Tokyo is a major destination for tourists from all over the world, drawn in by the cleanliness of the city, efficient public transport system and amazing food. However, this city also boasts a vibrant art scene that was supported by Japan's economic boom in the 1980s, laying the ground work for what you see today. Japan's art scene is largely supported by private individuals and entities, which run many of the major institutions and galleries. This is why, despite the astronomical property prices, it has resulted in a unique Japanese art ecosystem that has put Tokyo on the map as one of the most exciting art capitals in Asia.
GETTING AROUND Tokyo is convenient with a world class metro system and how most locals get around the city. Although daily unlimited passes are available for purchase at the airport, it can actually be more expensive to travel on these passes as they do not cover all lines. Instead, purchase an IC card (Suica cards at JR stations and Pasmo at non-JR stations), which acts as a pre-paid card and lets you swipe over a card reader. Taxis are easy to find, but can be expensive. If you really need a car, you can always use Uber, which currently only operates in the city of Tokyo.
The best time to GO to Tokyo is in Spring when the famous cherry blossoms are in full bloom, which you can track using an app on your phone these days. You can even catch Art Fair Tokyo, which runs during the month of March. If not, the next best time to go would be during the Autumn season, when the maple and gingko trees turn the city into a flaming yellow and red. Try and avoid summer, which is terribly hot and humid, as well as winter, which can be rather cold.
Property in Tokyo is notoriously expensive, which is why it can be quite pricey to STAY in the city. If you are planning to use the metro station, try to stay near areas with a major interchange or multiple subway stations within walking distance. Check Airbnb for some great deals – there are some amazing properties located in Shibuya and Shinjuku. However, language can be a barrier in Japan, so you might prefer the comfort of a 24 hour concierge service. If this is the case, then a hotel such as Hotel Century Southern Tower with its fantastic view of the city might better suit your needs.
Japan has a vibrant local art scene, and Tokyo is the nucleus of this activity. If you have limited time in the city and want to set aside just a day to go gallery hopping, I highly recommend making a trip to the area of Roppongi, in the district of Minato, as there is a high concentration of art galleries in the area, as well as two major art institutions you can visit (see below).
Established in 1992, Wako Works of Art has a roster that runs like a who’s who of contemporary artists: from Fiona Tan and Yuji Takeoka, to Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans and Mike Kelley. Originally located in Hatsudai, the gallery moved to its current location in the upscale area of Roponggi Hills in 2011 with an expanded exhibition space.
COMPLEX665 opened in 2016 and has become a new art destination, housing three major contemporary art galleries. SHUGOARTS is one of the newest kids on the block in the neighbourhood of Roppongi, but certainly not the youngest gallery having been established in 2000 by founder Shugo Satani. The gallery shows an eclectic range of contemporary Japanese and international artists from Cartsen Höller to Ritsue Mishima. It has since also added a curated selection of artists from the broader Asian region – such as Lee Kit and Jung Yang – to their roster.
One of Japan’s most well-known contemporary galleries, you can expect shows that showcase both emerging and established artists from all around the world at TOMIO KOYAMA GALLERY. However, like most Japanese galleries, you can expect a focus on Japanese artists such as Yoshitomo Nara, Kishio Suga and Mika Ninagawa.
Finally, but definitely not least, is TAKA ISHII GALLERY a contemporary art gallery that specialises in photography by major Japanese and international artists such as Nobuyoshi Araki, Daido Moriyama and Thomas Demand. Their space in complex665 will be their second and newest location in Roppongi, showcasing an expanded programme that includes other artistic mediums from a growing roster of artists.
Founded by Yoichi Nakamuta and managed together with Taku Sato, Clear Edition & Gallery features a combination of contemporary design and art. As such, their programme is usually relatively experimental and features artists from mainly the Asian region, but also Europe and Australia.
After being a mainstay in Ebisu, Ota Fine Arts moved to the neighbourhood of Roppongi. The gallery is well-known for being one of the early proponents of internationally acclaimed artist Yayoi Kusama. In recent years, Ota Fine Arts has sought to achieve a more regional representation of artists which include Christine Ay Tjoe, Yeesookyung, Chen Wei and Tang Dixin.
Set up in 2008, Take Ninagawa is one of the contemporary art galleries of what is considered the ‘post-Kiyosumi-Shirokawa generation’. The gallery features both emerging artists and well-known artists Shinro Ohtake, Aki Sasamoto, Danh Vo and Taro Izumi, building upon the culture of experimentation set by Japanese post-war art to develop unique approaches that respond to our current condition. Head over from here towards Shirokane for more galleries.
Kodama gallery opened in Osaka in 1998. Since then, it has expanded to two locations, moved to Tokyo and Kyoto, and finally now has two spaces in Tokyo – one in Shirokane, near Roppongi, and one in the Terrada Art Complex in Tennoz (more on that below). Kodama Gallery provides some diversity in the heavily Tokyo-oriented Japanese contemporary art scene, with representation focused on Kyoto and Osaka-based artists.
Kaikai Kiki Gallery is the brain-child of eminent Japanese Contemporary artist Takashi Murakami. The gallery has a roster of resident artists who have become well-known in their own right, such as Mr., Chiho Aoshima and Aya Takano. Additionally, the gallery also shows works by artists such as Mark Grotjahn, Matthew Monahan, Seonna Hong, and Friedrich Kunath.
8/ is one of the creative spaces within the Shibuya Hikarie building, which includes the d47 Museum. Helmed by Tomio Koyama Gallery, whose main space is located in Roppongi, 8/ Art Gallery / Tomio Koyama is a testament to the historical – and at times surprisingly common – Japanese practice of having some of the most avant-garde exhibitions held in department stores and shopping malls.
Formerly known as Nanzuka Underground, Nanzuka has a reputation of being an alternative to the more traditional galleries in Japan, often showing emerging artists with a focus on creativity, as opposed to experience. The gallery works with some well-known post-war artists, such as Japanese pop artist Keiichi Tanaami.
One of the most established galleries is Scai the Bathhouse, which is housed in a former bathhouse that is over 200 years old. The gallery represents both Japanese artists such as Kohei Nawa, Tatsuo Miyajima and Mariko Mori, as well as international heavy-weights like Lee Ufan, Jeppe Hein, He Xiangyu and Anish Kapoor. Located in the Yanaka district near Ueno Park, the antiquated architecture of the gallery gives it a traditional Japanese minimalism that makes the gallery worth visiting even for just the architecture alone.
Located in the luxurious shopping district of Ginza is Whitestone Gallery, one of the pioneer galleries in Japan, with a history of about 50 years. Their mission has been to introduce Japanese prominent talents in the worldwide context, which is the reason behind their heavily Japanese roster of artists including Hiroshi Senju, Hiroshi Sujimoto and Yuko Nasaka.
Mizuma Art Gallery opened in 1994, specialising in contemporary art from Japan as well as the rest of Asia. Their roster includes Japanese artists like Ken + Julia Yonetani, Akira Yamaguchi, Koji Tanada and Makoto Aida, as well as Indieguerillas, Robert Zhao Renhui and Heri Dono. Additionally, this particular gallery features a unique tatami room in its exhibition space.
Gallery Kogure is run by Hiroshi Kogure who previously worked at an art gallery in Tokyo for 18 years before opening his gallery in 2006. The gallery regards Japan as a starting point, focusing on the principles of technique, design and creativity, and shows Japanese artists exclusively. Gallery Kogure has a sister gallery space, Lower Akihabra in Higashi-Kanda, Tokyo, as well as Gallery Kogure NY in Tribeca, New York.
Gallery Hashimoto opened in 2007 in the emerging area of east Tokyo as a part of Hashimoto Art Office, which engages in artist management, planning and project implementation. Gallery Hashimoto represents many emerging artists, with some such as Noe Aoki, going on to become involved in major projects such as the 2013 edition of the Setouchi Triennale and Aichi Triennale.
Aoyama | Meguro is located in a warehouse formerly occupied by a delivery company, and features a loft-like exhibition space that was designed by a local architectural firm located in the same space. Founded in 2004 Aoyama | Meguro, focuses on young contemporary artists. They are also part of the New Tokyo Contemporaries collective that include galleries such as Urano, Take Ninagawa and Misako & Rosen, which have all been opened by young directors with previous gallery experience.
Husband and wife duo Misako and Jeffrey Rosen opened Misako & Rosen in 2005 and are also founding members of the New Tokyo Contemporaries art collective. Unlike most gallery spaces, Misako & Rosen is separated by an iconic flight of short concrete steps offering gallery visitors a different perspective of the works on show. The gallery presents mostly wall-mounted works by a mix of both local and international artists that cater to younger collectors.
TERRADA ART COMPLEX is an art facility managed by Terrada, a warehouse company. It opened in 2016 and features a high-ceilinged gallery space, an atelier and the T-Art Kobo workshop. Currently, Terrada Art Complex is occupied by four galleries: URANO, KODAMA GALLERY | TENNOZ, YAMAMOTO GENDAI and YUKA TSURUNO GALLERY. Another two new gallery spaces – SCAI PARK by Scai the Bathhouse and KOSAKU KANECHIKA – are set to open in 2017 on the 5th floor of the complex. Tennozu is an up-and-coming area, with more art facilities opening up in the area making it a place to watch and a destination in its own right.
Begun by a collective of six art curators and organisers in 2001, ARTS INITIATIVE TOKYO is a non-profit space that organizes various artistic programmes and projects, including an artist-in-residence program and Making Art Different (MAD), which embraces new approaches to contemporary art. Located in the hip locale of Daikanyama – it is a mere 5 minute walk from the famous Daikanyama T-Site – Arts Initiative Tokyo often holds exhibitions, artist talks and meetings in the converted Japanese storehouse.
Also in the Shibuya district is VACANT, a multi-purpose space set up in 2009 by No Idea, an event-planning organisation. The space includes an independent gallery, event venue, café and store. Vacant usually hosts underground exhibitions by local emerging artists, as well as other events.
Originally the private estate of business tycoon Kunizo Hara, the Hara Museum building looks exactly like a home influenced by European modernist architecture, with a porch and driveway leading you into the compound. The museum itself hosts about four or fibe exhibitions annually that showcases domestic and international art. It also has a few permanent installations that take up entire rooms, including a Yoshitomo Nara room. I would recommend you also check out Café d’Art, which not only overlooks the museum courtyard, but also features a changing menu that is often based on a specially designed dessert inspired by the ongoing exhibition.
Located on the 52nd and 53rd floors of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, Mori Art Museum is known for its blockbuster exhibitions, such as: ‘Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats’, ‘The Kaleidoscopic Eye: Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection’ that featured works by Carsten Holler, Olafur Eliasson and Tracey Emin, and ‘According to What?’ a solo exhibition by Ai Weiwei. Founded by Mori Minoru and Mori Yoshiko in 2003, it also includes a bar, café, shop and panoramic observation deck with a view of Tokyo Tower.
21_21 DESIGN SIGHT has been directed by famous Japanese designer Issey Miyake, graphic designer Taku Satoh and product designer Naoto Fukuazwa since it was established in 2007 in Tokyo Midtown. Aptly designed by internationally acclaimed architect Tadao Ando, the museum is a homage to the importance of design and its relevance to everyday life, with exhibitions that focus on various themes that place design’s impact on society at the forefront. In 2017 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT opened its Gallery 3 extension to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
The National Art Center, Tokyo is Japan’s fifth art institution, spanning an impressive exhibition space of about 14,000 square meters, which is one of the largest in Japan. Featuring an iconic wavy glass façade designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, The National Art Center, Tokyo does not maintain a permanent collection and relies on loans and travelling exhibitions. Despite this, it has an impressive programme with exhibitions featuring works by Yayoi Kusama, Nakamura Kazumi, Andreas Gursky and Man Ray.
The small museum was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta for the Watari family in 1990. Its iconic triangle shape at the corner of the street in Shibuya houses an art bookshop and a café in the basement. The museum hosts about four exhibitions a year, which have featured retrospectives of Joseph Beuys, Jan Fabre, Mike Kelley and Nam June Paik.
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT) presents an alternative historical narrative to MoMA, focusing on Japanese art from the turn of the 20th century onwards. The main building, designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi, houses a permanent collection that consists of portraits by early Japanese modernist artist Ryusei Kishida and wartime paintings. It also has a Crafts Gallery and the National Film Center. I highly recommend visiting the museum during Spring, as its location near the Imperial Palace makes it ideal for viewing the cherry blossoms.
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