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Exploring Naoshima, Japan's island of art

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

The easiest way to make our three children groan has always been suggesting a visit to an art museum.

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So it was with some trepidation that on a recent family vacation to Japan, my wife and I decided to schedule a two-day visit to an island that's almost entirely devoted to contemporary art. The stopover would be a splurge, since the cost of rooms and meals on this arty isle is over-the-top even by Japan's inflated standards. But we hoped the total-immersion tactic might finally put an end to the griping about touring art museums.

Naoshima, in Japan's Seto Inland Sea, is barely 10 square miles in area, but it has become one of the world's leading centers of modern art. In 1992 the Benesse Corp., a Japanese publishing and educational company that owns Berlitz, established the first museum, Benesse House, to display artworks it had acquired. Now, internationally renowned artists compete to display their work all over the island. There is also a second museum, featuring Claude Monet's water lily paintings; a series of striking art installations amid the houses of one village; outdoor art scattered along the coast; and a third museum under construction.

Not only that, but the main museum is also the hotel. After the day-trippers have left the island, a handful of guests have free rein at Benesse House, able to wander the halls at their leisure examining pieces by Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and other greats in a strikingly modern space designed by Tadao Ando, one of Japan's most famous architects. The museum is completely integrated with the sea and the sky, so a vivid Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas looms over you as you eat breakfast in the morning while gazing at the horizon.

To make the adventure even more appealing to our children -- ages 16, 12 and 8 -- we decided to stay in the Oval, a six-room extension of the museum-hotel that you reach by a small private monorail that you operate yourself. (Our family pretty much filled the monorail car.) The Oval is another Ando creation: an open-air, egg-shaped structure set atop one of the island's tallest hills, with rushing waterfalls and spectacular views of the other islands in the Inland Sea. The rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows and more art by contemporary masters on the walls. There's a 1960s cool to the whole enterprise; the Oval and monorail could easily serve as the setting for a villain's lair in a James Bond movie.

Getting to Naoshima isn't easy. There are few direct trains to Uno, the port for the main ferry, so we had to catch a 6 a.m. bullet train from Osaka to make the connection in Okayama. The bad news was that we had to begin our military maneuvers at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m. But the good news was that we stepped off the ferry in Naoshima at 10 a.m., giving us more time to explore the island.

Benesse House sent a van to whisk us to the museum. As we zipped through the landscape of pine trees and lush green hills, it was a welcome relief to be far from the gleaming modernity of most Japanese cities.

After checking in, we headed to the tiny village of Honmura, where the Art House Project has sprung up amid the 200-year-old homes. This is art that you sense and feel. We walked through the narrow streets and entered a modest house to discover a pool of water that appeared to quiver like Jell-O, the effect of randomly timed, multicolored digital counters that artist Tatsuo Miyajima had installed beneath the surface. "Go'o Shrine," by Hiroshi Sugimoto, appeared to be a small temple with glass stairs until our kids discovered, to their excitement, that the stairs continued down into a cave beneath the complex. And James Turrell's installation of "Backside of the Moon" was so pitch-black inside that we couldn't see one another -- or anything -- until we'd sat for 10 minutes in the deepest darkness I have ever experienced.

This was an eye-opener to our children: Art could be fun.

To get to the Chichu Art Museum, which is built largely underground on another hill overlooking the sea, you walk through a glorious collection of trees and flowers modeled after Monet's own garden. Inside, the selection of water lily paintings is wonderful, but in some ways, Monet is overshadowed by fascinating pieces by Turrell and Walter De Maria that play tricks with the mind. Each turn of the corner presented another surprise.

The same was true at the Benesse House. At one point, we were studying what appeared to be a wall of blurry paintings of country flags by Yukinori Yanagi. Our daughter, Mara, called out the flags she recognized when suddenly my wife, Cindy, exclaimed that they were not paintings but individual ant farms of colored sand. The ants were methodically destroying -- and reinventing -- the art. Suddenly it became a game to figure out which countries' flags were on the verge of collapse.

On the second day, we wandered along the coast, stopping at each outdoor art installation we found, before we arrived at a beach for a relaxing dip in the ocean. Every piece seemed to have a ploy, a revelation or some other wrinkle that captivated our children. Art turned in the wind, appeared out of nowhere or became a hot tub.

The most emblematic image of Naoshima is a grand pumpkin created by Yayoi Kusama: a 6-foot-tall black- and yellow-dotted fiberglass structure plopped on the edge of a pier. The giant pumpkin is a child's dream, and the image of it, beneath the crystal blue sky and on the calm waters of the Inland Sea, left me so awestruck that it became forever known as "Daddy's favorite thing."

When we left Naoshima the next morning, we all agreed that the island had been one of the highlights of our tour of Japan. And a few weeks ago, when Cindy and I suggested visiting the Corcoran with some relatives who were in town, we were amazed to hear no complaints.

Everyone in the family was eager to look at the art.

Kessler is a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post.


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