At first glance, Naoshima, a teeny five-square-mile island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, doesn’t look like much. Just a quietly unassuming, albeit perfectly pretty rural outpost – a sparing landscape of green mottled cliffs and empty, biscuit-coloured beaches. Then you notice the giant pumpkins. There’s the big yellow one covered in black polka dots at the pier. Then the even larger, red-spotted pumpkin greeting visitors at Miyanoura Port. Later, strolling between villages along hushed island roads, I’ll spot more bizarre objects – some stuck in the sand, others peeping out from bushes – a huge tea cup, a geometric fishing net I can’t resist climbing inside for a picture, a multicoloured camel with trees growing out of its humps.
What do you think of when you hear ‘Japan’? Blade Runner-style cityscapes, strewn with video mega-screens and neon? Robot waiters and cat cafés? Or maybe tranquil temples, and sacred misty mountain tops. Certainly Japan’s ‘Golden Triangle’ – your typical tour that takes in Tokyo, Kyoto and the Japan Alps – can deliver. But, keen to see another side to this famously reserved, futuristic island nation, I’ve scooted further south along the country’s main island of Honshu, where there’s a whole other Japan waiting in the wings to be discovered; an ‘alternative Golden Triangle’, which topples as many stereotypes as it confirms.
Which is how I come to be on Naoshima. Once a sleepy fishing island, idle in its anonymity 700km below Tokyo, Naoshima is today completely overrun by contemporary art. Part-theme park, part-playground, and all brilliant, wherever you turn here, you’ll bump into an installation, a sculpture, or ultramodern, avant-garde museum. And those psychedelic pumpkins? They’re works by Japan’s greatest living artist: the eccentric, red-wigged octogenarian Yayoi Kusama, who has lived in a psychiatric hospital since 1975, and was an early influence on Andy Warhol. True story.
It’s a concept with just the right balance of crazy and genius to be distinctly Japanese, while offering a very different experience to your noisy megalopolis or reflective Zen garden. Even that most staid of institutions, the museum, is made thoughtfully radical: at Chichu Art Museum, I descend into an ethereal, all-white underground chamber, sparsely decorated with Monets. (Chichu literally translates as ‘in the earth’.) The white-out brings out the becalming effect of the Water Lilies; the silent museum staff are also dressed in head-to-toe white, and as they glide around, I’m left with the distinct impression that I’ve dropped through a portal into a museum from the year 2135.
This artsy wonderland is mostly funded by Benesse, an educational publishing company with its name on Naoshima’s biggest art institution, Benesse House. Here, I’m admiring a painting of upturned black and yellow rowing boats when, through the window, I notice those exact same boats are lying on a beach in the distance – an exact mirror image of the picture on the wall. It’s at once everything you think you know about Japan – visionary, meticulous, undeniably odd; and the opposite – calm, muted, bucolic. It’s also a more cerebral form of Japanese surrealism than a goat café – but just as much fun.
The heart of Japan
The next point on the triangle, 175km south-west, is Hiroshima. Visiting here might sound about as much fun as a mini-break in Chernobyl, but unlike the Ukrainian disaster site, this is no ghost town left to rot. Far from it: I step off the Shinkansen, or bullet train, into a pleasantly busy city of wide, leafy boulevards, where commuters to and fro on a quaintly trundling street car system. There’s an unexpectedly peaceful, idyllic feel; though just a few hours’ ride from Tokyo, Hiroshima seems a world away from the capital’s frenetic, urban throb.
Hiroshima is utterly obsessed with food
“People in Hiroshima are the friendliest in all of Japan,” a Tokyo local once told me, and it’s true that there’s an open-heartedness here in stark contrast to the famed Japanese restraint. One afternoon, when blue sky and blazing sunshine turns to driving rain, I find myself caught out in a flimsy T-shirt, clinging miserably to my clammy skin. Suddenly, a car pulls up. The Japanese guy behind the wheel winds down his window and hands me a towel. Nonplussed, I’m still trying to formulate a proper thank you as he nods, smiles and drives off.
More conventionally, Hiroshima, like other Japanese cities, is utterly obsessed with food. It’s most famous for a local take on okonomiyaki – Japanese pancakes – to which it adds noodles and mountains of cabbage, pork and egg. “In Japan, every town is famous for something,” explains a Dutch guy I meet one night, who has been living in Japan for a year. “It could be a type of turnip or style of ramen. And there’s prestige in being seen waiting in line for wherever does it best.” His words prove on point when I spot a pancake joint with a queue snaking down the street before its doors have even nudged open. Obviously, I have to join. Ninety minutes later, I’m the only non-Japanese with a pancake frying on the hot plate in front of me, which I’ll then slather in okonomiyaki sauce (ketchup, soy and, improbably, Worcestershire). When I come out, the queue has tripled in size – some of these folks will wait up to five hours.
Of course you can’t come here and ignore why we’ve all heard of Hiroshima. It’s 70 years since the city turned to dust in the flash of the world’s first atomic bomb attack, which unloaded the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT over a built-up civilian area of just five square miles. The numerous images of wrecked buildings and burned children in the Peace Memorial Museum look more like stills from a disaster movie than something that could have ever really happened; a melted lunch box and torn school uniforms mere props over brutal historical fact. I take a stroll around the surrounding Peace Memorial Park, its sculpted gardens soothing queues of people offering quiet prayers at cenotaphs and monuments, and cannot reconcile the present-day serenity to all of the past chaos and horror.
Best of the Golden Triangle
Going off the beaten track is a great way to get under the skin of a country, but they don’t call this triangle golden for nothing. Don’t miss these essential spots when taking the classic route:
See: The maze of tiny bars that makes up the Golden Gai district – local nightlife at its best.
Eat: Line up outside Daiwa Sushi in Tsukiji Fish Market at 5am to get your mitts on a fresh sushi breakfast – high-end restaurant quality at a quarter of the price.
Stay: The Peninsula in Ginza cannot be matched for class. Rooms have huge walk-in wardrobes and baths big enough for two;
See: Wander around Gion at night and feel like you’ve stepped centuries back in time.
Eat: Hiro restaurant serves beef so melt-in-the-mouth it’s like eating meaty butter; yakiniku-hiro.com
Stay: The Ritz-Carlton offers luxurious Japanese style in an incognito spot on the Kamogawa river; ritzcarlton.com
See: Hike to the Karasawa valley in the autumn months for impressive panoramas of peaks covered in rich reds and yellows.
Eat: Book in at a traditional ryokan (inn) and enjoy an 18-course kaiseki (fine-dining) dinner.
Stay: The Imperial Hotel in Kamikochi is a cosy Alpine-style lodge with roaring log fires and a bearskin-bedecked bar; imperialhotel.co.jp
In contrast to typically polite but distant Japan, Hiroshima seems more apt to wear its heart on its sleeve. At the Hall of Remembrance, where a panorama of the city’s destruction has been painstakingly put together with 140,000 tiles – each one representing a death – a plaque regretfully recounts how “mistaken national policy” was responsible for “loss of precious life”. Later, I cross over the Motoyasu River, and come face-to-face with Hiroshima’s most haunting A-bomb relic: the shell of a building miraculously left standing at the hypocentre of the explosion, a tattered ghost of violence among modern prosperity. Maybe this is why Hiroshima has risen so successfully from its literal ashes; it has moved on, but it refuses to forget.
My last stop of the trip sounds suitably pioneering for forward-thinking Japan: I’m going to go island hopping… by bike. Not that they’ve engineered hover cycles, but rather a series of impressive suspension bridges – with excellent bicycle lanes – that connect six small islands in Hiroshima Prefecture to each other.
The route is short and flat enough for me to entertain taking along my girlfriend, notorious for her lack of skill on two wheels. We rent Mary Poppins-esque, six-gear bikes, and determine to ride 30km to the third island, Ikuchijima. Again, we find ourselves oft rescued by friendly locals: when said girlfriend careers into a ditch after losing control on a quiet country lane (with, I might add, no pedestrians, no other cyclists, and minimal traffic), the lone nearby driver screeches to a halt and reverses back up the road to check she’s OK. That afternoon, when the chain falls off her bike, two passers-by come to the rescue and fix it with chopsticks.
Island hopping by bike might sound cutting-edge, but this proves to be Japan at its simplest. We bring real meaning to the word ‘tootle’, gently pedalling rural roads, passing the occasional farm, and not a neon sign in sight. The pace only ever quickens at the bridges, which whizz with cars and trucks. But the bike lanes are niftily separated, leaving you safe to absorb the views of citrus groves and hills dotted with wooden houses, while cycling over the sea. It’s really quite something.
The islands become progressively prettier with every pedal, and we enjoy a particularly spirit-lifting final few kilometres along a coastal road. The distinctly un-Japanese rows of palm trees end at Sunset Beach, man-made but appreciated as a spot to watch the sun dipping low all the same. We find a night’s lodging at a snoozy guesthouse with its own onsen – a traditional Japanese hot-spring bath. In lieu of any other guests, it becomes our private spa, with a view out over fishing boats bobbing on the water. It’s not lost on me that this final night encapsulates everything I’d hoped for from my journey: a place at once distinctively connected to the stereotypical Japan, and yet entirely, and thrillingly, separate.