International tourism to Japan has tripled since 2011, with foreign travelers flocking to Tokyo for its glittering skyscrapers and five-star version of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality, and Kyoto, for its picturesque back alleys and hushed, Michelin-starred kaiseki dens. But relatively few travelers make the trek down to Naoshima island, an enclave of modern art and architecture with Wonderland vibes. To overlook this island is to give up one of the most powerful reasons we travel.
Getting to Naoshima from Kyoto requires that the schedules of three trains and a ferry are synchronized to sugarplum fairy exactitude, down to the minute—a nerve-racking proposition for two Northeasterners hardened by the vagaries of Amtrak. But things in Japan are orderly, and transit schedules are no exception.
It is a strange thing to plan travel entirely using Google Maps, where nations look like shapes, flat and colored in, and where everything is overlaid with text, as if the world has been constructed in InDesign by an illustrator. Stranger still is it to be on a ferry headed to 5.5-square-mile island smack-dab in a body of water you’ve never heard of; in this case, the Seto Inland Sea.
And so there we were, hurtling by boat toward some psychedelic utopia at the end of the earth.
Once you dock, you’ll find that art is everywhere. There’s Yayoi Kusama's polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture, effectively the symbol of Naoshima, which perches on the water and attracts selfie takers in droves, and Art House Project, a series of seven empty houses that have been turned into wacky, thought-provoking installations. The only real hotel on the island is located in Benesse House, a concrete hulk of a museum designed by Tadao Ando, a laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
That’s where we stayed, napping beneath in-room Sol LeWitts and slinging back Sapporos in a restaurant lined with Warhols. At the Chichu Art Museum, a subterranean Ando design burrowed into a hillside overlooking the water, we did the unthinkable: stood before four massive Monet "Water Lilies" in a completely empty room.
It’s not like Japan’s so-called “art island” sprouted up with a poof; rather, it was a Japanese billionaire who bought part of Naoshima in the mid 1980s and commissioned Ando to build it up. But that doesn’t make it feel any less remote.
My husband, who spent two days in a state of perpetual perplexedness, couldn’t wait to get back to the mainland. (By his own admission, he’s not really into boats either.) No New Yorker likes to feel like they don’t know their way, and Naoshima is one of those places where you feel lost all the time. There’s no grid, nothing that slingshots you back to reality. But that feeling—the disarming, totally out-of-whack spinning sensation that knocks you off-balance and subsumes any attempts to regain your footing—doesn’t come around all that often. And that’s why it, and other destinations like it, make for seriously life-changing vacations.
Of course, how much you’ve traveled, and where, will dictate your personal definition of off the grid. For us, the multiple planes-trains-and-boats thing qualified Naoshima. Additionally, it’s nowhere near a capital city; it’s accessed only by hyper-local transit; there are few, if any, Western or multinational businesses and services; and tourism there, while certainly present, hasn’t fully taken off.
If you can't make it to an island that requires three modes of transportation, there's an easier way to get—or, at the very least, feel—off the grid. Wherever you travel, consider staying just outside the city. Instead of bunking up in San Sebastián, where nice hotels, restaurants and creature comforts abound, rent a flat in Pasaia, the next town over, and see what daily life looks like in a Basque Country fishing village. Instead of sleeping among throngs of tourists in Bordeaux or even the smaller yet still wildly popular Saint-Émilion, stay in the minuscule village of Ruch. No matter which continent you’re on, there’s nothing quite as trippy as spending the night someplace so off the beaten path you haven’t really heard of it.
Late last year, while biking through the Mekong Delta, my husband and I spent a quick overnight in Cần Thơ, which our tour guide proudly declared the fourth-largest city, by area, in Vietnam. It wasn’t particularly beautiful or remarkable—a decent riverfront boardwalk, a night market with lots of skewered fruits and cheap iPhone cases. Naturally, we spent most of dinner Googling Cần Thơ in an attempt to make sense of where the heck we were. But what we gained from being there in person, we could never have replaced by any amount of reading—and I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Pack your passport—and an appetite—as we hit the world's hottest culinary destinations on and off the grid all month long. Now Boarding: your next trip to paradise.
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