Taking the ferry to the islands of Naoshima and Teshima on a foggy morning in October, we couldn’t have known there was a typhoon forming some few hundred kilometers off the coast of Japan. The waters were choppy, but the boat remained steady as we crashed into the waves, saying goodbye to the commercial boulevards and bustling streets of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. The Seto Inland Sea welcomed us in a particular way, an unspoiled landscape in Japan transformed by art and architecture that harmonized with the nature surrounding it. It looks completely different every time, as seasons change, as time traipses by, and as the weather transforms it. It has been 30 years since art has come to Naoshima and Teshima, and with it come many visitors and tourists alike, brought in by its mystery and beauty. With all this in mind, we took the hour-long ferry from Uno through the unsettled waters of the sea and arrived like pilgrims on its shores.
We stopped on Naoshima first, and for a brief moment, the sun came out. That same sun everyone is familiar with on a stormy day. It revealed itself for a moment and brightened the shores fleetingly before being surrounded by dark, ominous clouds that abruptly enveloped it. And so, we meandered through the island, choosing to visit the Chichu Art Museum, the Lee Ufan Museum, the Hiroshi Sigumoto Gallery, the Ando Museum, and much more over the course of a four-day stay.
The Chichu Art Museum was particularly special to visit. Designed by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the museum seamlessly integrates with the natural beauty of the Seto Inland Sea. It lies predominantly underground, preserving the pristine environment. Within its confines, visitors can admire permanent exhibitions featuring works by artists such as Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria. Even if it is located at a lower level, the museum is bathed with abundant natural light, giving a different appearance to the displayed artworks. As the day progresses into night, the ambiance evolves, and so our experience transforms along with it. The Hiroshi Sugimoto Gallery is another marvel that combines the question of time with its relationship to the island. We walked by photographic works, designs, and sculptures as they all lived perfectly with the environment. The Corridor of Time by Tadao Ando was particularly incredible. The intention is that the visitor can truly feel the passing of time as the architecture lives harmoniously alongside the natural landscape.
About a 30-minute ferry ride from Naoshima is the more subdued but equally stunning island of Teshima. It looks more like a farming village, with winding roads that snake through its interior and pass by rice harvests and livestock grazing in its fields. And it was here that I discovered my favorite place on Earth. Carved directly into the mountain and resembling a water droplet that just touched the ground, the Teshima Art Museum—an incredible work designed by artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa—is perhaps the most harmonious space I’ve ever been to. This concrete shell of a structure has two elegant oval openings that allow the flow of wind, sound, and light without the need for columns. As time flows and seasons change, an endless display of different atmospheres is created. This ingenious design seamlessly interlaces the external world with the inner space. Meanwhile, little drops of water from the mountain’s springs gently rise from the ground, trickling gracefully along the interior floor, forming tiny puddles here and there, reinforcing the idea of art and architecture coexisting in harmony with nature. A lonely string connects the oval openings and sways effortlessly in the wind, much like a clothesline. It is perhaps the most unassuming detail of the space but also integral to the experience. Perhaps this string, which seemingly has no purpose other than to sway, is intended to set the tone for everyone who comes to visit.
And so, it was here that we ended our visit to the Seto Island Sea, jumped back on a ferry ride, and headed back toward Tokyo to catch our flight home. The typhoon stirring in the ocean had gotten larger and larger. Our flight was the last one out before it hit the coastline, and I wondered to myself how that tiny string connecting the Teshima Art Museum must be doing. Most likely a little more sway to it, but equally as harmonious.
A version of this article appears in print, in Issue 2 of Álula Magazine, with the headline: “Scrapbook from Japan Exploring the Art Islands of Naoshima and Teshima.” This post may contain affiliate links.