A Visit to Naoshima, Japan’s Art Island

Last weekend Mark and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary. We farmed out the younger mammals to stay with friends, then headed out for a quick overnight trip with just the two of us. We had originally planned to drive Mark’s convertible to Hakone, a popular resort area only 90 minutes away. But alas, an eruption warning for Mount Hakone convinced us to choose a new destination. So we decided to visit Naoshima, a small island with a worldwide reputation for its collection of art museums and installations.

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Naoshima’s story could have reflected the fate of so many rural areas in Japan, which have been hit especially hard by Japan’s aging and shrinking population. Yet Naoshima and several surrounding islands have escaped this fate. As outlined in this excellent piece by NPR, a company called Benesse Holdings–best known for its Berlitz language schools–decided to find a home for its extensive art collection about 30 years ago. Headquartered in Okayama, a sleepy-ish, mid-sized town in Western Japan, Benesse CEO Soichiro Fukutake started looking nearby for a community willing to work with him. He bought a huge tract of land on Naoshima island and hired superstar architect Tadao Ando to design and build his dreams, including several museums, hotels, and smaller art houses. The annual number of visitors today is estimated around 800,000 people–not too bad for an island of 5.5 square miles (14 square km) and a full time population of roughly 3,000 people.

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Benesse Art House includes several galleries of contemporary art, and a hotel! The guests of the hotel can visit the galleries after hours, which we enjoyed very much.

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We also had the exclusive use of our own private funicular to get from the museum to the cluster of hotel rooms up the hill. I highly recommend traveling by private funicular as much as possible.

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Our suite was in the Oval section of the hotel; I found it impossible to pass through the Oval without pulling out my camera and taking yet more photos as the light changed. The views of the Seto Inland Sea changed with the light, and I never grew tired of staring out at the horizon.

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In addition to the museums built by Benesse, the villages have gotten in on the art action. Street art, colorful cafes, and lots of English signage made it clear that the island is All In on its art identity.

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Perhaps the most famous single artwork on Naoshima is Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin. Situated very near our hotel, I wandered down to it several times and took an absurd number of photos as the light changed.

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While I wish our visit were longer, I’m so glad that we had the chance to go. Even if it’s just for one night–do it! There’s nothing else in the world like it.

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Egg Sandwich Pringles: A Cautionary Tale

I love me some Japanese snacks! Kit Kats get all the attention, and people clamor for new or limited edition flavors. There are even Kit Kat boutiques. Personally I’ve never really cared that much for them. Regular Kit Kats are fine, but I actively dislike their most famous Other flavor, Matcha (green tea). I bought a bag once to try them out, and no one in the family liked them at all. We even threw away a mostly uneaten bag. Considering that my children have always attacked any dessert or candy as if it’s their last, that’s saying a lot. It tasted like white “chocolate”–already a bad start–combined with chalky, undissolved matcha (green tea) powder. They’re super popular both in Japan and overseas. Just not in our house.

A representative sampling of assorted Kit Kat flavors at our neighborhood grocery store

But potato chips? Oh boy. Love me some fancy flavored potato chips! Japan does not disappoint. I’m not sure how I went down the road of seeking out strange potato chip flavors, but it’s become a bit of an obsession. My poor friend Maki has been drafted as my lieutenant in the quest. Any time I find a new, strange flavor I send her a photo, a review, and ask her to confirm my understanding/translation of what exactly I’m eating.

Read on for some recent examples.

Let’s start with Pringles, that American favorite.

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Party Chicken Pringles

While finishing up a ladies’ ski weekend and shopping for snacks to eat on the train, I grabbed a green can of Pringles without reading it, assuming that I got sour cream and onion flavor. I did not. Instead, I got Party Chicken Pringles. Which pretty much tastes like the smell of the box from takeaway fried chicken. Not terrible, but not so great either.

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Grilled Chicken Pringles

To continue chicken-themed Pringles, I present Grilled Chicken Pringles. Tasted sorta like Party Chicken Pringles. Just not exactly.

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Smoked Cheese Pringles

Next up: Smoked Cheese Pringles. These were actually pretty tasty–they sort of tasted like smoked Provolone, only moreso. I would eat these again.

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Sukiyaki Pringles

Maki, my patron saint of Japanese junk food mentioned above, got in on the action with this next gem, Sukiyaki Pringles: “I’m at Haneda. Just found sukiyaki flavor. Kanto region limited.” Exclusivity and Limited Time-ness are hallmarks of odd Japanese food flavors, and Sukiyaki Pringles hits both marks. Sadly we don’t know how they actually taste–because apparently even the patron saint of Japanese junk food has her limits. But it’s safe to say that they were either OK, or really gross.

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Egg Sando Pringles

While stocking up for a hike in the Kamakura hills, I took it too far with Tamago Sando (Egg Sandwich) Pringles. I picked up and set back the can several times, then decided to go for it. How bad can they be, I reasoned? Pretty bad, it turns out. Egg Sandwich Pringles taste like regret.

I saw these in a convenience store and go so excited! Mystery Flavor Pringles!! What could they possibly be? Some kind of chicken, it turned out. More like Grilled Chicken Pringles, and not so much Party Chicken Pringles.

Moving beyond Pringles, here are some other brands and flavors.

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Consomme (Chicken Soup) Chip Star

Chip Star is Japan’s local/blatant Pringles imitation. They like their chicken flavors as well, as demonstrated by the Consomme Chip Star pictured above. For those of you who haven’t attended culinary school or a dinner party in 1957, consommé is a clarified chicken stock. So basically, we’re back to chicken flavor.

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Chip Star Salty Lemon chips

I could read the lemon (レモン)but not the salted part–Maki to the rescue, again! They were mostly salty with a hint of bright citrus notes. So lemony, but not too much. I liked them! Also this is hands down my favorite packaging. Isn’t it beautiful? I didn’t save the container, and I’m seriously considering buying another pack so I can keep the cylinder. Because I am insane. Since Chip Star packs its chips with a plastic bag inside the cylinder, I won’t even have to worry about a greasy container.

Next up we have another iconic Japanese brand, Calbee.

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Calbee Pizza Potato Chips

Honestly I’m not sure what to think of Calbee Pizza Potato chips. Are they amazing? Disgusting? A guilty pleasure? All of the above? I can’t quite decide. I keep trying them and wondering what I think. Meanwhile, other people definitely love them, as exhibited by the uproar of the Great Pizza Potato Shortage of 2017, as documented by the truth seekers over at Sora News 24.

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Calbee Nori (Roasted Seaweed) and Salt chips

Another Calbee flavor, Nori (roasted seaweed) and I think salt, based on Maki’s help with an earlier flavor. Nori is a pretty popular flavor, and most companies offer some variation of it. I would like a little more nori flavor in these, but they’re still quite good.

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Calbee Edamame and Garlic chips

Calbee’s Edamame and Garlic chips: lots of garlic flavor, and super tasty! A winner.

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Koikeya Ume chips

OK, time for a little confession. I’m not 100% that these are ume (pickled plum chips) since I didn’t confirm the kanji with Maki. But there’s a picture of ume in the upper right corner, so we’ll go with it. I was surprised to see this last week at the grocery store, since I’ve seen ume chips in February/March as the ume trees blossom across Japan. Of course pickled ume are available year round, but ume as a seasonal flavor seems like an early spring thing. Ume are salty and sweet, and absolutely delicious inside an onigiri rice ball. So they make for pretty tasty chips as well.