In the middle of our trip, in between visits to Tokyo, we went to the "art island" of Naoshima. The extremely short version of how it came to be is that the chairman of an educational publisher, Benesse, loved art and architecture so much that he organized a compound on an island about five hours by train, bus, and ferry from Tokyo.
The first component was an art museum with hotel rooms, called Museum; up the hill from it is Oval. (More on that in a bit.) Later, another area was added, composed of Beach, right on the water (where we stayed), and Park (the least interesting option). They're all a five-to-ten minute walk apart or you can take a shuttle.
I thought the art would be the main highlight, but what I really took away from the experience was the architecture. Tadao Ando designed all of the buildings, and they were breathtaking.
The idea behind Museum is that guests can spend time in the museum after hours, but we never saw it crowded. (We did go mid-week.) Nothing on the island was very crowded, in fact, including the two museums a short walk past the hotel. One was dedicated to the art of Lee Ufan:
That's the entrance, beyond which photos weren't really allowed. Photos weren't allowed in many of the Naoshima sites, which was both too bad and a relief—because the architectural photographer in me would have become obsessed. That's especially true of the third museum, the Chichu Art Museum. It's all built underground, and much of it is lit by natural light from above. I don't know that I've ever been in a more magical contemporary building. Here's one of Benesse's photos so you can see what I mean.
The orange pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama, at the end of a pier, is the signature piece of the Benesse compound; they sell miniatures of it all over. (Yes, we bought one.) The red version by the ferry pier was more fun because it was interactive.
Benesse has also taken over six old houses in a town elsewhere on the island and given them over to artists for installations (including a very dark James Turrell room to which your eyes slowly adjust). The two photos below are of the same site; the glass stairs continue down into a vault accessible to non-claustrophobes.
As for Oval, every write-up we saw recommended it as the place to stay, but it was sold out during our dates. I had read that its green roof was off limits to non-Oval guests, but I had assumed that we would be able to at least see the structure. Even that wasn't possible, however, except for from the distance (on the pier with the pumpkin). And when I learned that Oval is reached via a monorail, I was next-level miffed. I asked a staffer whether it was really true that we couldn't even see Oval; he said that was indeed the case. I asked another; same response. I asked a third; same response yet again. "Let me get this clear," I said. "We're just supposed to take your word that it exists?" I don't know what I said that made it happen, but she suddenly realized that Oval has a bar that's open for two hours or so on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights—and tonight was Thursday night. (This is even more baffling because Adam had called down earlier to find out if there was a bar anywhere in the hotel, and he was told there wasn't.) After dinner, we approached the front-desk clerk, who, sure enough, led us and four other guests to the six-person monorail, closed the door, and pushed the button that sent us up the hill. Adam and I were giddy—we never thought we'd actually get to ride the monorail or see Oval. I felt like I was being led into a Bond villain's lair—or more accurately Dr. Evil's lair, because the monorail was ridiculously slow. The bar itself was nondescript, but Oval, or at least its courtyard, proved to be architecturally interesting: the world's coolest motel.