On Finding God in a Gourd in Naoshima (In Japan)


“Architecture appears for the first time when the sunlight hits a wall. The sunlight did not know what it was before it hit a wall.”
― Louis Kahn

Freud claimed God was only the lingering memory of our parents, looming over us as wailing babies. The hand that fed us then was taken in and forged into the faith that some kindly hand could carry us through all future hungers.

If Freud is right, and God is the strongest association formed from our earliest memories of compassion, then what about our first encounter with awe? What do we learn when we first face something so immense that describing it only tangles us in useless words? Awe inevitably defines us as distinct from other people, perhaps for the first time, and perhaps in a way that we would otherwise never contemplate. Perhaps some never do.

If I’m right, then that first register of awe is the first time facing the chasms between ourselves and other human beings. We can’t communicate, can’t make other people see it. Art and spirituality are born from that moment when something first revealed itself. They both struggle to take us back to it, and give us language to describe it, to build a bridge over that cavern where words and meanings have otherwise failed, to make awe expressible by bypassing language.

This is a very tall order for an abandoned fishing village.

IMG_5361Naoshima is an island off the coast of Okayama City in Western Japan, located about halfway between Hiroshima and Osaka in the Seto Inland Sea. A fishing and agricultural town, history is told through dilapidated buildings and the moss-covered walls holding up rice fields cut into the hillsides centuries before. In the midst of this economic decline, an eccentric billionaire from Okayama – and the company, Bennesse education, that he runs – have been slowly transforming the islands into open-air museums of contemporary art.

Traditional architecture remains, and the project has aided the more sustainable industries by restoring old farm sites. Wandering through Naoshima and Teshima, I could imagine barefoot children running in the narrow alleys between homes 500 years ago as they do today, only dressed in blue robes instead of Pokemon sweats.

Other places are starkly, beautifully futuristic. Our first night was at the Bennesse complex, which covers the Bennesse Park Hotel and sculpture garden, the Bennesse House hotel-museum and a handful of nearby museums. Each room has original artwork, each room design rewards curiosity: Every few minutes we’d marvel at some new discovery, oohing with appreciation for the elegance of the window shades.

Tadao Ando, a self-taught architect from Osaka, applies a Zen approach to his work, which has come to define the best of contemporary Japanese architecture. All of my earlier talk of spirituality and architecture isn’t for nothing. Here’s Ando on the same subject:

“We do not need to differentiate one from the other. Dwelling in a house is not only a functional issue, but also a spiritual one. The house is the locus of mind, and the mind is the locus of god. Dwelling in a house is a search for the mind as the locus of god, just as one goes to church to search for god.”

It is also a great place to have a drink.

A room at the Bennesse complex comes with access to the museum after it closes. We had a modern Japanese meal (at about 6,000 yen) practically alone with four of Warhol’s flower paintings. After dinner, we indulged in art and the wine we smuggled in with an ice tea bottle. We spent far too much time harmonizing an a capella chant inside a large echoey chamber room illuminated by the warm glow of Bruce Nauman’s 100 neon slogans. It’s the sort of thing that might mortify us in the presence of a proper art-going crowd, but I see it as engaging with Ando’s space more than ignoring Nauman’s. No apologies.


An automated monorail, piloted by a spectral force, carried us from the Bennesse Museum to “The Oval,” a perfect oblong sphere around a reflecting pool. The site is built on the logic of dreams. Waterfalls are hidden behind walls, staircases take you to different levels of geometry, and at the end of it all is a lovely bar to while away the evening with peppermint-grapefruit mojitos.

Light Hitting Walls
Photo Courtesy Chichu MuseumThe nearby Chichu Art Museum houses the works of Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter de Maria. Underground buildings open into geometric spaces dug into the Earth, where the sunlight hits walls at carefully constructed angles. Ando’s work makes use of natural materials, such as bamboo and stone, but rely on light, shadow and scope to create sublime, inspiring spaces where walls should be.

Light hitting walls is a theme, particularly in the work of James Turrell. The museum has three Turrell pieces. The first piece in the museum is a blue square projected on a wall. With attention, the light transforms into a 3-dimensional cube that rotates as you pass it. The piece was a reminder to contemplate each work, until something revealed itself. It’s easy to be distracted by an onslaught of “next,” but the work on Naoshima, like most fine contemporary pieces, tends to be subtle.

Turrell’s next piece, Open Field, is only shown to four people at a time. In slippers, we wandered past the guide, soaking in amber light with a blue square projected over a black pyramid. As our eyes adjusted to the contrast, the guide told us to climb the stairs. (The piece is best experienced as a surprise, but you can highlight below to see what happens next). I felt like Alice going through the looking glass: You break the barrier of the light and enter into the projection, actually a separate room. From inside that space, our starting point had been transformed into a glowing amber box that seemed to be projected onto the wall. We had entered a 2-dimensional plane, and suddenly it appeared impossible to return. “The sunlight did not know what it was before it hit a wall,” and neither did we.

The museum has a brilliant display of Monet’s water lilies, including a pond with actual water lilies as you approach the museum. Elsewhere, Walter de Maria’s installation seems to be beautiful when the sun wants it to be. Likewise, Turrell’s Open Sky piece is best experienced at dusk. The museum offers a special program for visitors on Fridays and Saturdays to watch the sunset.

The Lee Ufan Museum
Untitled-7Just across from the Chichu Museum is the Lee Ufan museum, dedicated entirely to a single artist, the Korean-born, Japan-raised minimalist sculptor. The museum houses a few of his paintings, including a meditation room with just three brushstrokes on walls. Elsewhere, he used the careful positioning of stones. The single-boulder aesthetic, standing like a banzai tree as film projections are cast on its shadow, brought to mind questions of what we ascribe to nature. In the piece, the projections are coming from our direction, not from the rock. The reflection in its shadow, then, is what we “project” (literally and metaphorically) on the stones: The power of nature, the distraction of urban life, the passage of time. The stone stays present, but what we bring to it changes.

The Cultural Melting Bath
This bit was kind of weird, but worth it if you’re up for a jacuzzi. There is a lot of things said in the museum guide about Chi being concentrated from the hillside into the bath, but really it’s just quite nice to have an outdoor jacuzzi on the beach surrounded by massive Chinese stones. Sometimes a jacuzzi is just a jacuzzi.

The Art Houses
After an expensive and inspiring day (and night) wandering the sculpture park and taking our first of many pictures with giant gourds, we took a shuttle bus to the Miyanoura port and checked into cin.na.mon hostel, a bare-bones hostel with futons on the floor and a first-rate restaurant serving coffee and curry on the cheap. About 15 minutes by bike, we got to Honmura, home to a series of art house projects on the island. Sprinkled in residential and commercial neighborhoods, the art houses are abandoned homesteads or businesses handed over to artists for use as art sites.

Some buildings were restored to resemble their original architecture, while others are completely transformed. Shinro Ohtake’s Haisha house (it means “dentist”) is the latter, a dentist’s residence coated in a mishmash of neon signs and paint, housing a two-story tall Statue of Liberty that looks sculpted from marshmallows.

Elsewhere, the traditional architecture was restored and blends seamlessly into the residential neighborhoods, making them easy to miss. The Kadoya House – the first one on the island – is a 200-year-old home restored in 1998 using traditional Japanese materials. Inside the house, however, a small pool of water runs over LED lights flickering through the numbers 1-9 at various speeds in all the colors of Good’n’Plenties. The numbers look quite natural there. I imagined a whimsical stream where locals with nets would capture ticking numbers for their bed stands, throwing back the fast and slow ones until they found one that has matured into the present rate of time.

Kadoya, Photo Credit Setouchi Art Festival

Minamidera was once a gathering spot for temple festivals and ceremonies, but was on the verge of collapse when it was transformed by Tadao Ando and James Turrell. This piece, like most of Turrell’s work, is best experienced as a surprise, so highlight to read it.

We were led into a pitch black room, unable to see our hands in front of our faces, and told to sit down. Slowly, as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we could see that there was a screen in the center of the room, as if it were a film projection. Over 15 minutes, it seemed as if the screen were getting brighter, but in fact the light in the room had never changed. Again, this projection was actually a small rectangular space filled with water vapor.

Photo Courtesy of Rachel DunnGo’o Shrine is part of the “Art House” series, an actual shrine that had fallen into disrepair. The artist Hiroshi Sugimoto restored the barest components of the Shinto shrine – the approaching place of prayer, and the house for the spirit – and added a glass staircase that literally tunnels through the Earth into an underground chamber. You can see the start of the staircase by entering a nearby cave (there’s a waiting space, only four people can enter). As you leave, the reflective surface of the tunnel exit extends the view from the mountainside, presenting the illusion of a transparent space.

Gokaisho was once a park for Go players, now renovated by artist Yoshihiro Suda for his piece Tree of Spring. The arrangement of the Camelia tree and stone is based on a famous Japanese painting, but the really interesting bit is the flower petals inside the room to the left as you turn away from the tree. The floors are decorated by Camelia flowers carved from wood, which are indistinguishable from real petals (for the best experience, go when the Camelia tree is in bloom). The room to the right is the more challenging piece: There’s a bit of art there, see if you can find it.

The final house is Ishibashi, the home of a former salt-merchant family. The house is identical to its former self, operating on one level as a historical preservation site. However, once you go past the garden, you’ll turn into a room with a stunning full-scale painting, The Falls, by artist Hiroshi Senju.

Teshima Island
IMG_5302Teshima is a cheap and relatively fast ferry ride from Naoshima. While Naoshima can feel quite modern thanks to its dedication to sparkling 30th century architecture, Teshima is a trip in reverse. Old houses look out to fishing boats, anchors and rice paddies. Travel far enough up a hill and there, in the midst of the rice fields, is a giant white sphere, the Teshima museum, where the only art on display are thick drops of water.

The dome arcs over a wide open space, with light entering through two wide holes in the ceiling. Small ropes dangle from the holes, catching beads of rain water, but from a distance the rope makes the open holes look like raindrops.

Wandering around expecting framed water droplets, I was stunned by giant snakes of thick water running past my feet, stopping, and then sitting still, moving as if they had some magical consciousness. The droplets are thick and the surface is smooth clay, so the puddles react to every minor vibration in the floor. In some places there are tiny holes that the water rushes into, but elsewhere water emerges. Some puddles would scamper across the floor, stop in front of you, and slowly shrink into nothing. The droplets stay distinct until they merge together, then they start either slowly moving along to the next tiny hole (practically invisible) or rushing, depending on where it is, toward the pool in the center of the space.

Again, not my photo.

You can easily walk from the Teshima Museum to a small residential area that has a cafe designed by Pipplotti Rist, neighboring an installation by Pipplotti Rist, and serving delicious Kima curry in a kitchen staffed by local mothers and supervised by an expert chef. There’s a renovated shrine nearby, and the walk down to the Heartbeat museum (where you can record your heartbeat into an archive for 1000 yen, and then peruse the archives of past visitors) is down the hill. The terrain is steep so you may want to rent an electric bike from the vendor at the port.

The final stop on Teshima was for coffee at the crazy and photogenic Il Vento cafe, designed by the German artist Tobias Rehberger and built into what had been a collapsing Japanese home. He gutted the interior and transformed it into the background of Max Headroom’s television set:


That’s a table, wall, and two chairs.

I Love Yu
Yu is the word for “hot water,” so this bath house’s name is actually a pun. The bath is located near Little Plum, a fairly contemporary, busy and generic diner, and across from Shioya Diner, a genuinely kitschy American-styled diner that exudes personality and the scent of cajun-style chicken (New Englanders may notice an early parallel in wall decorations to the Cambridge/Portsmouth breakfast legend, The Friendly Toast).

IMG_5287The bath really is a bath (“Not an onsen,” we were corrected) immersed in artful tiling, murals and surreal touches along with hot water. It’s small, and probably takes about 30 minutes to appreciate, but for 500 yen it is well worth being able to tell the story of bathing naked under the watchful eyes of an enormous elephant on a high beam.

Disneyland for Architects
Naoshima and Teshima are remarkable for their commitment to a unique presentation of art, designed with careful concern for the personal experience of art in public spaces. It can be frustrating to co-ordinate schedules to view the pieces that require reservations (The Cultural Melting Bath is apparently open to just one set of participants per day, and even then for only an hour. Kinza, an art house on Naoshima, is designed to be experienced alone and therefore requires the reservation of a 15-minute slot, which you can do online).

What’s truly remarkable about Naoshima is its stubborn resistance to tourist traps. There are few modern escapes here: Cheap karaoke and pachinko hasn’t blighted the land. The Bennesse refuses to add TV or Internet access to the rooms.

Despite the ultramodern architecture, the transition from ancient homes to futuristic clay domes feels natural, owing to Ando’s architectural style and insistence on using traditional materials in ultramodern ways. The result is an idealized future Japan, where the tension between modern creativity and ancient traditions have come to a symbiotic relationship. Naoshima is a perfect example of a conservative approach to radical progress.

In the transcendent pieces of James Turrell and into the more “funky” art of the bath house and Il Vento cafe, the point of the experience is to present new possibilities, to reward the sharpening of our observations and awareness, to snap us out of the inner shorthand we apply to simplify our lives at the cost of blocking out complexity. We can never experience awe from this perspective, and that is what is so comforting about the works on Naoshima. Even if it isn’t sublime, a stream of engaging experiences helps shake us back into seeing our surroundings in a new way.

Going Back
“Those things that we encounter for the first time immediately have a spiritual effect on us,” writes Wassily Kandinsky, the painter and author of Concerning the Spiritual in Art. “A child, for whom every object is new, experiences the world in this way: it sees light, is attracted to it, wants to grasp it.” That the child is burned by flames makes that first experience of awe so frightening. Art is the gentle practice of returning to that state where we can gaze outward at that light on the wall without trying to hold on to it.

I couldn’t help but to think back to Kyoto, and the novelty of old shrines and temples as they tried to renew the focus on the meaning of Zen and Shinto practice to keep it from dissolving into empty dogma. The gates of Fushimi-inari shrine were a once-modern innovation on the practice of the torii gate marking a divine space. By placing them all together in a string, they challenge the pilgrim to stay focused on the divine despite its constant presence. This creativity is what makes the best shrines and temples of Japan so fascinating as they seek to reconnect the viewer with the sense of peace and calm that comes from fully experiencing awe at the sight of something beautiful. Shrines are art spaces, and art spaces are shrines.

If science, art and religion had never fractured, Naoshima and Teshima is what laboratories might look like for the design and creation of sacred spaces. A form of architecture dedicated to contemplation of and attention to the natural world and our own minds.

“Stop thinking!” It’s the order of Kandinsky, “Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to walk into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”

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8 Responses to On Finding God in a Gourd in Naoshima (In Japan)

  1. Nice overview of Naoshima with some extra tidbits about Teshima.
    May I correct you about one thing though: “a cafe designed by Pipplotti Rist”
    You’re confusing a few things here.
    The place you’re talking about is a restaurant called Shima Kitchen that was designed by Ryo Abe (I even think he won some architectural prizes for it in 2010). What’s interesting there on top of the building itself that is awesome, is that as you hinted, the food is 100% local, and recipes were designed as a team by the women of Karato (the village) and some chefs from a big hotel in Tokyo (Marunouchi). While the curry is delicious, I really advise the fish and vegetables dish, (it tends to sell out very quickly on busy days though).
    Meanwhile, next door, there is a video installation by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist.

  2. R says:

    “If I can create some space that people haven’t experienced before and if it stays with them or gives them a dream for the future, that’s the kind of structure I seek to create” Tadao Ando
    Yes! He did it, for me at least. Wonderful article~ Naoshima opened my awe filled eyes to architecture, space, light and nature. I did well then.

  3. Eric says:

    Wow; I’m not generally one for contemporary art, but this seems incredible. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Catspaw says:

    I am going to miss your Japan. Another excellent piece.

  5. handayani says:

    Great blog, Greetings and best wishes always for you ^^

  6. Pingback: The Islands of Japan – Naoshima | WAttention Singapore

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