The coolest, high-tech ancient place around

Seto Inland Sea

Discover the Seto Inland Sea with novelist Pico Iyer.

Every one of the pieces in the Chichu Museum, on the long-forgotten island of Naoshima, in Japan’s Inland Sea, has to do with light. But in the whole astonishing structure, built underground so as not to disturb the environment, and deploying natural light, there are really only five pieces in all. One room, with cornerless walls and white marble floors and frames, a shaded opening high above, contains five Monet paintings of water-lilies; three others, by the contemporary American James Turrell, are more or less studies in light, in one of which there’s just a rectangular slab cut in the ceiling so that the heavens themselves become an object of contemplation, a work of art. And in the last, by Walter de Maria, is a vast room with a 6-foot granite sphere at its centre that reflects back everyone who walks towards it. So it becomes something new each moment of the day, and when you come out of it, you start thinking about Monet’s reflections again, and the water-lilies in the sky uncovered by Turrell.

It’s probably the most transporting museum experience I’ve had in fifty years; but the most startling thing of all is that all these high-tech visions, by two contemporary Americans and a 19th century Frenchman near the end of his days, in a structure designed by the brilliant Osaka architect Tadao Ando, take you back to the heart of classical Japan. In almost a quarter-century of living around Kyoto, I’ve never seen anywhere that so exemplifies the ancient Japanese principles of spaciousness, simplicity and precision. Somehow, Naoshima’s art spaces make new--and newly meaningful—those aesthetic ideas that some of us Japan-lovers first wanted to absorb when we read a haiku or entered a tatami room with a brush-and-ink painting on one wall.

Naoshima is not easy to get to: from Tokyo or Kyoto, the trip involves a bullet-train to Okayama, and then a slow local train and a 20-minute ferry and a bus to get to its epicentre, Benesse House (all of which can take much of a day); and even if you fly to Takamatsu, eight miles away, you still have to wait for an occasional hour-long ferry to take you to the island. But all that wonderfully heightens the air of pilgrimage, and the sense of leaving the modern world behind you. And when you arrive at this sleepy fishermen’s place of 3,000 or so souls, where there’s only a single taxi and you can walk anywhere within an hour, you realise you’ve arrived at somewhere a universe away from fast-forward, jostling, fluorescent-lit urban Japan.

This becomes doubly strange because most of the places you will visit are among the most futuristic things anywhere in Japan. After the Fukudake company (now Benesse) bought large swatches of the southern half of the island in the late 1980s, and invited Ando to come and design a cluster of museums and rooms in which guests could stay, what had once been a rather old-fashioned place, worried it might miss the boat, quickly became the last word in cool. Ando’s Benesse House, a 49-room hotel scattered across two buildings, features original art in every room and light sculptures, abstract photographs along its corridors. In the Benesse House Museum up the road, guests can stay on the second and third floors of a place filled with Warhol and Hockney and Rauschenberg, and wander the galleries at night, or contemplate its holdings above their beds. And behind the Benesse Museum Ando built an Annex (now called the Oval), which is a semi-circle of six almost secret rooms at the top of a mountain, built around a reflecting pond, next to 360-degree views over the national park and bays of the island, all reached by a private monorail.

In one of the most radical projects of all—and this says everything about Naoshima—the old castle town of Honmura, a village of low wooden houses laid out on a grid after a fire in 1781, in the shadow of temples and graveyards, has been opened up so that six tatami houses host hyper-contemporary art installations in them. In one, a Statue of Liberty bursts through the second floor; in another you can see LCD lights twinkling in a pond where the living-room might be. In a third—the site of a Buddhist temple once—you walk into another Ando construction to find a Turrell-designed room that is pitch black. Sit down in the dark for eight minutes—or ten—and you begin to see the light.

Naoshima is without question the most stylish and in some ways otherworldly, exhilarating site I’ve seen in Japan, at once up-to-the-minute—a new museum opened in 2010, dedicated to the minimalist, spiritual works of the Korean-born Lee Ufan, along with a regular international art festival —and yet, in its way, at least as ancient in its meditative quiet, its pristine spaces and its sense of concentration as anything in Kyoto. Those who don’t have the funds to sleep at Benesse House can stay in Mongolian yurts on the beach, ten minutes walk away, for only 3,600 yen (£25) a night. And, though there are no convenience-stores, video arcades or pachinko parlours on the island, there are any number of family guest-houses that may house you for even less.

You could see Naoshima in 36 hours, but I’d recommend spending as long as you can there. Each day you’re taken deeper into yourself, a sense of stillness and a feeling of attention so clear that you start to see everything around you, not least the great blue expanse of the Inland Sea all around, as a work of art. And the best thing of all is that the island, like many of its pieces, is constantly changing. Each time I walked into the room containing Turrell’s piece of sky, it was something different. The reflections in the granite sphere, the Monets growing more shadowy in the darkening afternoon, seemed to be constantly in motion, new every second. By my second day there I felt that I’d not just stepped into a cutting-edge vision of the future. I’d walked into a high-tech, reinforced concrete Shrine to the Deep and Pristine Past.