As Japan’s borders reopen, Pico Iyer returns to a magical island of art

Harmony Cardenas

Just in front of the Park building of Benesse House, the sleek and art-filled hotel-cum-museum at the heart of Japan’s Naoshima Art Site, I spot something new. A transparent cube seems to float on a shallow pebbled pond, with tatami floor mats and wooden door — a classical Kyoto teahouse brought into the postmodern moment.

It has been designed by Hiroshi Sugimoto, the architect and artist who has been close to the centre of the Naoshima project ever since it began transforming the once-obscure island three decades ago, gradually adding multiple museums and installations, even expanding to Inujima and Teshima, neighbouring islands in the Seto Inland Sea. A typical 16th-century teahouse is an enclosed space, offering little to see but a scroll and a vase of flowers, its small windows covered by shoji screens; Sugimoto, by contrast, is inviting guests to look out, past pine trees lined across a lawn, to the calm blue waters beyond.

Like every artwork on Naoshima, moreover, this piece is just one voice in an evolving choir — a choir that sings even more enticingly since Japan’s announcement last week that it is reopening its doors to foreign holidaymakers after two long years of isolation.

Before the pandemic tourism to the country had been booming: arrivals rose from 6.8mn in 2009 to 31.9mn in 2019. Now that border restrictions have tentatively been relaxed — so far only those on guided tours are allowed to enter — this summer and autumn could be an ideal time to come. Tourist numbers will take a while to ramp up, Naoshima has just unveiled a swath of new works, and the Setouchi Triennale is enlivening a dozen islands around the Inland Sea with exhibits and events that continue until November.

A part of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Narcissus Garden’ installation at the new Valley Gallery
A part of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Narcissus Garden’ installation at the new Valley Gallery. The main image above shows Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Glass Tea House Mondrian’

Hundreds of steel spheres in Yayoi Kusama’s installation
Hundreds of steel spheres in Yayoi Kusama’s installation © Yayoi Kusama

Piles of stones nearby ‘as if in homage to the animist pagan spirits of Shinto’
Piles of stones nearby ‘as if in homage to the animist pagan spirits of Shinto’ © Masatomo Moriyama

Inside the Park building, I’m being encouraged to sip exquisite green tea and nibble on a sweet that resembles an azalea as I look out upon Sugimoto’s teahouse. Around me are more of his works, brought together to form a new collection called “Time Corridors”. There are three blown-up photographs of rainbow colours as seen through a prism, and beyond, a series of eerie photographs of chapels and empty cinemas, even his haunting portrait of dimly seen pine trees (to rhyme with the ones outside). Walk five minutes down the road and you come to a cliff on which is hung a Sugimoto portrait of a horizon, all sea and sky, and remade every second by wind and rain and sun.

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Continue down that silent, single-lane road above the sea and you arrive, very soon, at another startling discovery. Just behind a freshly planted row of mountain cherry trees are hundreds of stainless steel spheres, an artwork by Yayoi Kusama. Some are drifting across a pond, emitting a seething sound, like clacking crickets. Some sit in front of a new concrete Tadao Ando-designed building, windowless but with angular openings in the roof. Some are placed within that gallery, reflecting your face, and the shifting sky, wherever you turn.

Nearby is a field of 88 Buddhas, representing the 88 temples of the island of Shikoku, to which people faithful to Shingon Buddhism traditionally make a pilgrimage. And off to one corner are little piles of stones, often contributed by visitors, as if in homage to the animist pagan spirits of Shinto, as alive across the land as Buddhist deities.

Nothing, this being Naoshima, is accidental. The 88 balls are made out of slag, the industrial waste that almost destroyed Teshima. Ando’s Valley Gallery — opened this spring, along with the Sugimoto teahouse — is designed to complement the Seaside Gallery where Sugimoto’s horizon hangs from a cliff. You’ve savoured the ravishing view of the still blue sea, a visitor is being told; now turn to the island’s textured forests on the other side. The arrival of significant new works from three of Naoshima’s foundational artists is quite momentous; the last major opening came in 2010.

‘Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown’ by Walter De Maria (2000), part of the Seaside Gallery
‘Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown’ by Walter De Maria (2000), part of the Seaside Gallery © Tomio Ohashi

Kusama’s floating spheres remind one of the ships that glide silently across the Inland Sea in the distance, a still life that is always, almost imperceptibly, moving. The fresh cherry blossoms, leading up to the richer reds of the cedars above, ensure that the scene keeps changing with every season. And each person who visits in some way remakes the pieces, whether by crafting their own little tower of rocks or simply by making a new reflection in the balls.

I’ve based myself in Japan for 34 years now and I’ve come to think of Naoshima as the single most soul-expanding and essential place in the land. I make a pilgrimage here every year and I tell every friend that if they wish to encounter a deep and ancient Japanese sense of focus and simplicity, they will find it as beautifully on Naoshima — and Teshima and Inujima — as in any Kyoto temple or ryokan.

The Valley Gallery, designed by Tadao Ando
The Valley Gallery, designed by Tadao Ando
The Art Museum on the neighbouring islands of Teshima, created by artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa
The Art Museum on the neighbouring islands of Teshima, created by artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa © Ken’ichi Suzuki

It’s essential to the Naoshima vision that it still takes a long time to reach the islands: even from my home in Nara — just over a hundred miles away as the crow flies — I had to take a bus, five trains and a ferry before I stepped out, five hours later, at Miyanoura port on Naoshima. You can fly to the city of Takamatsu, just across the water to the south, but ferries from there are so occasional that even planes may save little time. Part of the point of the remoteness — as of the zigzagging series of windowless corridors that lead you into the mostly subterranean Chichu Museum, another Ando creation — is to slow you down. To usher you into a state of preparedness. To awaken your senses.

Inside the museum, with the view through one of the ovals
Inside the museum, with the view through one of the ovals © Ken’ichi Suzuki

I knew I was a long way from Tokyo the minute I stepped into Naoshima’s bus and heard, instead of a recorded voice, a coughing old driver announcing the stops. When a young woman disembarked, she stood, statue-straight, and bowed to the vehicle as it departed. As is gamely asserted in an official brochure about Teshima, “Try to enjoy the inconvenience that is unique to this island and cannot be experienced in a city.”

The idea behind all this, sustained by Soichiro Fukutake, the billionaire former chair of the Benesse publishing firm, is that by bringing art to a setting of unspoilt natural beauty, one can revive the urbanites who are longing for freedom from rush and congestion, while helping the locals who might otherwise have to move to the city to survive. Thus modern art works are placed inside old wooden houses in the 16th-century fisherman’s village of Honmura, Naoshima’s only real settlement, and a rice-growing program was initiated in 2006 to rehabilitate a landscape that long seemed imperilled. If the northern half of the island has been taken over — since 1918 — by Mitsubishi Materials’ smelter, let the southern side be a home for much that is natural and human and green.

Five paintings from Claude Monet’s water lilies series in the Chichu Art Museum
Five paintings from Claude Monet’s water lilies series in the Chichu Art Museum © Naoya Hatakeyama

New installations keep popping up on stray patches of grass, or along the roadside, and I sometimes lose track of whether the canvases I’m admiring are works of art or of nature. The five Monet waterlilies in the Chichu Museum — the central one a long horizontal study of water and light — lead perfectly into the café round the corner, whose long horizontal window lets you look out at the sun playing off the Inland Sea. The Turrell Skyspace down the corridor invites you to sit still and watch clouds racing across a blue sky above you till you think you’re seeing lilies again, in Monet’s blue pond. One of the beauties of Naoshima — and its point — is that the most startling visions you witness often appear only after you step out of the museums.

The final treat is that, for the first time, a luxury ryokan has just opened on the island. For 30 years now, the place to stay has been Benesse House, a hotel with bedrooms spread between several different buildings, including some beside a beach, others within the Benesse House Museum (so guests can walk around the Hockneys at midnight), and some in the hill-top Oval, reached by private monorail. For the more budget-minded traveller, there are a few modest family-run guesthouses and some seaside yurts.

The newly opened ryokan, Roka
The newly opened ryokan, Roka
Part of the 12-course kaiseki dinner at Roka
Part of the 12-course kaiseki dinner at Roka

This April brought the addition of a modern ryokan called Roka. Its location, among vegetable fields and wooden houses, is not dramatic. But in place of transporting views, it offers deep onsen tubs in each of its 11 rooms, a cool young staff and 12-course kaiseki dinners. My Kyoto-born wife, not easily impressed, said that the inventive meals we enjoyed there — beginning with asparagus and bamboo, continuing with sea-bream made to resemble a cherry blossom and concluding with tangerine crème brûlée — were in a class all their own.

After two nights in Roka, the tour operator InsideJapan arranged for us to spend our last night in the Oval, the collection of six otherworldly rooms on top of the hill behind the Benesse House Museum. In a lifetime of travel, I can’t remember any room more transformative (though far from expensively priced). The suite itself was ingenious and stylish; but — true to the Naoshima spirit — its pièce de résistance was the floor-to-ceiling windows stretching across the entire space, and the private terrace outside that allowed us to sip tea and watch darkness fall across beaches and hills and distant islands on every side.

One of the six rooms, accessed by a private monorail, that make up the Oval building at Benesse House
One of the six rooms, accessed by a private monorail, that make up the Oval building at Benesse House © Osamu Watanabe

My last morning there, I happened to meet the guest in the neighbouring room: a 90-year-old retired Japanese businessman. He’d never heard of Naoshima, he confessed, till a German associate told him he had to go. Now he and his white-haired wife were clambering up hills, walking down to the beach to see the sun reflected in the giant Walter De Maria granite balls and planning a trip to Teshima. There, the central museum, designed by artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa, is an astonishing empty concrete shell with ovals cut in either end through which to contemplate the world beyond.

Spurning the private monorail — reached through a hidden door on the second floor of the museum — my neighbour had walked all the way up to his room after breakfast. Naoshima’s spirit of revival and revelation seem to be contagious.


As of June 10, tourists can enter Japan on guided tours on set itineraries; those from the 98 countries on Japan’s “blue list” do not need to quarantine on arrival but must have a negative Covid test taken in the 72 hours before departure. For details see Further relaxation of the entry rules to allow independent travellers is expected but no official date has been announced.

Pico Iyer was a guest of InsideJapan, which offers a 14-night fully-guided (and thus allowable as the entry rules currently stand) ‘Art and the Seto Inland Sea’ trip from £8,800 per person including four days exploring Naoshima and its surrounding islands. The same trip on a self-guided basis would cost from £4,100 per person

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More guided Japan tours to book right now

Daigoji temple in Kyoto © Alamy

For the greatest hits For those eager to see Honshu’s highlights before the crowds return, InsideJapan’s Japan Unmasked itinerary travels from Tokyo to Kyoto (the so-called “Golden Route”) before continuing to Hiroshima, where there is time for a sobering trip to the Peace Memorial Museum. From there, it heads to the west coast for a visit to Kanazawa, an under-visited cultural city, complete with its own geisha district and the magnificent Kenroku-en, officially one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. From £2,610 per person, excluding international flights, including 13 nights’ accommodation, and a 14-day Japan Rail Pass;

For local festivities Down on the little-touristed island of Shikoku, August is a time for revelry. The rice harvest is celebrated across Japan but nowhere does it with quite such commitment as the city of Tokushima, host of Awa Odori, the nation’s largest dance festival. As well as a chance to see the celebrations in full flow, this itinerary includes visits to the Naruto whirlpools, the buzzing port city of Takamatsu, and a chance to cross the dramatic Shimanami Kaido bridge network back to Honshu. From £3,720 per person, excluding international flights, with 10 nights’ accommodation and some meals;

For the far north If you don’t mind being busy on your Japan trip, then this 12-day itinerary includes a quick-fire blast along the Golden Route, then a flight up to the northern island of Hokkaido to explore one of the wildest regions in the country. This far north, the autumn colours will start early, but even if you’re travelling in summer, the mountains and lakes will feel a world away from what you’ll have seen further south. From £2,180, excluding international flights but including the domestic flight to Sapporo, with 11 nights’ accommodation and some meals;

For golf For many years, it was difficult for tourists to get on to Japanese golf courses but these days a handful of operators offer rounds as part of their tours. The Golf Japan’s Highlights itinerary offers four rounds at courses in Shizuoka, near Tokyo, and Shiga, near Kyoto. Away from the fairways, there’s plenty of touring along the Golden Route including a sake tasting and calligraphy lesson in Tokyo, and zen meditation classes in Kyoto which, depending on how you’ve played, might be vital before flying home. From £8,600 per person, excluding international flights, including 10 nights’ accommodation and all course fees;

For Golden Route glamour If you prefer to avoid the humidity of summer, and want to do the Golden Route in style, A&K’s Classic Japan programme heads west from Tokyo in September. As well as the historic sites of Hakone, Nara and Kyoto, you’ll stay in some of the finest hotels in the country, including the mighty Gora Kadan, a former imperial summer house. The later you travel, the better chance you’ll have of seeing the magnificent autumnal colours as you make your way towards Osaka — there are departures for the same itinerary in October and November, too. From £9,770, excluding international flights, with eight nights’ accommodation and some meals;

Jamie Lafferty

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