Ophelia Ding

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Japan's Art Islands

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” 
- Edgar Degas

Paying a visit to the Seto Inland Sea “art islands” in Japan was a profoundly moving and creatively rejuvenating experience. I’ve spent the last couple days reflecting on how deeply visiting these art islands has affected me. The perspective I have on my own work (among other things) has been transformed. And for that, I am endlessly grateful. 

I spent a full day on each of the three main art islands: Naoshima (aka Ando Island, named after famed architect Tadao Ando), Teshima and Inujima. To reach the islands, I took a different ferry out from the port city of Uno each morning (though you can reach the islands from the city of Takamatsu as well).

Stunning views from the ferry of the Seto Inland Sea. Shot on 35mm Portra 400 film.

There are a million things to say about each one of the islands, but I wanted to highlight one must-do exhibition from each:

 

Naoshima Island

The highlight of my time on Naoshima island was the Chichu Art Museum. Considered the world’s best museum for contemporary art, I was completely blown away by this Tadao Ando-designed gem. The museum is completely underground — built to avoid detracting from the natural beauty of the island. 

Aerial shot of the Chichu Museum from above, courtesy of Architizer.

Although the space is underground, the artwork is immersed in sunlight. Seems like a bit of a Catch 22 huh? I don’t know how Ando did it, but being in a dark, underground space, staring at art illuminated by glimmers of light sneaking in through the ceiling was… something else. I sat in the center of the ethereal Monet exhibition for an hour, trying to soak in how extraordinary and unique this experience was. 

The outside rim of the Monet exhibition was exposed to sunlight (and thus illuminated the artwork on the walls), while the ceiling directly above us was made of concrete. We weren't allowed to take photos in the exhibition, but I couldn't help but sneak one in on my phone!

Another cool thing about Chichu (and all of the art spaces in general) is before entering the exhibition, visitors are directed to the entrance through a garden/nature walk. The Chichu Garden is full of water lilies and Naoshima flora. Ando intended for visitors to enter into the Monet exhibition with imagery of the actual water lilies in mind. Crazy huh? I’ll never forget how art and nature were so seamlessly and thoughtfully integrated here.

Water lilies in the Chichu Garden.

The beautiful Chichu Museum cafe!

Other Naoshima favorites: The Benesse House Museum (another gorgeous Ando space), Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin, the Ando Museum & the Naoshima Art House Project. I also participated in the James Turrell night program at the Chichu museum, which I’d highly recommend. And I loved renting electric bikes! They were perfect for museum hopping on the hilly island.

 

Teshima Island

Taken after arriving at Teshima Island. Shot on 35mm Portra 400 film.

Next up, my favorite of the three islands. Here, you must visit the Teshima Art Museum (aka the museum I couldn't stop talking about for days after I visited). Designed by artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa, this art space reinforced the effect that art and nature can have on humans. 

I stayed in here for almost two hours — lying on the concrete floor, watching the clouds move and the trees sway in the breeze. As I watched raindrops trickle across the floor, I was (again) in awe of how nature and art are married in this space, and so impressed with how Naito and Nishizawa made it a point to build this art space within the context of the rolling hills of Teshima. A lot of times, I think of art as an outward expression or response to the environment around us and the things that shape it. Here at Teshima Art Museum, art became one with the environment.

A view of the art space from the outside. Shot on 35mm Portra 400 film.

The ticket office, buried in the hillside. Shot on 35mm Portra 400 film. 

Teshima Art Museum also has the most beautifully designed cafe I've ever seen. The light, the architecture, the food — everything was spot on.

Other Teshima favorites: Don’t miss Les Archives du Coeur — where recorded heartbeats are displayed visually, Shima Kitchen (a delicious local restaurant), and electric bikes (basically, I couldn't get enough of them! biking is definitely the most convenient & efficient way to get around the islands.)

 

Inujima Island

And finally, the adorable Inujima Island. A lot of people only put Naoshima and Teshima on their to-do list, but I think Inujima is worth visiting — I was completely charmed by this tiny island! 

My favorite spot on the island was the Inujima Life Garden. I’m so thankful for the owner at trees cafe for pointing this hidden gem out! From the outside, the Inujima Life Garden looks like your typical, professionally maintained botanical garden. It is instead “a place where island residents and visitors can join in the process of reviving the land.” 

I noticed a half a dozen or so volunteers gardening and planting, and asked an employee at the garden about them. After our chat, I learned most of the art museum and hotel employees on the islands use their one day off a week to come here and volunteer at the garden (!!). What a complete joy to witness them investing in their community. 

Other Inujima favorites: This teeny little ceramics shop where I bought this gorgeous handmade mug, and spoke with the sweetest shop owner (who let me take her picture and gave me apple juice in return! haha), and the Inujima Art House Project. I would have rented more electric bikes on Inujima, but the entire island is walkable!

Sunrise-Seto Train

Lastly, I wanted to briefly mention the Sunrise-Seto train, one of the last overnight sleeper trains in Japan. I got to bookend my travels to the Seto Inland Sea with experiences sleeping on this train. And what an experience it was. On the way to the islands, I got a private room — complete with an adorable striped kimono! 

And on the way back, I slept in the iconic “nobi nobi” sleeping rows — which were surprisingly comfortable. My friend Rachel said it reminded her of Hogwarts! 

final reflections

Travel for me has always been about expanding my worldview, and letting people, places and experiences shape how I see the world. My hope with travel is to gain compassion and empathy for others, by means of witnessing and experiencing how they live and what influences their behavior. But my view is oftentimes from such a place of privilege. And being on these art islands made that so obvious. Sitting next to fishermen and rice farmers on the ferry boat home, I saw the poverty that exists on these islands — right next to million dollar hotels and museums. And it really made me think. I’m not trying to take away from the importance and profoundness of the art and how it is part of reviving the islands, but the image of rice farmers and the fishermen with their equipment on the same ferry as camera-ladden tourists (aka me) really stuck with me. It’s ok to enjoy cities and nature and food and art, but if the purpose of my travel is to grow and learn as much as possible — shouldn't I be asking myself, how can I use my gifts to serve others here? What does this community need? For Inujima, it’s people to pull weeds out of their life garden and pour love into their vegetable patches. And I wish I got to do that. It’s so much easier said than done, and I have a long long ways to go, but I do want to make it a goal to be more intentional about travel and how I spend my time.

And reflecting on some of my previous travels this summer — I'm humbled and lucky to know and love people who embody this mindset wherever they go. I'm reminded of people like Caleb who will give money to people experiencing homelessness at a stoplight in Austin, or Rachel who will go out of her way to buy socks for another person experiencing homelessness in Oakland, or Evelyn whose meaningful graduation gift was a set of The Giving Keys — an organization that employs people transitioning out of homelessness in LA. There are so many people around me who show through their actions how to serve and love others — even whilst traveling. And I'm praying for that ability.