Japan may have more contemporary art spaces than you can poke a paintbrush at, but none come quite as scenic as the small, tranquil island of Naoshima bobbing in the Inland Sea.

After decades existing as a sleepy fishing community, Naoshima awoke with a new purpose and became the humble, yet fitting, home to an impressive collection of contemporary art, architecture and exhibits thanks to a mutual agreement in 1985 between the Benesse Corporation and Chikatsugu Miyake, then mayor of Naoshima, to turn the area into an art hub.

It’s worth visiting for the art alone, but it's also a great spot to rest your frazzled senses if you’ve been travelling in Japan’s frenetic cities. Here are four ways to discover Naoshima:

1. The art

It’s dubbed the 'Art Island' and with good reason. Art sneaks up on you as you work your way around the island – in hotels, galleries and the outdoors. The most obvious venues are Benesse House, Chichū Art Museum, Lee Ufan Museum and Art House Project. We’re talking big names too – Claude Monet, Yukinori Yanagi, James Turrell, Tadao Ando, Jasper Johns, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol and Hiroshi Sugimoto as an indication. Wandering around on foot will have you discovering outdoor sculptures and art exhibits sometimes cleverly disguised as children’s playgrounds and colourful gardens. There’s even a public bathhouse/art site, I Love Yu, where you can spot Edo Period erotic prints on the bottom of the baths, if you can hold your breath long enough that is.


Image by Yuki Yaginuma

2. The giant pumpkin

This of course falls under the 'art' heading but I felt it needed a special mention. My main reason for visiting Naoshima was to see the yellow pumpkin by the brilliant avant-garde octogenarian artist, Yayoi Kusama. And it didn’t disappoint. Perched at the end of a pier jutting into the Inland Sea, it truly is an impressive sight and serves as the icon for Naoshima itself.

3. The 007 Red Tattoo Museum

The residents of Naoshima (roughly 3000 of them) were so chuffed to have their island feature in Raymond Benson’s Bond novel, The Man with the Red Tattoo, that in 2004 they started a nationwide petition to get the feature film made here. In the interim they have erected a museum dedicated to the novel, and 007 in general, in hopes this will present Naoshima as an ideal Bond location. And it really is. The museum is not a must-see unless you’re a die-hard Bond fan but if all that contemporary art has you feeling a little too cultured, it adds a nice kitsch element to round out your visit. Don’t forget to sign the petition!

4. The peace and quiet

Japan is well-known for its frenetic pace which is true of the cities. It can really hammer the senses and while exhilarating and intoxicating, it can have you reaching for the headache pills and longing for silence. Naoshima makes an ideal day trip or short break from the main island of Honshu (Okayama, Kyoto, Osaka) to refresh and find out what else is on offer away from the deafening pachinko parlours and blaring department store theme songs. The vision behind the Benesse Art Site at Naoshima was 'to create a physically and mentally rejuvenating haven where you may find yourself musing on the true meaning of "living well".' The mix of white sandy beach and the wooded hills of Naoshima provide the ultimate spot for achieving this vision.

Image by ys*

Kate Morgan is Lonely Planet's Trade & Reference Publishing Coordinator.

See more Lonely Planet articles on Japan here.

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