Today we rose early, like six o’clock, because we were travelling south on several trains and a ferry, to the island of Naoshima.
Some might feel alarm at the idea of having to work out and organise this sort of travel. But I cannot stress enough that travelling in Japan is easy. The trains are very clearly indicated and on all the main lines there is an English translation of the station names. On the Shinkansen bullet trains the announcements are also given in English. In most of the big stations there are personnel, from the JR railways, to help you. They speak basic English but this is sufficient to arrange travel. If in doubt you can ask a fellow traveller and if you have the name of your destination they will try to help. For example we were on a very local train from Okyama to Chaimaya but needed to verify this was in fact the correct train. The gentleman we asked jumped off the train to verify if the train stopped at Chaimaya. His only words in English on his return were “stop Chaimaya” and that was all we needed to know. Big deep bows of gratitude and we were on our way…
From Chaimaya we took en even “localer” train to Uno. I was sitting beside a lovely Australian guy who had worked here in Japan. He was a little disappointed to see the train so packed travelling to Uno as everyone on that train was heading for the island of Naoshima. When we arrived at the port the ferry was waiting. It is an amazing ferry which takes about 50 cars and many passengers. The trip only takes twenty minutes. We were amazed when making the comparisons with our own West Cork island ferries. We are still in the dark ages. The fare cost 560 yen which is about 7euro return. So how do they do that when our ferry price has risen to 12 euro for a 7 minute trip in a fairly rickety boat? Subsidy, presumably, and a proper policy to support rural areas, end of rant.
On arrival on the island there are personnel to tell you what local bus to get to your destination. The helper tells the driver where you want to get off. Then on arrival at your stop there is someone who escorts you to your accommodation. Unbelievable! The island is physically small but has a significant population. The bus just runs across and back, we are on the opposite side to the ferry landing, but only five or six minutes away.
So now “Why Naoshima”? Thanks to some great advice by a friend of my niece who suggested we visit here and what’s more that we should stay the night. This island used to be solely dependant on fishing but as the fishing industry declined the Islanders looked for a viable alternative. They were very lucky to have the support of Tadao Anno, the world famous architect. I am not sure what is his connection to the island but he took on to develop it in an incredibly sensitive way. He has designed all the main buildings including his own museum, the Chichu Art Museum. We were lucky enough to visit this today. It is built entirely into the landscape mainly underground. The structure is amazing, made of polished concrete. The shapes of the building creates fantastic shadows. All of the walls are at an angle. Inside is cool and somber. Only three artists are represented: Monet, James Turell and Walter de Maria. Each of them has a room devoted to their work. The Monet resembles the Marmotan in Paris. It is about his lily paintings of Givernay. But James Turell’s work was new to me. He worked with light. One installation, a more recent work, is called walking into the light. This involved us entering in groups of ten. The assistant explained that we needed to be careful ascending the steps that were rising into an area of pinkish light.
As we entered we walked slowly towards the light in a descending path. She warned us not to go further when she stopped. But guess who wanted to see why this was???? Barry moved forward really going towards the light and of course set off an alarm…. The reason for not going any further was because there was a void between where we were and the light. It was a very strange and unnerving sensation. When we turned back towards the entrance the opposite wall had a blue outline against the pale brown of the other side. It is hard to describe but an amazing effect.
De Maria’s work was also very interesting. Silence was part of the experience. It was a huge room with a gigantic black marble ball placed directly under the square opening to the natural light, way up in the ceiling. This reflected the open sky on the ball. On either side of this ball there were steps with wooden installations painted in gold leaf. My description is so lacking – I do not have the words to describe it. We feel very privileged to have had this experience.
Now to describe our accommodation. All I can say is it is way above our normal standard. We have a sort of Japanese chalet, very Zen. It is so beautiful with a little chair and table outside. Inside we have three rooms and a bathroom and WC. The wood is blonde stained cedar and very elegant. . Eating establishments are thin on the ground here especially those remaining open after the last ferry departs for the mainland.
Quietness descends on the island, just as in Sherkin after the last ferry. But we had spotted a restaurant which said it was open irregularly at night and reservations had to be made. So we headed off to find it when we returned from the museum. It was discretely signposted up what we would describe, in Ireland, as a very tiny ‘boreen’ (small road). The sign said ‘closed’ but Barry knocked on the kitchen door and sure enough the owner/chef was there and booked us in for tonight.
After a beer and shower we headed back. It looked lovely lit up at night. We have eaten in some strange places in our lifetime but this is among the most special. It was very simple, very local but full of charm and character. The food was delicious. Barry had blow fish, a first for him, and I had the most extraordinary coconut curry. We were really enjoying it when the four young lads who were eating up at the counter/bar leaped up and shouted something into the kitchen. Chef came running out with a huge bbq tongs. The lads chased the offending scorpion until they caught him and removed him to the outdoors. That too is a first for us. We have eaten in African restaurants where wildlife abounds but never a scorpion. Life is full of surprises.