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Okayama, Naoshima, Korakuen

October 7, 2015

Okayama. Heard of it? Me neither, but it’s the jumping-off point for Naoshima, the Art Island; and the home of Korakuen, one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens.

   
We stay at the Hotel Maira, a short walk from Okayama Station. It overlooks a canal running down through the city, a tributary of the Asahi River, that wraps around the west side of Korakuen, about which more later. The tree-lined canal acts as an urban park that reminded us of Amsterdam.

 
Our little room was clean and modern and comfortable. We’d happily recommend it to anyone traveling there.

After kicking back for a few we went out to see the neighborhood.

   
 
Okayama Castle and Korakuen at night.

We read about a chicken-and-noodles restaurant, Tori Soba, that sounded interesting, but I couldn’t locate it, even with my newly hard-earned Japanese skills. Peggy kept saying, “Why don’t you just ask someone?” Women.

So we kept passing this little joint where people were cooking their meals on charcoal braziers, and there was all this great-smelling smoke coming out the door, and we were starving…

   
 I might note that once one gets out of the big cities and away from traditional tourist venues such as hotels, finding an English speaker is not a sure bet. And indeed, such was the case. After a few awkward moments and a lot of menu-item-pointing, we settled on chicken and vegetables, which were delivered  along with individual braziers.

I won’t dwell on my pathetic chopstick technique, which prompted a waiter, God bless him, to deliver a pair of tongs to my plate, or the peculiar propensity of raw chicken to cling like glue to a hot grill. Eventually, with patience and lots of Asahi Super Dry beer, we had one of our better meals in Japan. We might even try it again, at home, in private.

 
The canal at night.

Tuesday, September 29

Today we arose early and hit the road for Naoshima.

  
Out of the city.

A train took us to the seaside town of Uno, where we boarded the ferry for Naoshima.

   
   

 Islands on the Seto Inland Sea.

  Peggy inside one of Yayoi Kusama’s two pumpkins on the island.

The four art sites are spread around the island, and free shuttle buses take people from one place to another. It’s possible to walk, though, and after seeing the Chi Chu museum, we did.

Here’s a good source of information, along with pictures of the art on display. Which is good, since photography inside the museums is forbidden:

http://www.benesse-artsite.jp/en/naoshima/
After buying our tickets to Chi Chu, we trekked up the road to the museum, stopping along the way to see a water lily garden modeled on Monet’s. (A room in the museum is dedicated to five of his water lily paintings, the only nod to an older-generation European artist we saw on the island.)

   
    

 

The  Chi ChuMuseum is dug into a hillside in such a manner that the rooms can be lit by sunlight from holes cut into the hilltop a few feet above.  That’s neat. What’s not so neat is having to tell instead of show. Here’s a list of what we saw:

Claude Monet – five water lily paintings

James Turrell -Afrum, pale blue,  Open field, Open sky

Walter de Maria – Seen, Unseen  Known, unknown

You can get some semblance of these, I hope, from the link above. I’d like to mention the de Maria piece – you see the picture, a big stone ball in a room with stair steps, and you may think Interesting, but it’s another thing to be in that room.

James Turrell I’ve kinda followed ever since I read about Roden Crater, his as-yet-unfinished earthmoving transformation of a meteor crater in the Arizona desert.  A lot of his work involves creating environments to see sunlight in a new way. Please look him up. We had seen the Afrum and Open Field pieces at LACMA,but Open Sky was new. There’s bench seating in a square room with a large square hole cut into the ceiling, but the hole is cut with a bevel so that you see the sky as a ceiling, and you are surprised when a bird flies across.

After Chichu, which is at the top of the mound of Naoshima, we decided to walk down to the next site, the Lee Ufang Museum.

  

A wall of ferns along the road.

  
Down the road a  bit, we came to the Lee Ufan Museum. Designed, like many other buildings on the island, by the Pritzker-prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, it’s almost all concrete, but a perfect setting for Mr. Ufan’s work. We were impressed by that work, but felt that what little was exhibited might have merited a somewhat more modest ticket price. Thus have I spoken.

  
A courtyard piece.  

  
 
Ocean shots from the Ufan Museum and the road leading to the Benesse House Museum. Turns out that the two boats above were actually part of a corresponding installation in the Benesse House by Jennifer Bartlett.
  
Our last stop on the island was the Benesse House Museum. This was more like a conventional art museum, with paintings and sculpture by Hockney, Johns, Frank Stella, several installations, and a colorful neon piece by Richard Prince.

  
Then it was back on the ferry, back on the train, back to Okayama and call it a day.

Wednesday, September 30

   
Today we checked out of Hotel Maira, leaving our bags in the luggage room while we went to see Korakuen Park.
 
Okayama Castle, at the south end of the park. We entered from here.

  
  
 
The charm of Korakuen is immediate. Above, an overview, looking north.

   
 
The garden has an Honest-to-God rice paddy…

   
…and a miniature tea plantation.
 
The castle overlooks a teahouse on the park lake, one of several Chinese influences on the garden.

  
  
A waterwheel, and an old guesthouse in the park.

At this point we left the park, in search of lunch.

   
With the help of a hotel employee, we finally found the elusive Tori Soba. Glad we did.
  
Japanese graffiti.
 
Now, off to catch the train to Osaka…

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