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So, this was going to be another 2 night stay with the main aim to be visiting the Naoshima art island. I read about this place a few years ago and desperately wanted to go ever since. I loved the concept of having an island with all these art projects and installations going on.
There is an amazing sounding hotel on the island which has it’s own art and is in an amazing setting but costs an absolute fortune. There are other accommodation options on the island but they all turned out pretty awkward for people on a short stay with heavy bags. What we ended up doing was staying on the little town on the mainland where the ferry leaves from. This turned out to be a great experience in itself. I found a guy who rents out rooms in his traditional family home – the Uno Slope House. This couldn’t have been a better place to stay. The guy wasn’t around but he had a girl who looks after everyone while he’s not away. Shiori had lived in New York so spoke perfect English (and told us where to find good Japanese in NY) and also her family owned a diner in town, which I’ll get to later. Shiori picked us up from the station and hung around even though we were quite late and hadn’t been able to get in touch to tell her (note to Japan Rail Pass users – you can’t use the passes on all trains so check schedules carefully). It was nice to be looked after and everything being so laid back.
Once we got back to the house we were immediately in awe of the place. Traditional Japanese architecture – not massively old but it had been his family home growing up and was just built in that typical style and was really homely. The architecture geek in me was in love! We were also rather chuffed to find we were staying in the tea room. Many Japanese have these room which is where they’d traditionally take tea.
There was a cosy living room and a kitchen with a nice chunky, big kitchen table. I haven’t sat around a kitchen table for a very long time.
There were a guy and a girl from Australia also staying there so was nice to sit, drinking tea chatting about Japan and other travelling and our lives.
Another interesting part of the house was the toilet. Running the tap on the mini sink on the toilet, to wash your hands, refills the cistern. A simple but ingenius eco idea.
On the first night we ventured down to the aforementioned diner.
Osaka-ya is a family run cafe that had some of my favourite food in Japan.
The place had been decorated in a quirky way with some fun artwork, I think done by Shiori.
They had fantastic sets where you’d get all kinds of bits and pieces. It was pretty chilly out so some hot sake was gratefully consumed.
The first night I had thin slices of beef (I think this is what’s known as Shabu, Shabu), second night some ginger pork. The set came with rice, yellow radish, spinach and sesame seeds, a cucumber thing with seaweed and whole little fish in and miso soup. The food was so good and so satisfying. Really showing us how our perceptions of Japanese food were way off. Also incredible value. I could have eaten there every night for a week and never gotten sick of it.
And we were introduced to a delightful thing which Mark now just calls ‘sprinklings’. They are packets to sprinkle on rice. They had egg, which was kind of like concentrated/powdered egg and poppy seeds as well as dried fish and seeds. Shiori told us you could get these anywhere, even the 7’11 so it was something I stocked up on before we left Japan.
The second night we went back a bit earlier, on the way back from the ferry. They had Sumo wrestling on which I’d never watched properly before. It’s actually really great to watch and quite addictive. I was gutted we never got chance to go to a live match. There was a tournament on at Okayama, where we’d had to change trains to reach Kyoto. Our new aussie friends had been staying there and had seen the wrestlers out and about in their dressing gowns (or what I used to call a kimono before I realised that isn’t what one is). It is the thing I feel we missed out on the most – I would have loved to have seen a wrestler in the flesh. They are fascinating.
The art island
We had a great start to the day, firstly by being made a yummy breakfast (including home-made pancakes) and then being dropped off at the ferry.
Naoshima island is less than a half hour ride on the ferry. You then arrive and suss out one of the buses to take you somewhere as your starting point. Actually the first bus stopped somewhere and then we got on another. Couldn’t have been longer than 20/30 minutes and it proved to be quite useful as we drove through the north of the island where we’d head to later.
We’d got some maps but the process was a little confusing. In the end I just picked a random place to start and we jumped off the bus.
We went into a building which was designed as an architectural example – angled concrete, kind of set into the ground like a mammoth bunker. It had some interesting art in there but I do have to say it was really expensive for something which only had a handful of things and took less than quarter of an hour.
Most of the things I wanted to see were outdoor installations anyway and we were so blessed that day, as it had been dark and pouring the previous day. It was chilly but the sun was out and the sky was the perfect backdrop to the island. The beaches were truly beautiful which I was so not expecting. Stunning in fact. And most of the time, because there is not that many visitors to the island at that time of year, we were on our own. It was truly amazing. We walked along, taking in the awesome (in the old fashion sense of the word) scenery.
The pumpkin is probably the most iconic image to anyone who’s heard of Naoshima and with it’s spot on a jetty over the ocean was begging for photos!
I think just the contrast of something that colour and shape against the natural backdrop just works so well.
It’s difficult to really put into words but it really is a special place and walking between installations and through the countryside and the beach was so relaxing, despite the distances.
It was quite a way to get from the last main sculpture area to the place where the Arthouse project was but we decided to walk instead of get the bus and I’m glad we did. There was all kind of quirky things on the way and it being quite a small island, it’s interesting to to see what goes on there – and the locals are really friendly.
Although the sun was out, it could get quite chilly at times, with a sharp wind. I was still suffering from a bad chest at this point so was tending to wear my mask, which by now I was worryingly attached to. Adding my shades, my scarf and me putting my hood up to keep the wind off my face, Mark had decided that I looked like a terrorist. I personally thought a terrorist wouldn’t generally look like that as I think blending in is a little more important, but you’ll see what’s he’s getting at. And this is for all of you who moan there is never any pictures of me – ha!
We were quite tired by the time we got to the village where the Art House Project is so we stopped for some tea and cake. Apple cake which is apparently a regional speciality, with lovely tea, Jack Johnson playing in the background and sitting on the floor at our Japanese style table resting our weary selves – not too shabby for Kt!
The Art House Project was probably my favourite thing. Scattered through the village were a bunch of projects – some architecture and art installations, often housed in empty houses.
The first thing we went to was Haisha, an abandoned house where they had done all kinds of interesting things, inside and out. They’d cut out part of the 1st floor so using the entire floor to roof spacing. In one of these they had a statue of liberty replica lit up in neon. Turn another corner and there was a bathroom covered in cut outs from vintage Thai magazines, which weirdly I recognised, as at one of the places we went to (ok a bar) in Hua Hin, it had framed pictures up from the same publication.
Minamidera was an experience which I will not describe as it would ruin it for anyone who goes there. I’ll just say that is messes with your senses and perceptions and I certainly wasn’t expecting such a thought-provoking experience.
Kadoya – Part of this had a dark room with a kind of indoor pool which had number lights floating in the water, which was another favourite.
Some of the things we liked, some not so much or even we didn’t get, but you always have that if you go to a gallery, which is essentially what the whole village has become. There was totally different styles, from delicate porcelain flowers which were unbelievably realistic, to some glasswork on an abandoned shrine which you could view part of from an underground cave, to modernistic buidling. I particularly liked the string art that was in a few places around the village.
I also liked that some of the locals have entered into the spirit and there was a few cute and interesting things sprinkled around the place, in front gardens etc.
Next to one of the little shrines there was a tree where you could offer money by slotting coins into the bark.
There is a lounge/gift shop in the centre of the village where we hung out to wait for the next scheduled bus to take us back to the ferry port. Even this was a cool space with some mid-century modern furniture and some mini installations.
There is different pumpkin down near the ferry dock which you can get inside, so we had a little fun playing in there. What? This is the joy of travelling – no-one knows you so you can be as silly as you like.
Back on Uno, I noticed a couple of amazing photos up on billboards. Apparently there was an art festival going on in Uno and there were some other things in town, one of which I saw on the local news later that night – a large fish made out of house hold objects – buckets etc – we had seen from a distance on the ferry, but we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to check out anything else.
That evening, having stuffed our faces and drunk hot sake at the diner, we were back at the house early evening and had the house to ourselves. That, in itself, was a bizarre experience. A whole house… to ourselves! We had a kitchen. a front room and bathroom alongside our bedroom. We sat in the front room watching TV (all in Japanese) and eating some sweet bits we’d picked up at the bakery down the road. Just chilling. Just us, with lots of space and piece and quiet. It was overwhelmingly lovely and actually made me overwhelmingly homesick. Not just for loved ones, which is a constant gnaw in my heart at this point, but for missing having a home that is bigger than one room and is cosy and calm and constant.
Just like with Kyoto, we were disappointed that we couldn’t stay in Uno longer. It doesn’t have lots of tourist sights but it is a normal, small Japanese town which in itself is an interesting cultural experience. It is quiet, calm, safe but also a bit quirky with it’s artistic leanings. And the house was so lovely to stay in, everyone we met was lovely and we could have eaten at Osaka-ya every night and enjoyed watching Sumo and strange quiz shows while drinking hot sake.