Naoshima

Modern Art in Japan

Modern art is booming in Japan. It often happened that we were standing in long lines next to the coolest Japanese. As if the hottest boy band was in town. Except we were not waiting to get a selfie with the lead singer. But we were excited to see a painting, sculpture or lighting installation. If you are an art addict like us, you should not miss Tokyo, but Matsumoto, Kanazawa and Naoshima are also a must.

[japanad]

Matsumoto

Yayoi Kusama, one of Japan’s most famous contemporary artists, is not exhibited a lot in Japan. You can find a giant pumpkin on the island of Naoshima and a permanent exhibition in the Matsumoto Museum of Art. Kusama was born in Matsumoto. We also recommend visiting Matsumoto for the famous Crow Castle and its location at the foot of Japanese alps. But Matsumoto is also worth a visit to discover Kusama’s work in the Matsumoto City Museum of Art. It has works starting all the way back from her childhood but also more famous pieces like the Infinity Mirrored Room. This broad scope is a unique experience, as it provides great insight into her world.

Matsumoto City Museum of Art

Matsumoto City Museum of Art

The Kusuma experience starts outside with giant flower sculptures. It continues with polka dot vending machines where even the soda cans are covered in polka dots. Once inside, make sure you do not get lost in all the mirror rooms with polka dots. This is a dazzling experience and can even feel quite scary and or emotional. Her famous dots are just all around you to blow you away. The childhood work gives you a rare insight into her start as an artist and her continuous development. Other works are psychedelic drawings and an Infinity Mirrors Pod which gives you a one-person experience of infinity. Even if contemporary art does not appeal to you, this museum can be very rewarding.

Naoshima

The ferry to Naoshima (Miyanoura) departs from Uno or Takamatsu. Check out the exact time table before you go. The ferry crosses the Inland Sea and takes you along hundreds of small Islands. If you look carefully you will see a big red polka dot pumpkin at the coast of a slightly bigger island. This tells you that you have arrived at the art island Naoshima. We recommend you rent a bicycle to discover the island, there are a few rental shops next to the ferry stop. Although Naoshima is a bit hilly, the island is not too big and there are electrical bikes available to give you extra support if needed. The museums and art pieces are spread out over the island which makes cycling far quicker than public transport. As an added bonus, it also provides a nice experience of both the culture and nature that Naoshima has to offer.

Naoshima-Lee-Ufan
Lee Ufan Museum

Museums

Ando Tadao designed the Chichu Museum in concrete, steel and glass and is a sight on itself. Only three artists are exhibited here: Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter de Maria. This bold choice for quality over quantity, results in an unforgettable art experience.

Next to the Chichu Museum lies the Lee Ufan Museum, also designed by Tadao. It exhibits the minimalistic work of the Korean artist Lee Ufan.

The biggest museum is the Benesse House, where you can also stay the night, if your budget allows it. You can also visit the art exhibition inside and the sculpture garden outside if you aren’t a guest. The famous yellow pumpkin of Yayoi Kusama is one of the sculptures that is on display here.

On the other side of the island you can find the Art House Project, spread over seven different locations. Minamidera, one of the locations, is built on the former site of a temple. Inside this building – again – a design of Ando Tadao, you can find another art piece of James Turrell.

Kanazawa

Swimming Pool
Swimming Pool by Leonardo Erlich

If you are planning to visit the 21th Century Museum Contemporary Art in Kanazawa during the weekend, then make sure you’re on time. Even before the museum opens her doors, people are queuing their way to the ticket offices. This results in more people than art in the museum. Art is booming in Kanazawa. Inside, you can among others, admire video art of Marijke van Warmerdam and a room designed by James Turrell. But without a doubt the highlight is the Swimming Pool, a mystical illusion created by Leonardo Erlich. You can experience the installation both from outside and inside of the pool.

Tokyo

Tokyo is packed with contemporary art galleries, museums and impressive architecture. We want to highlight three museums: The National Museum of Western Art, the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo and the Mori Art Museum.

Mori Art Museum

Spider
Spider by Louise Bourgeois

It’s hard to miss the Mori Art Museum because of the giant spider of Louise Bourgeois outside the entrance. Check the exhibition schedule, to see what is on when you are planning to visit the museum. On the roof of the museum is one of the best viewpoint of the city. Contrary to the other viewpoints, this one is out in the open and your views are not obstructed by glass.

National Museum of Western Arts

The National Museum of Western Arts exhibits great pieces of Western art. It has modern Western artists like Picasso, Miró and Pollock. You can see unique pieces here, which are seldom shown outside of Japan. Together with a wide range of old masters, this museum gives a great overview of Western art.

National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo

The National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (MOMAT) is the foremost museum for modern Japanese art. It also has a broad collection of foreign modern art. This gives the viewer the opportunity to place Japanese modern art in a broader context. Especially interesting is the impact of the second world war on Japanese artists.

Modern Art in Japan
Kanazawa castle

Japanese castles

Many of the great castles in the world at some point in time got destroyed or damaged. Much of what we see now is the result of 20th-century restoration and conservation efforts. Sadly, this is also the case for most Japanese castles. World War II bombing wreaked havoc in many Japanese cities. The bombing also destroyed many of the castles, of which some have been rebuild. These castles still provide interesting insights into building methods and architecture.

To appreciate a Japanese castle, you must leave a European conception of a castle behind. The interior of Japanese homes and even palaces is minimalistic. This minimalistic approach holds even more true for Japanese castles. Most castles are wooden structures. Therefore, so many didn’t survive the fighting of the Meiji restoration and the World War II bombing.  The following twelve castles are the only ones still considered to be original because their keep (tenshu) is still original.

That said, even the non-original castles are worth your time, even if it’s just to see the Japanese approach to restoration.

Original Castles

Hikone Castle

Near the shore of Lake Biwa between Kyoto and Nagoya lies Hikone and its castle. This original castle is also one of only five castles considered to be a Japanese National treasure. Ii Naokatsu built the castle as he served the Tokugawa clan. Construction of the castle was finished in 1622. The castle lies a short walk away from Hikone JR station. So, you can visit it easily, either as a day trip from Kyoto or Nagoya, or as a stop-over on your onward journey.

Keep (Tenshu) of Hikone castle

Himeji

When you arrive by Shinkansen at Himeji station, you’ll already see the white castle blinking in the sun. Hence its name the White Egret or Heron Castle. It’s a 15-minute walk from the station to the castle grounds. Himeji Castle is the most famous castle in Japan, so expect big crowds. Walking through the outer walls, you get an idea of the scale of the castle complex. Even though many outer defences are lost, it is still possible to appreciate the intricate workings of the moats, trenches, walls, corridors and towers. As you make your way to the main donjon (tenshu), you understand what a disorientated affair an assault would have been.

Himeiji castle
Himeji Castle


Inside the castle, the main thing to admire is the woodwork. Thick wooden beams support the massive tower. You have a clear view of them as you go upwards, winding around the outer galleries and up the narrow stairs. From the top floor, there is a clear view of Himeji and the castles different defensive works. As you make your way outside, you exit into the main courtyard. Here, you have a last good overview of the main tower and its massive size before making your way out. Read our full review of Himeji castle to see if it’s worth your time.

Inuyama Castle

Of all the remaining original keeps, the keep of Inuyama is the oldest and another of the five national treasures. The keep was built at the end of the 1580s. In his struggle to unite Japan, Oda Nobunaga overthrew the Imagawawa clan who built this castle. As the Oda clan lost the ensuing struggle with the Tokugawa clan for dominance of Japan, the castle changed hands one last time until the Meji restoration in 1871. Inuyama castle is an hour away from Nagoya, be aware that you have to go to Unuma station on the other side of the Kiso river if you want to use your JR pass.

Inuyama castle

Kochi Castle

Of the twelve original castles, four are found on the small mainland island of Shikoku. Kochi Castle is one of them and is the only Japanese castle with all original buildings still standing inside the innermost ring of defence (honmaru). The castle was built at the beginning of the 17th century after the victory of the Tokugawa clan at the battle of Sekigahara. But most of the buildings visible today were built in the early 18th century as a fire destroyed the castle in 1727.

Kochi castle

Matsue Castle

Matsue castle lies on an island in the Kyobashi river on the shores of Lake Shinji. The castle dates to the early 17th century and it is the only remaining castle in the San’in region. Around the castle lie some interesting old buildings and museums to get a better understanding of feudal Japan. You can make great day trips from Matsue, visit the Adachi museum and gardens or Izumo taisha, the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan.

Matsue Castle at night

Matsumoto Castle

The famous Crow Castle is one of the most iconic castles of Japan. The castle lies at the feet of the Japanese Alps, providing you with some great views on clear days. The castle is hugely popular with tourists, so expect it to be busy most of the time. Be prepared to stand in line for all the different stairs that take you all the way to the top. Also, watch your head because the stairs are low and steep. And for the same reason: pay attention when wearing any short skirts while visiting.

Matsumoto castle
Matsumoto Castle

The keep is still original, but the outer castles were demolished following the Meiji restoration. Two gates were restored, Kuromon, the Black Gate in the nineties, and the Drum Gate in 2002. Don’t forget to visit the Matsumoto City Museum of Art while you are here.

Matsuyama Castle

In the Northwest corner of Shikoku lies Matsuyama castle high upon a hill overlooking the city and its surroundings. Matsuyama is another early 17th century castle completed after the Battle of Shizugatake. The castle consists of three layers of defense, the main enclosure (honmaru), a second enclosure (ninomaru), and a tertiary enclosure (sannomaru). In the second enclosure was the lord’s private garden which still remains today and which you can visit separately. You can either walk up the hill or take the ropeway to the main castle. Don’t forget to pay a visit to Dogo onsen while you’re there.

Matsuyama castle

Restored Castles

Kumamoto castle

To get an idea of the destructive force of an earthquake, a visit to Kumamoto is advised. Here you have a unique opportunity to see the destruction caused by an earthquake and at the same time a chance to support the rebuilding and the revival of the tourist sector on Kyushu island.

Damage of the 2016 earthquake still visible in 2020


Nagoya castle

Nagoya castle was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945. Since then the keep was rebuilt in concrete. More recently the honmaru palace was restored using original building techniques and materials. Plans have been made to demolish the new keep and also restore it using original wooden materials.

Restored Honmaru palace of Nagoya castle

Okayama

As Nakoya castle, Okayama castle is a 1966 reconstruction, rebuild after the Allied bombing burned it to the ground in 1945. The castle only looks good on the outside. Although, the ugly interior is also what makes this castle stand out. It is a good example of the different approaches used in Japan and Europe when it comes to restoring its cultural heritage after the second world war.

Okayama castle
Okayama Castle

This partly stems from the Japanese tradition to rebuilt houses, shrines and temples as the material used for the construction is mostly wood. Due to fires, earthquakes and the weather, most buildings are rebuilt regularly. A visit to Okayama castle allows tourists to see this different approach to restoration in action. Afterwards, cross the river to visit Korakuen, one of the top 3 gardens in Japan.

Osaka castle

Osaka castle is another rebuilt castle after being destroyed by Allied bombing during the second world war. This castle complex is huge and can be best seen from the opposite Osaka history museum. Togugawa Ieyasu burned the original castle after the siege of Osaka in 1615. His successor rebuilt the castle and the castle walls seen today are his construction.

Overview of the enormous Osaka castle

Shuri Castle

Sadly, Shuri Castle has again burned down to the ground, so hopefully, it will be rebuilt again, but it’s an enormous tragedy for Okinawa and its people.

Shuri Castle is another completely rebuilt castle. It served as a Japanese military headquarters during the Battle of Okinawa. U.S. battleships shelled it for three days and burned it to the ground. What you see today is the result of the 1992 decision to start reconstructing the castle.

A couple of things make this an interesting site worth visiting. Firstly, the style of the building. This castle served as the centre of power for the Ryukyu Kingdom over several centuries. It played a pivotal role in Japanese-Chinese political and cultural contacts. The castle’s design portrays this as it is a unique mixture of Japanese, Okinawan and Chinese styles.

Shuri throne room
Throne room Shuri Castle


The second reason to visit is the historical role this castle played. On display are impressions of what Chinese diplomatic visits would have looked like. And more on the history of the Okinawa islands, their culture, and the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Thirdly, the castle is a stark reminder of the destructive impact war has on people’s lives and cultural heritage. Although it’s great to explore this site again in its former glory, it’s also important to remember what was lost. The last reason to visit is that it gives you a good excuse to go and visit Okinawa and its own unique culture.

Read our article on Okinawa for more tips about the island.

Tsuwano castle

Just one example of the fate that was in store for most castles after the Meji restoration. They would be completely demolished.

Foundations of Tsuwano castle
Japanese Castles
Kamakura

Cultural baptism: Japan

To really get to know a country or a place, you need to interact with the people there. In the end, there is no real substitute for human interaction. But there are a lot of things you can do to make those meetings go smoother, like learning a language, develop a common frame of reference and study the history. Besides enhancing your stay there, it’s also a lot of fun. As Gustave Flaubert said; “Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.”

We prepared our trip to Japan incredibly well. I don’t think we’ve prepared anything this well since our high school exams. We did spend this extra effort since it’s was that more alien then the average other western country we normally visit. We read half of the internet, saw all kind of YouTube videos, the latest movies, read some books about Japan and learned to read, write and talk some Japanese. To help you on your way to get a bit more background knowledge of Japanese culture we selected the best sources we used.

The links used are affiliate links. By buying through the links we may receive a commission for the sale. This has no effect on the price for you.

[japanad]

Movies

Japanese cinema deserves much more attention than this small list of movies, so use this as a simple starting point.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka 1988)

A heart-breaking movie about two brothers during the last months of the second world war. The movie is not as much about war as it is about isolating yourself from society, a theme which is more common in Japanese culture than in Western culture.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no monogatari 2013)

Drawn in a simple style, this movie retells the tale of princess Kaguya or The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of the oldest Japanese folk tales dating back to the 10th Century.

Nobody knows (Dare mo shiranai 2004)

Another dark story about isolation from society. It tells the tale of the abandonment of 4 children by their mother who are then left to take care of themselves.

Departures (Okuribito 2008)

This movie about death and the funeral rituals gives a great insight into the taboos on this subject in Japanese society. It provides an interesting window into a part of the culture which normally stays closed to the casual visitor. The movie won an Academy award for best foreign language film in 2009.

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary 2015)

A lighter movie then the previous ones, this movie focuses on family relations and life in the seaside town of Kamakura.

Shin Godzilla (Shin Gojira 2016)

This 2016 release of the Godzilla franchise focuses less on the monster and more on the bureaucracy that comes with so much destruction. It still offers some of the spectacle of Japanese monster movies and at the same time gives interesting insights into the societal hierarchies in Japanese society.

Books

General travel guides: Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Fodor’s.

General travel guides are always a good starting point to get an overview of the highlights, a quick history and other general background information.

Haruki Murakami – Kafka on the Shore (Umibe no Kafuka 2002)

It’s hard to choose one out of the many great books Murakami has written. This was the first one we read and the one that got us interested in his oeuvre.

Murasaki Shikibu – The tale of Genji (Genji monogatari 11th Century)

This 1000-year-old book is one of the oldest novels in the world. Written by a noblewoman at the Imperial court, it is a book that tells a story about love and at the same time paints an interesting picture of early 11th Century court life in Japan.

Music

AKB48

AKB48 is one of the highest earning music groups in Japan. Its female members must follow strict social rules, like refrain from dating. They have their own theatre where they perform almost daily, the 48 group members form different teams, who rotate for the different shows. Membership of the group also changes continuously and older members are promoted to other groups. AKB48 has sister groups throughout South-East Asia.

SMAP

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gD0_rwopqY

SMAP was Japan’s most famous boyband. Where many of the new and female groups constantly change the membership, the members of this group stayed the same for 20 years. The group also had their own weekly variety tv-show which often was the most watched show in a year.

Hatsune Miku

Hatsune Miku is not a real singer but a vocaloid, a singing computer program. Combined with holograms and a band of real persons she is still able to give live shows. She also stars in commercials for example on with Scarlet Johansson and virtually guides tourist in Japan.

BABYMETAL

To show that Japanese music is not all sweet and flowerly we end with Babymetal.

Youtube channels

Simon and Martina

Simon and Martina are a Canadese couple who live in Tokyo and share their experiences in Japan. The channel is mainly focused on food but also shows the cultural differences that exist. We really got to like this couple and still follow them on YouTube.

That Japanese Man Yuta

Yuta interviews Japanese people on the street to give his audience some insight into the Japanese mindset to a broad range of topics. Also provide Japanese learning courses.

Apps

Memrise

Memrise is a great app to help you learn any language you want. It offers some great free courses to learn Katakana, Hiragana, Kanji and Japanese words and sentences.

Android
Apple

Kanji Study

Kanji study is an app solely dedicated to learning the three different Japanese alphabets. IT works with flash cards and you have the ability to practise drawing the different symbols yourself.
Android
Apple

If you’re ready to explore Japan, take a look at our 5 day itinerary for Tokyo and its surrounding area.

Shrine

Religious Japan

There are two big religious traditions in Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism. Shinto is Japan’s traditional religion. Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century from Korea. A majority of the Japanese doesn’t belong to any of the organised versions of these religions. But over 80% do partake in religious traditions and ceremonies. Travelling to Koyasan provides a better understanding of the organised side of religion in Japan. Walking the Kumano Kodo is a more individual experience.

Koyasan

Koyasan is the center of Shingon Buddhism. Kobo Daishi introduced this Buddhist sect in 805. In 826, Kobo Daishi started to build his temple headquarters in Koyasan. Since then the mountain has been filled with temples. This makes Koyasan the ideal place to sleep in a temple and experience the morning rituals of the monks.

Travelling to Koyasan

While travelling from Osaka to Koyasan, the landscape slowly transforms around us. From the urban and suburban sprawls of Osaka, to the surrounding country side with its rice fields. In turn the flat landscape is almost instantly replaced, this time by the rising hills and mountains. The train crosses rivers and gorges and starts to climb more and more until we arrive at Gokuraku-bashi. Koyasan is now a dramatic climb by cable car away. The climb provides ever wider vistas of the surrounding area. Then the trees start closing us in and we have arrived at the mountain.

A bus brings us to the temples in the town. The temples lay scattered along the main road through the village. Staying the night in one of them is a great way to explore the religious side of Japan. The young Buddhist monks in training will tend to our needs. They are quite well versed in English and willing to converse about their training and Buddhism in general. As we settle into our room, the young monk serves our tea. We enjoy it with open screen doors looking out over the inner garden.

Okunoin cemetery

Our temple is at the edge of the town and a short walk away from Okunoin cemetery. As we walk along the path the sun rays shine through the forest roof lighting singular tombstones. Moss covers most tombstones which enhances the ancient feeling of the place. Silently we make our way to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.

It’s said that Kobo Daishi is in eternal meditation in this place. He will return as Miroku, the Future Buddha at which time he will lead the faithful to salvation. This is the reason why this is the biggest cemetery in Japan. As we make our way back to our temple, we marvel at all the different tombstones. Some are for people others are for entire companies. Those tombstones are in the shape of the logo or product of the company, for example a big rocket.

Temple lodging
Diner in a temple

Back in the temple, we’re served a great vegan meal, tofu has never tasted this good before. It’s a good opportunity to taste some completely different flavours since the meal is also prepared without garlic. After dinner, we head back to Okunoin cemetery to experience it in the darkness. Lanterns light the path and the tombstones closest to it. The eerie silence combined with the darkness makes the place far spookier than during the day. You can go on a guided tour, which gives more information about the different tombstones and myths surrounding the cemetery. But it takes away from the solemn feeling when exploring on your own.

Konpon Daitō
Konpon Daitō

Morning ceremony

At six a.m., we join the monks in their morning ceremony together with the other guests. The head monk leads us in prayer. A younger monk plays the drum and cymbals to guide the prayer and help us reach a trance-like state. At the end, the head monk asks us to light some incense and ring a bell to honour our ancestors. After the ceremony, he guides us to another part of the temple for a fire ceremony. This purification ritual is more spectacular and explains why many temples have burned down. Our stay in the temple ends with a vegan breakfast and we head to the centre of town to visit the main temple complexes. We head up to the top of the mountain to get some spectacular views. We see the sea in the distance and say our goodbyes to this special place.

Kumano Kodo

A good starting base for the Kumano Kodo is Tanabe at the coast. This sleepy provincial town has affordable accommodation and plenty of good food options. Buses leave from the JR station to different stages of the walking route.

Walking in the rain

If you are pressed for time and have only a day to walk, Yunomine Onsen is a great place to start your walk from. It has the only UNESCO World Heritage onsen. Get a ticket at the nearby shop if you want to take a unique soak in this natural hot spring.

Our walk

Our walk started across the road and immediately devolved into a steep climb. We were there when the front of a tropical storm was passing the peninsula, so the paths turned into rivers and the views were misty and moody. The forest was alive with amphibious lifeforms. Hundreds of tiny land crabs were crawling on the ground and frogs were jumping around. Soon we were completely soaked, our shoes splashing with every step. Suddenly a giant toad blocked our path. It’s these kinds of meetings that gives understanding to the origins of fairy tales and fables.

Tim on trail
Hiking in the rain

We continued climbing the hills through the dark forest and felt the silence and emptiness around us. It’s at these moments that you can easily imagine a world without men. Which in turn gives a certain perspective to man’s place in the universe. As we came upon the main route, the path became wider and the forest receded and made place for some open spaces. The cloudy misty views over the hilltops and the valleys made us appreciate skies which aren’t clear blue all the time. After a good day’s walk, we reached Kumano Hongu Taisha. This is one of the three Kumano Grand Shrines and the end of our little pilgrimage.

Hongu Taisha
Hongu Taisha

Hongu Taisha

Cliches like “it’s the route, not the destination” come to mind when talking about travel. Kumano Hongu Taisha isn’t an impressive complex. But getting there with all the other pilgrims still provided us with a human connection and a sense of achievement. So, in the end there certainly is value in the destination.

Religious Jaopan