Sunday, 20 February 2011

Naoshima - Art Island

There are many small islands off the coast of Takamatsu, which you can travel to by ferry quite easily. Alternatively you can take a ferry from Uno on the main island of Honshuu. I had spent some time researching islands on Japan-Guide; did I want to visit the Mediterranean Shodoshima, famous for its olives? The small, mostly mountainous island of Megijima, famous for its Ogre Cave (from the story of Momotaro)? Or perhaps Ogijima, with its one village, reportedly a collection of wooden houses connected by a confusing system of lanes? In the end, I decided on Naoshima -
 home to old houses and temples filled with modern art, art galleries a-plenty, a bath house adorned with artwork and a museum dedicated to a James Bond book (The Man with the Red Tattoo) in a fanatic's vain hope of getting it turned into a movie.
Ferry timetables can be viewed HERE (you can translate it using Google, but the kanji for Takamatsu is 高松 and for Naoshima it's 直島). That's 50 minutes, or if you're impatient and feeling flush, there's a 25 minute option that costs twice the price. It was only 510円 each for the 50 minute option. Takamatsu Ferry Port is very easy to find - when you leave the station, you'll see a sign post. Follow the signs. Unfortunately for us, we had chosen the windiest, rainiest and snowiest day in the history of my time in Japan, so getting to the port was slightly more challenging than it should have been.

The original intention had been to check out I Love Yu, the art-themed bath-house near the ferry port. However, the weather did not inspire us to prolong our visit to the island, and the poster - a ton of creepy looking naked men in a shallow tub - did not exactly attract either of us. Plus, well, what's the point of visiting a split-gender onsen when you're a heterosexual couple? So, we hopped onto the bus. Naoshima's buses stop right outside the ferry port (there's a building with a cafe, shop and tickets) and cross the island in about 5 minutes, for only 100円. To one side of us was the Bennesse House, a hotel/art gallery with some impressive-looking rooms, although on this occasion we opted only for the Art Project walk.

A large pumpkin... it was too rainy to walk up to it!
We disembarked at Hommura, the drizzly snow/rain being propelled into our faces by fierce, umbrella-bending wind. My soggy map flapped erratically in my hand as I tried to work out where we were. We were on a narrow street, wooden buildings on either side of us, a quaint curry house in what looked like a small home. Failing to read the map (yep, cue sexist jokes) I led us in the wrong direction for a few minutes, only to turn back and find the Hommura Lodge. From here, you can pick up better maps and buy the 1000円 ticket than lets you visit all 6 art project sites. To our surprise, a British woman came up to us and asked us if this was the right place.


Fortunately, the weather started to ease off, and we made our way around the coast of the island, armed with cameras, umbrellas, tickets and maps. What looks like a winding trail on the map is, in reality, a very short walk. Walking up a slightly muddy hill, we reached our first destination. It looked like a normal shrine, but suddenly a man emerged from a wooden ticket booth and checked our tickets. He handed us torches (I mean flashlights, for any Americans, not the flaming kind) and directed us into a tiny concrete tunnel, designed by a sadist intent on inducing claustrophobic attacks, I imagine. After squeezing through the evil tunnel into the darkness, shining my pathetic light on the ground, we were greeted with... some glass stairs behind a wooden barrier. Interesting... but hardly art, is it?

The next building housed a floor of glittering lights. On closer inspection you could see that they were rapidly changing digital numbers of various colours, housed in what looked like water. I was not keen to take my shoes off and walk around on tatami, as the rain had managed to seep through my shoes to the extent that my socks were absolutely soaked. I tried walking on a wooden floor later and left massive wet footprints. Still, the numbers were cool, and even stranger was what appeared to be a frantically changing digital clock on what - on first glance - looked like an ordinary window.

I'm finding it hard to remember much else, as a couple of the buildings seemed to have nothing inside them, really. One was just a tatami room with some fake cherry blossoms scattered on the ground. The things that you can call art these days! I suppose that one of the most memorable was the "dark room", and the only one installed by a foreign artist. We waited outside a big, black building for about ten minutes while a guide explained how we were to walk into pitch darkness and, using our hand on the wall for guidance, sit down and wait for about 10 minutes for our eyes to adjust. Then, to our surprise, he came up to us and told us in perfect English the exact same thing.
The pretty island coast
It was as dark as a BNP supporter's soul in there (uh-oh, political comments on my blog!), but for a rectangular glow in front our eyes, like a film screen, and a couple of very pale lamps to the side. We were told to be very quiet and to wait for our eyes to adjust. This sudden sensory deprivation was very disorienting, and for a while I felt as if I was leaving my body, dreaming or tripping on some interesting drugs. We both started stifling giggles in the darkness; me, because I really wanted to say "well, this is the worst film I've ever seen", him because he was imagining zombies bursting through the wall. Yep, can't take us anywhere. Eventually the guide walked into the room and freaked me out, as it turned out that our perception of the room was wrong. It's hard to explain, but he looked MASSIVE and far closer than anyone would have imagined. He told us to get up and move towards the screen and touch it - only to reveal that there was no screen! No, in fact, there was just more space, with a light cast up from somewhere. After saying something in Japanese, he came up to us and said "The artist calls this the empiness rendered by absense of light", sufficiently blowing my mind and shattering any conceptions I had about the English ability of people on a small island.

The crazy house!
Walking back into the light was painful, it's needless to say (and it was only a cloudy day). The next house looked as if a mental patient had been given free reign with paint and tools. Strapped to the walls were randomly collected signs from shops and restaurants. The inside was an estate agent's nightmare (THIS guy would not be getting his deposit back, I expect). The corridor floor was glass, assorted pictures and postcards crammed underneath. To the right was a room with the world's worst blue paintjob and a canoe strapped to the wall. To the left was a room with some big leather shapes. Up the stairs we walked, the walls reminding me of my last flat in the UK. Blotches of plaster, torn pieces of wallpaper and what your house would look like if you fed your 4-year-old nephew a ton of sugar and let him loose with the crayons. Upstairs, we walked into a room and THE STATUE OF LIBERTY WAS STARING US IN THE FACE! It was quite a shock. We then discovered that you could access this room from downstairs, too, and that what we were on was a kind of balcony designed for those who like making eye-contact with liberty, I suppose. The room itself was a shrine... pictures and newspaper clippings of the statue adorned the wall like the secret closet of a psychotic stalker. Upon leaving, I thought about how the house was covered in Japanese signs, filled with pictures of Japan, made no real sense and had an American icon hidden deep within it... was this house meant to represent Japan? Or is my interpretation more telling of my own thoughts?

After visiting these interesting pieces of art, it was time to find some food. My map told me that not only was there a cafe around the corner from us - but a CAT cafe!!! You may remember from Tokyo that I visited one; a cafe where petless cat-lovers come to play with kitties. Well, it turns out that the small island of Naoshima has one, too - Nia-Shima Cat Cafe ("Nia" is the sound that Japanese cats make, apparently!). The "cat room" was actually through another door, which was good for Jeff's and my allergies. It cost 500円 for 30 minutes with the feline residents, but there was a glass sheet by the counter, so we could watch them while we ate - without the added suffering that comes from the allergies. A delicious curry with rice and naan bread cost just 800円, and I got to watch sleeping cats while I ate, which is one of life's seriously underrated joys.


It was only 14.15 when we caught the ferry back to Takamatsu. By this point, I discovered that it was only 20 minutes by ferry to Uno, back on Honshuu and near our next destination. Sadly, we had left our extra bags in coin lockers at the train station, otherwise we could have done that! Still, back to Takamatsu we went, in order to catch a train to our next destination; Okayama.

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