Night In A Museum - Benesse House Hotel, Naoshima
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
What's it like being in a museum at night?
Well for one thing, it is quiet. Strangely, eerily so.
Quiet enough to hear the low electric buzz of a modern art installation - instructing me to 'Speak And Live. Fail And Die.' - as it bathes the large concrete hall in a feeble pinkish light. My footsteps tapping on the cement floor are the only other sounds echoing through the cavernous space as I move on, curiously venturing from room to room.
At some point during this aimless meandering I have managed to get separated from Julien, and I imagine him equally wandering past some soundless exhibition, eyeing some other unfathomable art piece, his heart beat similarly quickening as he approaches each doorway in anticipation that I'll appear around the next corner.
Of course, we're not completely alone. And there is nothing nefarious about our nocturnal museum roamings. We are spending the night at the Benesse House hotel on Japan's Naoshima Island, and one of the perks for hotel residents is exclusive after-hours access to the on-site Benesse Art museums.
And so from time to time - as I explore halls filled with grotesque metallic sculptures, or admire a pile of seemingly carelessly discarded driftwoods
- I cross paths with other privileged nighttime visitors.
But our interactions are ephemeral - a barely-audible hushed conversation across a room; the hint of a movement caught out of the corner of an eye. For the most part this evening experience - unique, and memorable - is a solitary one.
Naoshima Art Island Accommodation
Hotel accommodation options on Japan's Naoshima Island are few.
At the lower end, there are a few lodging options available - backpackers, hostels, budget B&B's and the like. And at the top end, the pricey Benesse House Hotel venues.
And not much in between.
So for those intent on spending the night on the island itself, I expect it's a question of "you pays your money and you takes your choice".
Not that we would necessarily recommend it. Staying on the island, that is. There are presumably many more accommodation options and better value for money to be had on the nearby mainland.
Even a day-trip from the nearby city of Okayama to Naoshima is imminently doable - the journey achievable in under 1.5 hours, and the Naoshima Island sites can be easily navigated in the space of 1 day. In addition, spending a night in Okayama comes with an extra benefit - the chance to visit the impressive Okayama Koraku-en Gardens - one of Japan's Three Greatest.
Hindsight being, of course, the proverbial 20/20, and us being newbies to Japan, none of this was obvious. We had our hearts set on visiting Naoshima, and so we decided to overnight on the island. Moreover, if a honeymoon is not the time to splurge, we thought, then when is?
And so Benesse House Hotel it would be...
The Benesse House Hotels
Let's be clear about one thing up front. The Benesse House is popular.
We reserved our hotel rooms on the very day that booking opened (180 days in advance), and already some of the cheaper options had begun selling out - the Japanese themselves presumably using their 12-hour timezone lead to their hometown advantage.
Our bookings were for dates in April, in all fairness; high tourist season in Japan. But the point stands - get in there early if you fancy a stay at Benesse.
There are 4 accommodation options at Benesse House hotel - called Museum, Oval, Park and Beach - all of which have after-hours access to the Benesse Museum.
Rooms at Benesse House
We had booked ourselves one night in each of Museum and Park, the former meaning we were on-site for those nighttime museum wanderings, and the latter since Park has its own small collection of artworks on display, exclusively for Benesse House guests.
We arrived at Park on our first Naoshima day, having just made the ferry crossing and the short following journey from the port to the hotel in the complementary shuttle bus. This Benesse House shuttle bus really is a perk, a hassle-free way to get about while our fellow ferry passengers were scuttling around the port trying to decipher the other public transport options.
Check-in was efficient, if a little aloof... Snooty is not a word usually associated with the Japanese, and we had had nothing but the warmest of welcomes wherever else we had been during our 3 weeks in Japan. At Benesse though, there was just a whiff of the upturned nose - like commoners trying to get into the latest celebrity hotspot, the front desk staff seemed merely to deign to welcome us to their establishment.
Walking through the Park building to our room was a special experience, and would continue to be so throughout our stay. Designed by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the buildings of the Benesse sites are a destination in their own right for any lover of structural architecture.
Set against the raw surfaces, amongst the slick geometric lines of the brutalist interior design, was an eclectic collection of art pieces. It was of-the-moment cool, in all the right ways, and exactly what we had been looking forward to on our visit to Naoshima Art Island.
The bedrooms at Benesse House Hotel, at least those that we tried in Park and Museum, were an entirely different matter.
The design was minimalist, in a Scandi-chic, whitewashed walls and simple wooden furniture kind of way, that was in keeping with the rest of the building. Cupboard space was pretty limited. The bathroom, also basic, had nothing much to recommend it, but otherwise did what bathrooms are required to do.
So far, so fine.
Except that what might have started off as chic was by now just tired. Everything seemed in need of a refresh, and everywhere were signs of wear and tear - nicks in the furniture, scratches on the beds and cupboards, stains on the fabrics.
These rooms were very clearly past their best.
On the plus side, there were some magnificent views. The Park building is designed with the surroundings in mind, and is perfectly placed for picturesque sunsets over the Seto Inland Sea. You are also at the heart of many of the Benesse Art sites, the areas surrounding the hotel dotted with outdoor art pieces.
From the balcony of the bedroom we could just about make out Yayoi Kusama's famous installation in the distance. If what you're after is that perfect yellow-pumpkin selfie without the crowds of other visitors, then an on-site stay at Benesse is one way to ensure it.
Our bedroom at Museum the following night brought more of the same - simple accommodations more 3-star than luxury, with furnishings that were clearly past their prime. But then again, there is that 'room in a museum' thing that is quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so...
Dining - Benesse House Restaurants
Much like the accommodation options, for visitors to Benesse the dining options are few - limited to the hotel's 2 on-site restaurants.
There are no other restaurants close-by for dinner, and by evening the shuttle bus to the towns has stopped running, so hotel residents are a bit of a captive audience.
For our first night we had made a reservation at Terrace restaurant, which is located at Park. The restaurant has an airy, subtly sophisticated feel, and serves upmarket French cuisine. It was a lovely place to dine - the service was great, the food was beautifully presented and the standard was high.
As was the price, mind you - this was one meal that didn't come cheap. Not to mention the nose-bleed prices on the wine list, which did nothing to allay the impression that guests with few other dining options were being taken for a ride.
The next morning we were back again at Terrace restaurant for breakfast. Though breakfast is not included in the price of hotel bookings at Benesse, it was not all that expensive. And the views from the Terrace restaurant really came into their own during the day time! The light playing off the ocean made for a beautiful backdrop to what was a lovely breakfast selection, and we did not begrudge the wonderful Benesse House breakfasts at all.
By contrast, our dining experience the previous evening, while satisfying, had left us reluctant to fork out big money for a second night in a row at Issen - the Japanese restaurant that is on-site at Museum. Lacking any other restaurant alternatives, we opted for an improvised picnic à deux in our hotel room, having picked up some Japanese goodies from a local supermarket earlier that day while exploring the island.
It ended up being an evening which was not only fun but also one of our honeymoon memories, and crucially - a lot less costly.
Review of Benesse House Hotel
It's fair to say that overall our experience at Benesse House was a little hit and miss, and not all our expectations were met, and so a definitive yes-or-no review of it remains elusively out of reach.
In many ways it ticked the boxes of a special and memorable hotel stay. It could certainly be argued that being on-site and having preferential after-hours access to the Benesse Museum is worth a stay here all on its own.
The hotel surroundings are certainly lovely, and being able to appreciate the pieces of art scattered around the island during times when the daytrippers are not around is equally precious. Similarly, free and exclusive access for Benesse hotel guests to the regular shuttle bus, which links all the various art sites on the island, definitely makes visiting Naoshima more convenient.
On the other hand, this hotel stay does not come cheap. And while the hotel is priced as luxury the rooms are anything but.
Add to that the fact that you will likely be spending quite a bit more to eat on-site, and it becomes harder to argue that Benesse House hotel is particularly good value. Still, all in all, the food was good, the architecture was stirring and the art was captivating.
A trip to Japan's Naoshima Island is a unique and special Japanese experience. We had been looking forward to it for years, and a stay at Benesse House was something we were eager to try.
We really wanted to love it here... And we mostly did.