How Art Saved The Day
One of the things we always do when we travel is to visit a modern art museum. Even in Florence we didn’t go to Uffizi but to the Museo Novecento, a modern art museum down the road. So when our friend Poppy said to us that there are several islands dedicated to modern art in Japan, we made a mental note, although we weren’t sure we’d have the time to see them. Well, we made the time! Why? Because not only are these islands dedicated to modern art, they are also an inspiring example of sustainable tourism and how art can save the day.
The islands are collectively known as “art islands” and are located in the Seto Inland Sea (between the main island of Honshu and the lovely gem that is Shikoku). The main islands are Naoshima and Teshima, but there are a couple of smaller and still developing islands close by. We decided to focus on one island rather than rush about, and stayed for a couple of nights on Naoshima. We've found that we get a better experience by stopping, giving that place and its people our full attention. We are much more open for new interactions if we're not always looking at our watch. The island houses several museums and an “art hotel” built by the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando, a lover of concrete if there ever was one.
The story of art at Naoshima is a true fairytale and it shows the power of art to transform. Naoshima's story in many ways resembles that of many other rural communities in Japan. In 1917 Mitsubishi Mining Company Ltd. (now Mitsubishi Materials) established a copper smelter and refinery on the island, which allowed people to have a stable income, to marry and to stay on the island. From 2,000 inhabitants in 1910 it grew to 7,800 in 1960s. Although Mitsubishi built a cultural hall and hospital, the refinery was modernised, streamlined and partly relocated, which meant that around 100 people a year were losing their jobs and today around 3,400 people live there, 30% of whom are elderly. Having a large proportion of population that is elderly is something that we’ve come across elsewhere in Japan.
What is spectacular about art here, is that it's embedded in the community, rather than a separate attraction. The project was started by the Benesse Holdings and Fukutake Foundation in collaboration with the Mayor of Naoshima to create something that the community would actually need and benefit from. One of the main collaborations between the local community and artists is the The Art House Project, which is a renovation of several old local buildings into art installations. The inhabitants of the island not only show guests around these museums, but they also actively take part in some of the installations. This has brought pride to a community that felt like it was disintegrating in the past.
The impact of these museums and exhibitions is not only limited to art but has also extended to agricultural projects. Due to cadmium pollution in the post-war period, the rice fields on the island had been destroyed and not used since the 1970s. “The Naoshima Rice Growing Project” has been launched in order to revive this important aspect of life and livelihood. We even saw a project related to growing olive trees and producing olive oil on the neighbouring island of Shodoshima.
The main aim of the project is to keep the islands self-sustaining and tourism is hugely helping in that aim. Around 5,000 tourists visited the island in 1990. In 2004 when the Chichu Art Museum opened 100,000 people visited and in 2009 the numbers climbed to 360,000. So this is a significant increase to tourism and trade, helping to sustain an otherwise dying community. And it’s great to see. This is one of the few rural places where we saw lots of school kids and a community that seemed to be rooted in tradition and modern life all at the same time. The Mayor of Naoshima summarised the impact of the art on the island: “The most important thing is that we have been given greater energy, dreams, confidence and pride.” And you couldn’t really ask for more than that!
We travelled to the islands from Shikoku, and so got the boat across from Takamatsu. But if you’re traveling from any major city, easiest is to get the train to Okoyama and from there to the port in Uno. There you can grab the boat across, which is all very easy and the schedule and details are on the website (http://benesse-artsite.jp/en/access/)
There is a surprising amount of accommodation on the island, although it didn't seem so when we were researching online. This was on our minds before getting to the island. Once we had their tourist information booklet we realised that there’s more places than we imagined. We have now located a link to these for you, you’re welcome! We stayed at an Airbnb across the water on the first night, and then in Little Plum on the second night (it was quite noisy, but a good location otherwise).
We loved: James Turrell installations witch play and challenge your perception of space and light and the Monet at Chichu Art Museum, it's the classic set of Monet in beautiful surroundings.