The Go’o Shrine, perched on top of a hill overlooking the sea and other tiny islands that are part of Naoshima’s little chain, is one of the Naoshima Art House projects, a contemporary art movement in the Honmura neighborhood that involves transforming the insides of traditional houses into contemporary art works.
Many well known artists and architects have participated in this, including world famous architect Tadao Ando, James Turrell and others.
Naoshima, and Honmura in particular, has loads of Japanese “vernacular” houses – homes for the hoi polloi done in a style that was very typical of postwar Japan. So, they are common – not fancy palaces or castles or anything, but in their own way they have a very distinctive style.
The residents of Naoshima seem very enthusiastic about the art scene happening here, as well as preserving the traditional vernacular architecture. There is a movement among the residents to hang traditional doorway flags (for lack of the proper term) and nameplates on the homes, just as would have been done decades ago.
Also, all these little homes, crowded into tiny lanes, have amazing gardens in the backyard – huge, old stone lanterns; tsukubai stone & bamboo fountains; sculptures; and carefully considered landscaping, so that each backyard (or sometimes, enclosed front courtyard) feels a bit like private temple grounds. It is pretty astonishing.
Anyway, Naoshima has a real sense of place, and the residents seem pretty passionate about preserving that – but also having fun with it by throwing in all this quirky contemporary art.
And the Art House Projects are a really great example of this.
I only saw a few of the Art House projects, and the coolest one prohibited photography, so you’ll only get to see examples from one project.
The Go’o Shrine, by photographer Hiroshi Sunimoto, is also probably the least representative of the projects, because it is on a hill overlooking Honmura, rather than in the neighborhood proper, and because it reconsiders a shrine, rather than a house (and because it is an entirely new structure, as you’ll see).
But it is pretty cool:
The building itself is tiny, more tea house in size than Shrine (although – I’ve been collecting photos for a post on this, so you’ll see examples some day! – there are shrines of all sizes and some are teensy! Like, actually miniature) and while, unlike the other art house projects that are more a 9-5 deal, this one is open 24 hours a day for worshippers to pray, one is actually not allowed near the shrine itself – this is as close as you can get, as it is all roped off.
Of course, the neat part is the steps: they are made of glass.
(If you plan to visit Naoshima and want to be surprised by the extra-special part of this piece, stop reading now.)
And the steps don’t just lead to the ground, they lead into it.There is a little path that leads down from the shrine around the hill a bit, to a beautiful overlook of the sea on one side.
And on the other side, a very dark, very narrow (I had to hunch my shoulders together) passageway burrows into the mountain itself. You follow the pitch black passage until it opens out onto an underground chamber – and the glass steps from the shrine lead down into the chamber from the ground level above, so the glass stairway is actually twice as long as it appears from above ground.
Even though the opening to the chamber is only big enough for the stairs themselves (in other words, it would not be possible for a human to climb up or down the stairs from the underground chamber to the top), sunlight passes through the glass steps, and that light illuminates the little cavern. It’s hard to describe, but pretty cool to see. The artist is a famous photographer and is intentionally playing with the light. But it also creates the sense that maybe, just maybe, the light traveling the steps evokes the kami, the Shinto deities, shining into the cave.
(No photography was allowed in this part, so you’ll just have to take my word that it was pretty cool.)