As one of the world’s wealthiest, most vibrant and creative urban centres, Tokyo is home to a contemporary art scene unlike any other. Overflowing with experimental galleries and undiscovered talent, the Japanese capital’s art scene – while historically underappreciated and overshadowed by neighbours including Hong Kong and China – is fast being recognised as a bona fide destination for lovers of contemporary art.
Reflecting the city’s infectious energy and unique culture, Tokyo’s museums and galleries are generally fairly non-traditional. Though conventional venues such as the Tokyo National Museum and Nezu Museum feature ancient architecture, artworks, artefacts and cultural treasures, many of Tokyo’s contemporary art galleries are housed in cutting-edge modernist structures and offer a rotating schedule of high-profile and unexpected exhibitions.
You don’t have to be a serious art aficionado to appreciate Tokyo’s contemporary art scene – visiting a gallery or two during your time in Japan is a fantastic opportunity to see how Tokyo’s eccentricities extend from its dynamic streets to its approach to creating, displaying and enjoying art. Some of Tokyo’s most fascinating museums and galleries include:
Mori Art Museum
Gracing the 52nd and 53rd floors of the Mori Tower in trendy Roppongi Hills, the Mori Art Museum offers world-class exhibitions focused on contemporary art, culture and architecture. Though-provoking works from the likes of Ai Weiwei and Dinh Q. Lê are complemented by spectacular panoramic city views – both from the indoor observation deck and the rooftop Sky Deck. In a further departure from tradition, Mori is open until 10pm most nights.
21_21 Design Sight
A design-focused museum founded by celebrated Japanese designers Issey Miyake, Taku Satoh and Naoto Fukasawa, 21_21 Design Sight hosts exhibits, pop-up shops, design-focused activities and workshops. Their current exhibition, Insects: Models for Design, focuses on insects’ structures, ecology, diversity and relationship to humans, and how these aspects can be used to inform innovative design.
National Art Centre, Tokyo (NACT)
Also in Roppongi, the National Art Centre opened in 2007 and is one of Japan’s largest exhibition spaces. NACT doesn’t maintain a permanent collection, favouring special exhibitions from local and international artists. The museum shop, Souvenir from Tokyo, offers quirky and unique gifts, clothes and homewares from renowned designers and unknown artists.
Mizuma Art Gallery
The Mizuma Art Gallery has been part of Tokyo’s contemporary art scene since 1994. It represents an impressive catalogue of up-and-coming and established Japanese and Asian artists, while profiling works from European and American artists who are unknown in Japan. Mizuma’s exhibitions generally focus on bold, conceptual pieces that express the diversity of Japan’s contemporary art scene.
Yayoi Kusama Museum
Yayoi Kusama has been recognised as one of Japan’s most important living artists. Now aged 90, she has received international attention and acclaim for her exhibitions and many outdoor sculptural commissions across the globe. The Yayoi Kusama Museum, located in Shinjuku, opened in 2017 and aims to promote the development of contemporary art by showcasing her works. In the past five years, more than five million museum visitors have queued to see Yayoi Kusama’s works – it’s well worth a visit to her museum while you’re in Tokyo.
The Nezu Museum presents more than 7,400 works of pre-modern Japanese and East Asian art in a contemporary, minimalist space in the Aoyama district. Nestled within a stunning 17,000 square metre Japanese garden – widely regarded to be one of the most exquisite private gardens in Tokyo – Nezo’s permanent collection includes calligraphy, painting, ceramics and textiles, with a strong focus on Buddhist art.
Naoshima Art Island
Japan has three main “art islands” located on the Seto Inland Sea. The most popular, Naoshima, is internationally renowned for its modern art museums, architecture and sculptures and is a must-visit for devotees of modern and contemporary art. Its icon – Yayoi Kusama’s bold sculpture of a yellow pumpkin dotted with black – sits on a pier overlooking the ocean and is the island’s most photographed spot.
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Contact us for more information about including the highlights of Tokyo’s contemporary art scene to your next Japanese trip itinerary.
Closer to home: Japanese art collective teamLab is bringing a new immersive digital art exhibition to Australia in late 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. The exhibit – Reversible Rotation – is created by mathematicians, architects, animators and engineers, and is designed to blur the concepts of space and perception. Visit Tolarno Galleries from 5 October to 2 November 2019 for a taste of futuristic Japanese contemporary art.