Feature: Art

By Rob Goss
Tokyo’s art scene is diverse and dynamic, and very often the venues are just as artistic

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(Main image credit: teamLab)

From traditional woodblock prints to gritty urban photography, interactive digital art galleries to pop-up installations and skyscraper-topping exhibitions, Tokyo’s art scene is diverse and dynamic, and often the venues are almost as artistic as the artworks they display.

One museum that could just as easily be in a section on architecture is the Sumida Hokusai Museum in the Ryogoku area, which designer Kazuyo Sejima gave a striking facade covered with mirrored aluminium panels. Opened in 2016, it focuses on the work of Katsushika Hokusai – born in this part of Tokyo in 1760 – who, among many other things, created a legendary series of woodblock prints depicting Mount Fuji. That’s well covered at the museum, but what’s really good here is how the exhibitions don’t just look at Hokusai’s most recognisable work, they also look at how he made ukiyo-e prints of natural scenery and daily life in Edo (as Tokyo was called until 1868), as well as his sketches and his deep connection to Sumida-ku.

Equally appealing from both a design perspective and for its art and artifacts is the Nezu Museum in Minato-ku, an easy walk from fashionable Omotesando avenue. Originally opened in 1941 to house industrialist Nezu Kaichirō’s collection of pre-modern Japanese and East Asian art, the museum was given a slick makeover by architect Kengo Kuma in 2009.

The collection, however, is the star, stretching to more than 7,000 pieces that cover calligraphy, ceramics, lacquerware, metalwork, paintings, sculptures and textiles. To cap things off, there’s also a lovely traditionally landscaped garden connected to the museum.

To see more traditional art and crafts, it’s also well worth visiting Tokyo National Museum in Ueno or the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Meguro. But if you wanted to combine classic art with contemporary, take a visit to either the fashionable Roppongi district or the far more down-to-earth Yanaka district. The narrow, winding backstreets of the latter are home to gems such as the Asakura Museum of Sculpture, a pre-war wooden house that was once the home and studio of Fumio Asakura (1883-1964), who is considered to be the father of modern Japanese sculpture.

Cold Life at teamLab

There’s also SCAI the Bathhouse, an influential contemporary gallery – housed in a former public bathhouse – that focuses largely on local artists across multiple genres. And beyond that, Yanaka is a lovely, quiet area to let yourself get lost in, a place to stumble upon small temples, old shops selling sweets, crafts and teas, and the occasional hip café or bar in traditional buildings.

In Roppongi, the vibe is very different – this is a cosmopolitan and up-tempo part of town, with three major art venues that together are called Art Triangle Roppongi or ATRo. Focusing predominantly on prominent international and Japanese contemporary artists across a variety of genres is the Mori Art Museum atop the 54-storey Roppongi Hills Mori Tower – even if you aren’t big on art, go up for the view over Tokyo from the open-air Sky Deck.

Not far away, The National Art Center is an oddity in that it has no permanent collection; instead there is an eclectic line-up of frequently changing exhibitions that in recent years have included portraiture from the Louvre Collection, paintings from Yayoi Kusama and collections of manga art. In a different vein again, Suntory Museum of Art – in the Tokyo Midtown complex – is firmly rooted in the past, displaying vintage lacquerware, ceramics, paintings and textiles from Japan and elsewhere.

Arguably representing the cutting-edge of Tokyo’s art scene better than any other venue – at least in technological terms – another must-see is teamLab Borderless, a wonderfully immersive ‘digital art museum’ located on the attraction-packed manmade island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay. Created by a multi-national and multi-discipline art collective, it features dozens of interactive installations designed to form a three-dimensional borderless world, with digital artworks – mostly rendered in real time – that move out of rooms, communicate with other works, influence and sometimes intermingle with each other and the people experiencing them.

One example is a psychedelic installation called Universe of Water Particles, where you can walk through the flow of a virtual multicoloured waterfall, changing how it moves and how it is then viewed by others.


Feature: Architecture

By Rob Goss
Tokyo has tried to preserve its historical buildings, but it really comes into its own with present-day architecture

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(Main image: Copyright: TCVB)

With the narrative of old meeting the new, there’s a bit of blip when it comes to most central Tokyo streetscapes. Architecturally, there just isn’t much of old Tokyo left – certainly not in the way that you encounter cobbled historic quarters in many European cities – because a history of fires and earthquakes has made Tokyo rebuild itself numerous times over the centuries.

Japan, of course, tries to preserve some of its most historic temples, shrines and other landmarks – although traditionally some of the most sacred shrines are purposely rebuilt every 20 years – but there’s an acceptance of impermanence; and in Tokyo an acceptance that the city will always be in a state of redevelopment.

There are some old moments, though. The original Tokyo Station building from 1914 – a grand red-brick structure facing the skyscrapers of the Marunouchi business district – is a reminder of how European architects influenced Japanese design after the country ended its centuries of self-isolation. In this case, the station was designed by Kingo Tatsuno, one of a first wave of Japanese architects who had studied under Europeans such as Josiah Conder.

For an old Japanese aesthetic, the city’s temples and shrines, even when they are rebuilds, architecturally don’t veer from tradition. Nor do the city’s Japanese gardens or teahouses. And though it’s not architecture per se, you can find a lovely retro ramshackle vibe in areas such as the Yanaka district or Golden Gai, a post-war warren of alleys in Shinjuku-ku that are home to dozens of tiny bars.

Big Sight (Copyright: TCVB)

But where Tokyo really comes into its own architecturally is the present (or near-present) day, especially when one looks at the mark internationally acclaimed Japanese architects have left on the city. Take the self-taught Tadao Ando, the 1995 The Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner who, among many other things, gave the city the Omotesando Hills mall in 2006. Stretching 250m along the chic Omotesando avenue, its signature element is a six-floor atrium that drops three floors underground and rises three above; all connected by a 700m spiral ramp.

Then there’s the 1987 Pritzker Prize-winner Kenzo Tange, who left us gems such as the twin-towered Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku and the Fuji Television Network Headquaters in Odaiba, which has a giant silver ball (an observatory) wedged in the upper walkway that connects the two towers of the complex.

Another heavyweight, Kengo Kuma is known for his use of natural materials, which becomes apparent when you look at his New National Stadium (Olympic Stadium) or work such his reconstruction of the Nezu Museum. We can’t forget Shigeru Ban either – he’s another Pritzker winner. Although his projects are often on a large scale, a fun recent piece of work features toilets.

As part of an ongoing project called The Tokyo Toilet, he designed two glass public restrooms for parks in Shibuya-ku that, when not in use, are see-through, so you can check for cleanliness and be sure nobody is lurking inside, but when locked become opaque. At night, they glow like lanterns. It’s not just Ban who is involved. By the time the project is over, there will be 17 architecturally unique restrooms dotted around Shibuya, mostly designed by a who’s who of Japanese architects – Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma and Toyoo Ito included.

TOKYO SKYTREE, Super Dry Hall and waterfront (Copyright: TCVB)

Non-Japanese designers have left a mark, too. Philippe Starck’s Super Dry Hall, which is just over the Sumida River from Asakusa, is one that has become a landmark. Built in 1989, part of the structure mimics a foaming glass of lager.

Sharing the skyline with the 634m TOKYO SKYTREE tower – currently the world’s second-tallest structure – it’s quite a sight. Far sleeker and more recent is Tokyo-based Klein Dytham architecture’s Daikanyama T-Site in Shibuya-ku, a super-trendy bookstore designed to feel like a ‘library in the woods’ with several interconnected buildings that, as well as speciality books on art, design and travel, also house cafés and ample spaces to plop down for a read.

T-Site epitomises the now in Tokyo. As for the past, if you wanted more than a glimpse of old Tokyo, head to Koganei Park in the Tama region to check out the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. It brings together 30 old structures in an effort to document how Tokyo would have looked over the years. That includes thatched farmhouses to highlight the city’s old rural side and the house of a Meiji-era (1868-1912) politician that shines a light on how Western and Japanese designs first began to merge.

Giving a look at the day-to-day, there’s also a brick Meiji-era police box, an 1850s bar from Taito-ku, a public bathhouse complete with wall art that dates back to the 1920s, a kitchenware store from the 1930s with a copper-plated exterior and a soy sauce shop originally built in Minato-ku in the 1930s. A very different vibe to the Tokyo you find today.