In our Places We Love series we feature some of our favorite places in Japan, including towns & cities, shops & restaurants, hotels & ryokans, hot springs and more.
Naoshima is a tiny island in Japan’s Inland Sea that has become one of the world’s most unique destinations for art lovers and travelers seeking one-of-a-kind experiences.
Just three decades ago Naoshima was a sleepy and relatively remote island, but thanks in large part to an art-loving Japanese businessman’s vision, it has been reborn as one of the world’s most appealing art destinations.
Due to its location and relative obscurity, Naoshima is usually missed by first-time visitors to Japan. Located just a short ferry ride from Japan’s mainland, the island has an atmosphere like nowhere else.
In addition to its tiny traditional fishing villages – Miyanoura and Honmura – you’ll find gorgeous modern art museums, stunning architecture by Tadao Ando, and funky galleries and cafes – all in a laid-back atmosphere amid beautiful scenery.
See more of Japan’s best art destinations!
What to See in Naoshima
Naoshima is home to several museums and galleries, so we’ll include the highlights.
No visit to Naoshima would be complete without a stop at the gorgeous Chichu Art Museum. The Chichu Art Museum houses a small but impressive collection of works by artists including Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria.
For most visitors, the main draw to Chichu Art Museum is the breathtaking architecture of the museum itself, by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Most of the building is underground, and it was designed to let in an abundance of natural light that alters the appearance of the artwork it houses throughout the day.
Just down the road from Chichu Art Museum you’ll arrive at Naoshima’s other most famous museum, Benesse House. Benesse House – which doubles as both a museum and exclusive hotel – was also designed by Tadao Ando and is truly stunning.
It houses works by an impressive collection of artists, including Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gerhard Richter, Shinro Ohtake, Richard Long, David Hockney and many more. It’s an essential stop even if you’re not staying at Benesse House.
Another site not to be missed is Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s famous “Pumpkin” sculpture, which is located on a short pier in front of the Benesse House complex.
As both Chichu Art Museum and Benesse House are relatively small, you may have time to fit more art into a single day.
In addition to the Lee Ufan Museum, we highly recommend heading north to the tiny fishing port village of Honmura – a short shuttle or bicycle ride away – where you’ll find the Art House Project.
The Art House Project has made this charming little village into a modern art destination. The Art Houses are a collection of abandoned houses and workshops – as well as a temple and a shrine – that have been converted into venues and art installations for artists from Japan and around the world.
The galleries and installations are scattered throughout the village, making it convenient to get around either on foot or by bike. Interspersing your gallery visits with coffee breaks at charming little cafes run by a mix of locals – as well as urban transplants from cities like Tokyo and Osaka – is a great way to experience this little island.
After a full day of enjoying art, a fitting way to end the day is with a soak at Naoshima’s kitschy and wonderful Naoshima Bath “I♥YU” (yu means hot water, or bath, in Japanese).
The colorful bathhouse was designed by Shinro Ohtake, and a soak here is a truly unique way to immerse yourself in art and Japanese culture!
Remember to bring your own towel and soap (sometimes available for purchase at the bathhouse front desk).
Side Trips from Naoshima
If you have more than one or two days on Naoshima, it’s worth making side trips to the nearby islands of Teshima and Inujima. Teshima and Inujima – both short ferry rides away from Naoshima – also form part of the greater Benesse Art Site Naoshima.
Teshima is home to Teshima Art Museum, Teshima Yokoo House and “Les Archives du Cœur.” Inujima is home to Inujima Seirensho Art Museum, its own “Art House Project,” and the Seaside Inujima Gallery.
While a day trip to Naoshima would be possible it would be very rushed, so the best way to visit Naoshima is to spend at least a night or two on the island.
Most exhibits are closed on Mondays, so make sure to take this into account when planning your visit. Also check to make sure whether you’re traveling over a three-day weekend. Over three-day weekends, the exhibits usually open on Monday but close on Tuesday.
Refer to the Benesse Art Site Naoshima Calendar to plan your visit.
Accommodations in Naoshima
The best place to stay on Naoshima Island is Hotel Benesse House (which we featured in our article on Japan’s best hotels).
As mentioned above, Benesse House – designed by architect Tadao Ando – doubles as both a luxury hotel and museum. It also has two excellent restaurants – one French and one Japanese – and a rejuvenating spa.
Apart from Benesse House, Naoshima features mainly budget-oriented accommodations – primarily traditional minshuku (Japanese guesthouses), some of which are rustic and charming, and others which are simply basic!
Getting to Naoshima
From Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, take the shinkansen (bullet train) west to the city of Okayama, home of the famous Korakuen Garden.
At Okayama you’ll change to a local train heading south to the port town of Uno. A private car from Okayama to Uno is also a good option. From Uno, it’s a short 20-minute ferry ride to Naoshima Island’s Miyanoura Port.
Once on Naoshima getting around is fairly easy:
- Guests of Benesse House have access to the hotel’s convenient shuttle bus, which loops around to the island’s main art sites
- Non-guests can use the island’s local buses (infrequent but easy to use)
- Another good option is to rent bicycles, and because the island is quite hilly, motorized bicycles are also available for rent.