Naoshima, Japan’s Avant-garde Island of Art

Welcome to Naoshima—Japan’s obscure avant-garde island full of art museums, beaches, and outdoor sculptures.  Since I am a lover of all things aesthetic, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go here while I was traveling through Okayama.  This island is very small but has a lot to see.  It’s well-known among art enthusiasts and travelers that like to go off the beaten path.  The most iconic piece of art you’ll find is the giant yellow pumpkin at the pier designed by Yayoi Kusama, but there’s an artistic sense all around here.  Even if you’re not a huge fan of art, it’s really fun to go cycling and swimming here because it’s quite secluded from the rest of Japan.  This island is actually part of Shikoku though you can access it from Honshu too.  I’ll be detailing my full experience in this article!

Getting around Naoshima

From the net cafe I was staying overnight at (Jiyuu Kuukan), I walked to Okayama Station and rode the Seto-Ohashi Line to Chayamachi Station, then took the Uno Line to Uno Station for 50 mins total.  From Uno Station, I walked to the nearby port and rode a ferry for 30 mins to Naoshima island.  These ferries are frequent and leave almost every hour (see time table here).  It was a very fun ride and the weather was perfect too!

I rented a bike for 500 yen/day because cycling is the best way to see all of Naoshima.  The whole island takes about 2.5 hours total to cycle around and is pretty easy to navigate because it’s circular.  However, it’s easy to spend a whole day here because there are so many museums to see.  There are many hostels and resorts you can stay overnight at too.  I didn’t stay overnight here, but I really want to next time!

I started my trip by riding my bike to Gotanji Bathing Beach where the giant yellow pumpkin is.  I spent around an hour here swimming and seeing all of the Picasso-esque statues that line the beach area.  I met a mix of both Japanese and international travelers who were very friendly.  There was a giant raft in the middle of the swimming area where I actually took a nap on!  That’s how relaxing it is here~

After feeling refreshed from the ocean, I decided to make my way around to the major museums.  Some are free to enter but others have admission fees.  I would research them beforehand budget around 3000 – 6000 yen depending on what you want to see.

Exploring the Museums

The main museums worth seeing on the island are:

  • Benesse House – Museum by the beach with indoor and outdoor exhibits.  They combine their hotel with the “coexistence of nature, art and architecture” and are responsible for many projects on the island.
  • Chichu Art Museum – An ambient museum built mostly underground.  The natural light plays a huge role in seeing the artwork here.
  • Lee Ufan Museum – A contemporary art museum consisting of stones and two-dimensional paintings.  His art has a tranquil feeling when paired with the seaside viewpoint.
  • Ando Museum – A traditional wooden house that uses creative architecture to contrast light and shadow and the past from the present.
  • Teshima Art Museum – This is a famous art museum located on the nearby Teshima Island that resembles a water droplet and is perfect for photography.
  • Art House Projects – A series of small houses with a variety of different art from different artists.  For a full list, please see the Benesse Art Project Site.

*Please note that photography is not allowed at all museums, but is okay outside most places.

One of the most interesting things I saw was the light-up ‘Live & Die’ piece at Benesse House (pictured in the very top photos).  The words on the boards all have different associations with life and death.  While the lights faded, a Japanese man walked up and spread his arms out, as if embracing the words it had projected.  It was one of the coolest reactions I have ever witnessed at an art museum in my life.  I also saw a graveyard outside of the Lee Ufan museum.  Its juxtaposition with the art made me think more on the concept of life and death.  I did a lot of reflecting this day and it was very good for my mental heath.  That’s why I’m planning to come back here in the summer again and see all the spots that I missed!

Food & Drinks

There are restaurants, bakeries, and cafes all over the island so you can easily find a place that catches your interest.  I had cold soba noodles and matcha bread with anko for lunch at a place called Aisunao.  It was all homemade food and tasted amazing!  When I got back to Okayama, I drank a drink that smiled back at a Tiki Bar.  You seriously can find great selection here wherever you look!

Bathing in a Artsy Bath

Before I took the ferry back, I decided to bathe at the artsy bath called I♥湯 (I love you).  The outside of the bath house has an aesthetic mosaic design that looks like no other bath house in Japan.  The indoor area has equally beautiful architecture.  It was a great way to end the trip.  The entrance fee is only 660 yen.

Exploring other Islands

One regret I have is that I didn’t look into exploring the two smaller art islands you can access from Naoshima: Inujima & Teshima.  Both islands can be reached from Naoshima in less than 20 mins.  Benesse has a nice two-day itinerary where you can see all the major works of the three islands.  I will be going back hopefully later this year to see the small things that I missed!

Access

I mentioned the route that I took above, but there are multiple ways to get to Naoshima.  Please see the Benesse site for more information.

If you are interested in reading more of my art articles, please see my Yayoi Kusama and Innovative Art Museums in Asia articles!

Riding a Bike through the Sky in Okayama (Washuzan Highland)

After hitch-hiking around Okayama and seeing all of the major sights it had to offer, I decided to make my way to Washuzan Highland so I could ride the “most terrifying rollercoaster in all of Japan” (that’s really not so terrifying).  Washuzan Highland is a Brazilian-themed amusement park about an hour from Okayama Station.  The park has everything from roller coasters to swimming pools to petting zoos.  Because it’s located in the countryside of Japan, it has a huge amount of attractions but not nearly as many tourists as other amusement parks.  With the tropical plants, Brazilian performers, and the vibrant atmosphere, I really did feel like I was in a different country here!

The terrifying rollercoaster, called the “SkyCycle”, is actually a pedal-powered roller bike that’s extremely high up in the sky.  Although I didn’t find it scary, the fear likely stems from the fact that it’s not automated like other rollercoasters; the bike is entirely in your control and you go around at your own pace.  Looking down might cause panic for those who are afraid of heights, but this is a great ride for people like me who love adventure.  The ride is only about a minute long but you get an awesome view of Okayama Prefecture and Shikoku Island from it:

I was a little disappointed that the ride wasn’t a bit longer, but I understand that people may get scared over time if it were.  The bike has two seats but you can ride it alone.  I rode it twice so I could experience it from both the inward and outward seats.  The outward seat is definitely more thrilling because it faces the edge and you can feel the motion of the turns more.  Though it looks a bit dangerous from all of the media exposure, SkyCycle is completely safe because each chair has a seat belt, so you don’t have to worry about falling off.  You should be careful of dropping your camera though!

After surviving the most terrifying rollercoaster, I decided to go swimming for a while in the pool.  It’s not very deep but it’s extremely refreshing on a hot day in August!  Next I did some rollerskating at the roller rink.  I specifically remember that the song Cookie by banvox started playing on a loudspeaker, and I picked up the pace.  It was really cool to hear one of his rare older songs played in his home prefecture!  By that point I was exhausted, so I bought a melon and hung out at the petting zoo.  I enjoyed seeing the white hens and hamster tree.  I ate some nice egg sushi from a place nearby as well (the tamago sushi here is ginormous).  Though this happened nearly three years ago, I still remember what an exhilarating experience this was!

Unfortunately I didn’t take many pictures of the park, but trust me it’s worth riding the SkyCycle for this view:

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I may come back here again with my GoPro if I have time in the future.  If you have the time, consider checking out Okayama!  It’s such an under-rated city and has much for you to discover.

Access

303-1 Shimotsuifukiage, Kurashiki, Okayama 711-0926

Admission Fee: 2800 yen (worth it because there’s hardly any wait time for the rides)

Hitch-hiking my way through Okayama, Japan

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Okayama Castles stands proudly on a summer morning.

Three years ago I decided to go backpacking through Okayama for the main purpose of visiting Washuzan Highland so I could ride the infamous pedal-powered roller coaster of terror through the sky, but I got sideswept into come crazy adventures in the city before I even made it there.  Some of these are too good not to share so I’m writing this story in three separate articles.

It all started while I was walking from Okayama Station to Jiyuu Kuukan, the net cafe where I was staying for the night because I didn’t have much money, when a Japanese guy around my age started talking me up.  Unlike most people I encounter in this type of situation, he wasn’t trying to hit on me (or at least he didn’t make it obvious).  He invited me out for drinks because he was taking the TOEIC [English proficiency exam] soon and wanted to practice his English.  He also noted that it was quite rare to see solo woman travelers here in Okayama, but I get that a lot wherever I travel.  It doesn’t really phase me at all.  I agreed to go out for drinks with him because well, I love drinking!

I didn’t really teach him much English because I don’t consider myself qualified (despite being an English teacher previously), but I did answer his questions and make him feel more confident.  He informed me he worked at a car company nearby in Kurashiki; a place in Okayama that I had planned on visiting.  In return for my English lesson (if you could call it that), he offered to drive me around Okayama since many parts of the prefecture are difficult to reach by just using the trains.  So the next day I hit him up with a series of destinations I had come up with.  Buckle up because this is a crazy ride!

Le Soleil Patisserie

My favorite dessert place in Okayama is hands down Le Soleil.  Their double-layered cheese cake (literally called double cheese cake) is the best cheese cake I’ve ever had in my life.  The whipped cream on top is immense, but not overpowering.  It melts like butter in your mouth.  They have tons of other delicious sweets and pastries available too.  What originally inspired me to come here was banvox’s birthday post:

He originally used to reside in or near Okayama so the chefs of Le Soleil sent him this giant cheese cake.  Since you can’t order this specific cheese cake in Tokyo, I made it a mission to try it here.  The bakery is conveniently on the way to Kurashiki so it’s easy to stop here even if you don’t have a car (though it may be a bit of walk, it’s not too far).

Access

88-3 Nakaobie, Kurashiki, Okayama 710-0013

Kurashiki

Kurashiki is the beautiful canal town of Okayama with a European aesthetic and design.  You can go for canal rides and browse the traditional shops that line the riverbed.  There are beautiful buildings covered with ivy in the Ivy Square and the Ohara Museum, which is the oldest Western art museum in Japan. I didn’t have time to check everything out but I did manage to take some awesome photos.  Being here was extremely relaxing.

While I was here, I convinced my friend try the local dish, takomeshi, with me.  Despite being an Okayama native, he had never tried it before.  This consists of chopped octopus with rice and is very delicious!  I forget the name of the restaurant we went to, but most seafood restaurants will have it or some kind of variation.

Access

Kurashiki Station is only 15 mins and 330 yen from Okayama Station (no car needed).

Yubara Onsen

My friend asked me if I wanted to go to a hotspring, and I said sure, why not!  Yubara Onsen is probably the most unique onsen I’ve been to because it’s outdoors, mix-gender, and open 24/7.  Plus it’s completely free unless you need to rent towels or swimwear.  The hotsprings are remote and secluded enough to where it pretty much has developed its own nudist culture.  Of course you can choose to wear swimwear, but be aware that many people will bathe naked.  Though once you start soaking in the hotspring, you completely forget about the other people and focus on the nature around you.  The backdrop of the mountains and the dam is simply breathtaking.  This was the first time I had ever bathed naked in a mixed hotspring but I felt very safe and welcome.

Access

Yubara Onsen is about an hour away from Okayama City by car, and 2 hours by bus (for 2600 yen one way).  Since the onsen is free, this is not a bad price to pay.

Makido Rainbow Caves

19875428_10212085236757604_8629948251575125813_nAfter a relaxing trip to the onsen, my friend and I decided to end the day with a trip to some psychedelic rainbow caves.  I’m not making this up.  I’ve been to caves all over Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam, but I’ve never seen any cave as colorful as the Makido Caves in Okayama.  These look like something straight out of a Final Fantasy game:

They nickname this place the “Dream Palace” for a good reason.  Makido is a limestone cave brought to life with carefully placed illuminated lights.  These lights bring out the colors and beauty of the cave and make it a very fun place to explore.

For those who are looking for a more normal cave experience, Makido has you covered.  You can find a non-illuminated section of the cave by following the main route.  They have an area where you can throw coins into the lake for good luck:

It takes about 30-40 minutes to see everything here.  We walked around the cave twice so we could watch all of the changing illuminations.

Access

2276-2, Toyonagaakouma, Niimi City, Okayama Prefecture

This cave takes about 1.5 hours to reach from Okayama City.  Some of the roads are quite narrow so it takes a lot of concentration to navigate (fortunately I was with an experienced driver).  If you are going by train, you must first take the Hakubi Line to Niima Station then take a bus to get here which takes around 2.5 hours and is 2000 yen.

Final Thoughts

I could not wrap my head around how amazing this day was.  We had managed to see so many things and I felt extremely grateful for this experience.  I owe it all to my friend who drove me around!  Unfortunately I lost contact with him after this trip, but I sincerely am thankful for his kindness and hope he passed his English exam.

Here is a video I took in 2017 on Snapchat to commemorate my hitch-hiking experience.  I remember playing all of my favorite Nakata Yasutaka-produced songs for my driver:

Epic Finds in Okayama: Okonomiyaki Serving Robots & Dinosaur Parks (Japan)

Over the weekend I traveled to Hiroshima Prefecture for the Pasocom Ongaku Club Nightflow Tour at two locations in rural Japan.  The events touched my heart so I will be writing a detailed report about their music in a future post, but first I wanted to point out two amazing places I found along the way while backpacking!

Next to Hiroshima Prefecture lies Okayama Prefecture, which is less than an hour away by shinkansen (bullet train).  I have traveled here before to explore Kurashiki, a famous canal town that attracts a lot of tourists, but here are some other off the beaten path recommendations I have for those who are visiting the area:

Shinju: The Okonomiyaki Serving Robot Restaurant

In this area of Japan, okonomiyaki–a pancake usually served with bacon, fried noodles, and vegetables–is an extremely popular dish.  The name “okonomiyaki” literally means “to one’s liking” so you can usually customize your order with other ingredients (such as seafood) or ask for a vegetarian version as well.

At Shinju, the extremely hardworking “NUMBER-ONE-ROBOT” will serve the ingredients you order directly to your table so you can cook the okonomiyaki yourself!  Wearing an adorable Disney hat and greeting you in a friendly tone, this robot does everything it can to make you feel welcome:

I decided to order the seafood okonomiyaki set with noodles.  I’ve had this dish before, but it’s been a long time since I prepared it on a hotplate myself.  The kind staff taught me the correct way to flip the pancake batter on the noodles to create the perfect okonomiyaki.  If you are unsure of how to do this, they will be sure to assist you (it’s actually quite easy once you get the hang of it):

After about 10-15 minutes of cooking, we ended up with this delicious result:

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The perfect seafood okonomiyaki with fried noodles, shrimp, octopus, and squid.

Not only is okonomiyaki delicious, but it’s also the perfect hangover food.  Overall the service here was above average and the staff even sat down and talked to me for a while.  I told them all about the event and how much I enjoy backpacking in Asia because it’s generally very safe to travel here.

The joke of the day was how the robot here resembled the robot on the Pasocom Ongaku Club Promotional flyer (drawn by Satoshi Kurosaki):

This was the best okonomiyaki restaurant I have ever been to, so I recommend it to literally everyone!

Shinju Address:

真珠
87 Higashihirajima, Higashi Ward, Okayama, 709-0631

Kasaoka Dinosaur Park

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Remember when the dinosaurs invaded rural Japan?  I remember, because I was there!

On the way back to Hiroshima for the 2nd event I was going to, I decided to stop by Kasaoka, Okayama, because it is the closest major city near the border.  Here I was elated to find a park full of dinosaurs outside of the Horseshoe Crab Museum!  Unfortunately I didn’t have time to go inside the museum, but I had a ton of fun photographing the dinosaurs in the park (which is free to visit).

I really find it odd that someone decided to put these dinosaurs all the way out here in rural Japan.  What inspired this park, and are there deeper secrets buried here in Kasaoka that are waiting to be discovered?  I will be searching for more places to visit like this in the future because I simply find them fascinating.  There’s so much more to discover in Japan than simply Tokyo–epic finds are literally everywhere.

Kasaoka Horseshoe Crab Museum Address:

Kabutogani Horseshoe Crab Museum
1946-2 Yokoshima, Kasaoka, Okayama 714-0043

Please look forward to the rest of my Hiroshima blog series!  I will be publishing it both this and next week~