Voted as one of the top places to visit in Japan, it is no exaggeration that Benesse‘s Art Islands (Naoshima, Teshima, Inujima) are some of the biggest tourist attractions Shikoku has to offer. There is good reason for this claim to fame. The islands boast a fantastic mix of cutting edge modern art and architecture, seamlessly intertwined with the surrounding island nature. Visiting the galleries themselves is walking into a dreamscape, and the artworks force a state of quiet contemplation onto the viewer.
However, as we see the beginning of the Setouchi Trienalle approaching, perhaps your quiet contemplation will be shattered by the crowds. Don’t be disheartened. Shikoku has a lesser known gallery, around an hour away from Naoshima, built with the same principles of combining art and nature.
The Shikoku Mura Gallery was designed by the architect Tadao Ando, the same architect responsible for four of the amazing museums on Naoshima. (The Chichu Art Museum, The Benesse House Museum, The Lee Ufan Museum and the Ando Museum – a self-styled retrospective). His work is amazing. Having undergone no formal study, Ando won an architecture competition, and his career skyrocketed. With no rules to work from, Ando breaks the rules and pushes the boundaries of architecture, creating fantastical buildings that are as beautiful as the work displayed inside.
Taking inspiration from the natural world, Ando aims to create buildings that blend into their surroundings. The Shikoku Mura Gallery is no exception. Nestled in the forest, halfway up Mount Yashima, the gallery leaps out of nowhere. As the trees thin, and the wild boar traps become more abundant, a clearing opens onto a garden grown to perfectly frame the gallery’s thin entrance. Built out of Ando’s signature concrete, his work should be starker, and more oppressive than it is. Dipping into and out of the mountain, the gallery space tumbles down the hill, sinking into the forest, yet hinting at its own brilliant presence. The inside is narrow and long, cavernous yet cosy. The natural world outside pushes its way in, due to giant glass windows lining one side.
The crowning jewel of this architectural project, however, has to be the water gardens. Hidden from the front, they shock you as you step into them. Great expanses of flat water, mimicking rice irrigation, the mountainside, and nature itself. Ando often frames his buildings with great expanses of water, reflecting their sharp angles and blurring the line where the man made structure meets the earth. If you have travelled to Kagawa specifically to visit some Ando buildings, do not miss the Shikoku Mura Gallery, as water is not featured in any of the museums on Naoshima. If architecture wasn’t your main pull to this part of the country, I would still highly recommend a visit to this gallery. It’s a surprising and beautiful space, with changing exhibitions. The beautiful building, alongside the scenic surroundings of Mount Yashima, highlight art and nature in their best incarnations, just as the Art Islands try to do. Shikoku’s best kept secret, the Shikoku Mura Gallery will be quieter than the top tourist spots, but just as worthy of your visit.