Discovering Naoshima

Jun 22, 2016

How Japan attempts to stem the tide of urban migration.


As the population of Japan ages and young people continue to migrate to urban centers, some of the country’s rural villages are becoming ghost towns. With varying degrees of success, world-class art and architecture are being deployed to attract sorely needed tourism to the Japan’s remote corners. Naoshima, and the neighboring islands of Teshima and Inujima, in the Seto Inland Sea, demonstrate the potential of a well-coordinated revitalization initiative.

While on administrative leave following her five-year term as director, architecture professor Leslie Van Duzer was invited to teach two studios and a seminar at Hosei University in Tokyo. Long a devotee of art pilgrimage sites such as Donald Judd’s Marfa and Land Art works by Walter de Maria, Robert Smithson, and James Turrell, Leslie traveled to Naoshima and surroundings with students enrolled in her Art and Architecture seminar.

As always with the best of pilgrimage sites, getting there was half the adventure: three trains to Narita Airport in Tokyo, a flight to Takamatsu, a bus to the city center, and a ferry to the island. Once finally on Naoshima, it is easy to feel one has traveled back in time. Traditional wooden houses, blackened for self-preservation, line the tiny streets and the mostly elderly residents go about their business. Just as one begins to feel apologetic about invading their villages, one is reminded that it this tourism that has allowed these communities to survive.

The art-architecture works on these islands are quite unique due to their settings, the collaborative nature of their inception, and their site-specificity and permanence. Some of the artworks are embedded within the traditional island villages, many of those within very old restored houses. The art sites are in fact so well integrated into the village fabric, it can be challenging to locate them. Other artworks are sited in landscaped settings—near a rice paddy or in a meadow, on a beach or a plateau. As one approaches these art sites, “natural” landscapes give way to landscape architecture with subtle and remarkable transitions.

Art installation by the sea, Naoshima, Japan

All the artworks are site-specific and intended to be permanent. Most of the artists worked in close collaboration with architects to design their sites. While Tadao Ando and James Turrell are the most widely represented architect-artist team, many other well established and emerging architects and artists are represented, from both the East and West. Canada is well represented by Storm House, an installation by British Columbian sound artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.

This weekend excursion, which included numerous installations on Naoshima and Teshima, as well as a visit to Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Mure, offered rare and fulfilling teaching and learning moments, when students could immerse themselves in the very artworks they studied in the course.