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 Sejima Kazuyo 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 Chiyoda-ku, an easy walk from fashionable Omotesando avenue. Originally opened in 1941 to house industrialist Kaichiro Nezu’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 like 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.
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 cafe 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 Centre 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 Koto-ku. 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 on a Rock where People Gather, where you can walk through the flow of a virtual multi-coloured waterfall, changing how it moves and how it is then viewed by others.