Naoshima is the island in the Seto Inland Sea that’s been transformed into a living art gallery. There are actual art galleries, of course, and permanent installations and sculptures, but the Setouchi Triennale is due to take over again at various points in 2016. Seeing the art isn’t cheap, but there are other ways to economize.

If you’re properly watching your cash, the cheapest way to see Naoshima is to stay in a cheapo business hotel in Takamatsu on Shikoku, or Okayama on Honshu, and get the ferry. It’s easier to catch the boat in Takamatsu—the port is right next to the town center—whereas if you’re in Okayama you have to catch a train to Uno. On the other hand, if you’re in Okayama you can also visit one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens (Korakuen) so there are wins and losses in both options.

Either way, you’ll probably end up at Miyanoura Port on Naoshima. When you buy your ferry ticket you’ll be given a map of the island, which details various transport options. This map also has some arrows on it, indicating hills. We can’t stress this enough:

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Naoshima map – Heed the arrows. | Photo by Rachel Holdsworth

Take your time and enjoy the little things

There’s no way you’re going to see all Naoshima has to offer in a day, and there’s plenty to enjoy outside the major sites, so don’t get caught up trying to see squeeze in too much. Also depending on the time of year the top sights and museums might be quite crowded, so we think it’s better to appreciate the little details, of which there are many.

Look for the subtle wire figures on the old wooden houses in Honmaru, check out what people have in their gardens, carefully pruned pine trees, rusting iron frog sculptures, grinning Totoro.

Photo by Chris Kirkland

Pay attention to the arrows.

Your first thought is probably going to be: brilliant, let’s go to the Benesse House, that’s the famous one. So it’s up a few hills? Who cares.You’ll care. You’ll care because those hills are basically a mountain switchback.

If you’re swift of the ferry and your timing is good you could get a bus (100 yen), but they only run a few times an hour. So really, your choices are to walk or rent a bike. And follow the route we’re about to suggest, or else your legs will fall off. There are several cycle rental places around Miyanoura port. The most obvious is within the ferry terminal itself, but there are three or four others within a couple of minutes’ walk. A normal bike costs 300-500 yen per day, and you can rent electrically assisted bikes for around 2,000 yen per day. You’ll also need a couple of thousand yen for a deposit.

Even a novice cyclist like myself managed with a standard bike—occasionally having to get off and push. As long as you’re not attempting any Tour de France-style mountain climbs you’ll be fine.

So: starting from Miyanoura, travel across the center of the island (15 minutes by bike) to Honmura and visit the Art House Project, which took old houses and transformed them into art installations. It costs 1,030 yen but there are six different buildings to visit so you can feel the value.

Of the six, we particularly recommend Minamidera by James Turrell, a light artwork that starts in total darkness and momentarily blew our perception of reality; the Go’o shrine (make sure you visit the caretaker to be handed a torch and pointed to the passage underneath); and the sheer bonkersness of the collages (and mini Statue of Liberty) at Haisha.

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(Speaking of Haisha… If you’re cycling, don’t be fooled by the street signs on the way into Honmura. They point to the Art House Project, but are for car drivers. You have, in fact, just ridden past Haisha. We don’t go want to go into how lost we got here.)

From Honmura, hug the eastern side of the island before cutting down to the south, taking in Yayoi Kusama’s famous yellow pumpkin on the way. The triptych of museums at the southern point of Naoshima (Benesse House, Lee Ufan Museum and Chichu Art Museum) involve some steep hills, but after that it’s downhill all the way. Like, freewheeling and clinging to the brakes for dear life.

naoshima pumpkin
One of Naoshima’s most famous sights: Yayoi Kusama’s dotted pumpkin | Photo by Rachel Holdsworth

Visiting all three museums isn’t cheap (the Benesse House and Lee Ufan Museum cost 1,030 yen each and Chichu Art Museum costs 2,060 yen). If you want to choose one, we’d point you to the Chichu. It’s the priciest, yes, but its concrete walls set into the ground conceal some cleverly curated rooms—you’ll never look at Monet the same way again—and fascinating installations. Plus, the view from the cafe might be better than the art.

View from the Chichu Art Museum cafe | Photo by Rachel Holdsworth

Back in Miyanoura, head immediately to I Luv Yu for an onsen to soak your weary legs for 510 yen. A towel costs 310 yen, but if you can bring your own soap it’s worth it as the ‘bath set’ (towel and small bottles of shower gel and shampoo) costs 1,030 yen. And there’s more art to gaze at as you steam yourself clean, congratulating yourself on having avoided the worst of the damn hills.

I Luv Yu onsen | Photo by Rachel Holdsworth

Plan B

You could alternatively do this route in reverse, cycling (or walking even) the mile or so from the Miyanoura area straight to the Chichu museum, then to Honmura and back. The advantage of doing it this way round is you should be able to arrive at least one museum for opening time, so being able to whip round before it’s too busy.

Massive trash can, tucked away in the middle of the island. | Photo by Chris Kirkland

Access and admission

There are 13 ferries a day from Uno to Miyanoura. The journey takes 20 minutes and costs 280 yen.

There are up to 10 trips a day from Takamatsu to Miyanoura which vary between ferries (60 minutes, 520 yen) and high-speed passenger boats (25 minutes, 1,220 yen).

The Art House Project costs 1,030 yen for all six installations or 410 yen individually. Opening hours: 10am-4.30pm. Closed Mondays, or Tuesdays when Monday is a national holiday.

The Benesse House costs 1,030 yen. Opening hours: 8am-last entry 8pm.

The Lee Ufan Museum costs 1,030 yen. Opening hours: 10am-last entry 5.30pm. Closed Mondays, or Tuesdays when Monday is a national holiday.

The Chichu Art Museum costs 2,060 yen. Opening hours: 10am-last entry 5pm. Closed Mondays, or Tuesdays when Monday is a national holiday.

I Luv Yu costs 510 yen. Opening hours: 2pm-9pm, from 10am on weekends and holidays. Closed Mondays, or Tuesdays when Monday is a national holiday.

Chris, our co-founder checking out the iconic Naoshima kabocha | Photo by Chris Kirkland

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