Amid the sheltered waters of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, art and nature meet in ways both cutting-edge and deeply traditional
Removing my shoes, I enter an all- white gallery paved with tiny cubes of pale Carrara marble, where a set of Monet’s water lilies trumpets a riot of purple, rose, blue, and green. Though made a century ago, the canvases are as vivid as if the paint was still wet. They seem to float in the edgeless space, their brave stabs and swirls of paint summoning pure movement, a jazz of color.
No stranger to the works of the great French plein air Impressionist, I might not have found these water lilies quite so transfixing were it not for the setting: a numinous underground chamber on the small, sleepy Japanese island of Naoshima. Surrounded by the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea, it’s an obscure—and undeniably exquisite—location for what has evolved over the last two decades into a mind-blowing conjunction of art, architecture, and nature.
In the mid-1980s, Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the head of a large textbook publisher based in nearby Okayama, teamed up with the island’s mayor to develop the south side of Naoshima as a cultural park, beginning with a campground for children. After Fukutake’s death in 1986, his eldest son, Soichiro, already well on his way to becoming one of the country’s foremost art collectors, returned from Tokyo to take over the reigns of the company (which he renamed Benesse Corp.) and to continue his father’s dreams for Naoshima. He recruited the modernist architect Tadao Ando to design a hybrid museum-hotel called Benesse House, which opened in 1992, followed by the Chichu Museum in 2004 and the Lee Ufan Art Museum in 2010, each built of Ando’s signature poured concrete and designed to blend in with the landscape.
My husband Macduff and I are both artists, so our visit to the Benesse Art Site Naoshima —the collective name for Benesse Corp.’s museums and art projects on Naoshima and the neighboring islands of Teshima and Inujima—would be a pilgrimage of sorts. Which seems fitting, given the tens of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims who flock to nearby Shikoku (the smallest of Japan’s four main islands) each year to visit as many of the 88 temples on its religious circuit as they can, thus gaining karmic merit. I don’t know what merit we might gain on Naoshima, but neither do I expect to leave unaffected.
To get there, we take a train from Osaka to Okayama and thence to the port town of Uno, where we board a ferry for the 20-minute crossing to Naoshima. Scrambling with several other passengers up to the top deck to enjoy the view, we watch the boat’s frothy wake cut a white line through the gray sea. The scenery recalls a Japanese ink-wash painting, with dozens of islands rising like smoke out of the mist. Although we are in a major shipping lane, the morning is all stillness, and time seems to slow down as we leave the high-speed hubbub of airports, bullet trains, and traffic behind us.
Disembarking at the port of Miyanoura, we don’t have to wait long for the shuttle bus that will deliver us to Benesse House, which today comprises four separate Tadao Ando–designed accommodations. Ours is the Park (the others are designated Oval, Beach, and Museum), which opened in 2006. It’s a light-filled two-story structure of concrete softened by laminated wood, with walkways that link to a spa, shop, and restaurant. And, of course, there’s art: in one corridor, a six-panel composite photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto depicts ink-black silhouettes against a charcoal sky, ingeniously capturing the spirit of the island’s pine trees in darkest night. From the guest lounge you overlook a reflecting pool featuring a George Rickey kinetic sculpture, beyond which lies a broad, sloping lawn populated with fantastical animal figures by French sculptor Niki de St. Phalle.
After a refreshing cup of tea, I beeline it to the Chichu Museum along an ascending garden path abloom with a palette of Monet colors (quite literally: many of the same flowers grown by Monet in his beloved garden at Giverny are planted here). Sited on a hill alongside the remains of a terraced salt field, the museum is built almost entirely underground—chichu means “inside the earth”—leaving just the slightest tracery of a footprint that, from a bird’s-eye view, is as subtle as a line drawing, a mere hint at what lies below. The complex is accessed via a tall concrete entryway that is Ando’s reinterpretation of the torii, the traditional gates found at the entrance to Shinto shrines; like them, it suggests a transition to a hallowed space. I continue to walk through a series of unadorned concrete switchbacks, passing sunken interior courtyards patterned with wedges of sunlight.