it’s always fun when that happens.

The next morning, I woke up early and chatted to the other people staying in the hostel (an English woman finishing up a year of teaching Japanese English-teachers in Kobe, an Israeli girl who had recently completed her military service and was considering her next move, a lot of in-between people which I suppose is not surprising) while trying to work for a couple of hours. I then set out to explore Naoshima.

The walk to the Chichuu Art Museum, my first stop, was fairly long, but had some interesting sights - such as a giant thrash can filled with advertisements. The Chichuu Art Museum, one of the main attractions of Naoshima, started implementing a ‘reservation system’ last year. This means that they encourage people to buy advance tickets for a specific timeslot online, and just showing up to buy a ticket is a bad idea, because waiting times can be very long.

I had bought a ticket for the 11.30AM timeslot the previous night, as the 11.00 and 11.15 ones were sold out, and it turned out to be kind of an inconvenient time. I didn’t have quite enough time to visit other museums after finishing my work, but I also wasn’t allowed to go in any earlier than 11.30, so I ended up sitting in the museum lobby for about 30 minutes. I can see the merits of the reservation system, but it is very inflexible. If you book a ticket, just make sure the timing definitely works for you and avoid being there early.

Once I was allowed to go through the gates, it was a very worthwhile visit. The museum only houses three exhibitions (although the building itself, designed by Tadao Ando, is technically considered the fourth exhibit): Walter de Maria’s geometrical exploration of light and space, James Turrell’s works where ‘light itself is presented at art’, and Monet’s Water Lilies presented in a white room. The road to the museum is decorated with flowers and ponds designed to recall Monet’s gardens; in the museum café, I ran into the French guy from the previous night, and he said it really did remind him of the original in Giverny (I’ve never been).

When visiting the museum, it becomes clear why Ando’s architecture is considered an exhibit in itself, as the whole structure of the museum enriches the other exhibits. Despite being mostly subterranean, the building lets in a lot of light at exactly the right places. It’s also another example of the natural environment influencing the way in which visitors experience the art here; the exhibits would look completely different dependent on the time of day or the weather.

From the Chichuu museum, I walked along the shore towards Benesse House, another art museum I wanted to visit. There were several outdoor installations along the way, and the views to the sea were great.

I ended up really enjoying Benesse House. It’s the oldest art museum in Naoshima, and has a very eclectic collection of art, from Warhol to contemporary Japanese artists. Many of the exhibits there had a more political undertone (such as Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s war sketches, Yukinori Yanagi’s installation concerning the Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, and the ‘world flag ant farm’ by the same artist...). Although I appreciated the carefully considered architecture of the Chichuu museum, I personally tend to enjoy art that engages with social themes the most, and I spent a long time at Benesse House taking it all in. No photography was allowed inside, although I took some pictures of the outdoor exhibits.

After leaving Benesse House, I walked a bit further along the shore, coming up to one of Yayoi Kusama’s famous pumpkins (I couldn’t resist taking a picture there, like everyone else who goes to Naoshima). From the pumpkin, I ran to catch the town bus heading back to Honmura.

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I had lunch at a really nice place called Aisunao, with local vegetables and very tasty miso soup. After eating, I bought a combination ticket for the Honmura Art Project, a group of seven art sites (although one of them is reservation-only) scattered across Honmura. I spent the rest of my afternoon walking around them, collecting stamps in my ticket book (it feels good to complete something!).

I started off with Minamidera, which was a really interesting experience. Visitors are led into an old temple that is pitch-dark; you have to touch the wall and listen to the voices of the guides to know where you’re going. Once inside, you sit in the darkness for a few minutes, just waiting in anticipation. After your eyes get used to the darkness, a ‘projection screen’ suddenly emerges from the darkness, glowing in a colour that apparently depends on the person (for me it was grayish pink, for some, it’s apparently blue or even green). The guide explained that the light level never changes, as the screen is created with black light. Walking around the space for a bit in the glow of the non-light is a fascinating experience.

After Minamidera, I walked around the other exhibits, all of which were interesting in their own way. Walking around the burnt-cedar houses of Honmura, I also gained a slightly better understanding of this town. Although I couldn’t imagine living in such a remote place myself, I can see why a lot of the people who were raised here want to stay, and why people from elsewhere move in in search of a different lifestyle - it does seem to have a tight-knit community that simultaneously encourages creativity.

As I was visiting the last Art Project site, the Go-ou shrine, rain started to fall. It felt like a good end to the day spent exploring Naoshima. I walked back to the hostel, coming across a sign pointing out the really non-existent ‘castle remains’ (apparently Naoshima, despite being so tiny, really was a ‘castle town’ at some point in centuries past, holding some sort of maritime power). As I was walking to the bus stop with all my luggage, raucous, elderly locals beckoned me to come drink canned highballs with them on their veranda; I had to politely decline, because I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t miss the last ferry of the day back to the main island. At the bus stop, an old English guy was looking at a tobacco vending machine, wondering why alcohol and cigarettes are so cheap here, because Japanese people have such a long life expectancy they can’t possibly drink or smoke much (ignorance is bliss I guess).

I made it to Miyanoura port with enough time to soak in Naoshima’s public bath house before my ferry. As you’d expect from Naoshima, it wasn’t just any ordinary sento. There was a huge elephant statue overlooking the bathers, and the floor of the tub was decorated with bright images. It was the first time I found myself staring down at art in a bath. After scrubbing myself clean, I headed to the port and towards Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands.