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Exploring Tokyo’s Art Scene Like a Local

Sponsored by Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

Aug 29, 2019

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(c) Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

(c) Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

From traditional to contemporary, here’s how an insider suggests seeing some of Tokyo’s best art.

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Experiencing the rich tradition of Japanese art and design is high on the list of many travelers to Tokyo. But with so many world-class museums, galleries, and other opportunities to see art in this city, where do you begin? Kyoko U. Mimura teaches Japanese art history and aesthetics at Tokyo’s Waseda University and was the longtime Director of International Programs at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum. Her most recent publication is the English translation of The Philosophy of Design: Essays by Sori Yanagi. We chatted with Kyoko to get her tips on navigating the rich tapestry of options for checking out the Tokyo art scene.

AFAR: What’s one of the biggest trends you’re seeing in the Tokyo art scene right now?
Kyoko Mimura: There’s been more of a focus recently on traditional art, partly I think because the world’s best athletes are coming to Tokyo in 2020 and artists are inspired by the tradition that comes with the event. But it’s not strictly traditional Japanese art—it’s more about traditional techniques being given a modern spin and creating a new look.

(c) Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau
AFAR: Where are some places to see this modern look?
KM: For contemporary art and design, start in the Roppongi area. In Roppongi Hills, you’ll find world-class art at places like the Mori Art Museum. In Midtown, visit the design-focused 21_21 Design Sight, founded by Issey Miyake in a building designed by Tadao Ando, and The National Art Center—the huge, wavy glass building designed by Kisho Kurokawa with rotating exhibits. And in Koto Ward, you’ll find the Digital Art Museum—the world’s first museum to focus only on digital art.


For more traditional art, the Edo-Tokyo Museum offers a look at the art and history of Tokyo, which was known as Edo until 1868. The Japanese Sword Museum really gives you an appreciation for the artistry of sword making. And the Sumida Hokusai Museum is dedicated to Katsushika Hokusai, whose famous works include The Great Wave off Kanagawa and Red Fuji. They’re housed in a unique building designed by Pritzker winner Kazuyo Sejima.

AFAR: Speaking of architecture, where can you see some of the most inspiring buildings?
KM: Walk Omotesando Avenue in the Harajuku area and you’ll discover architectural paradise. There are more than 10 buildings designed by Pritzker winners, like the Spiral by Fumihiko Maki and the Tod’s building by Toyo Ito, to name just a couple.

AFAR: What about gallery hoppers? Where should they go?
KM: First off, know that many galleries require you to make a reservation in advance of coming—you can’t just walk in. But there are some galleries in Ginza that you can see without reservations, like the LIXIL Gallery, which looks at trends in the making; and the Gallery Shukado, which features Japanese-style painting over the course of 400 years. Or try the Okuno Building, which has more than 30 small galleries.

(c) Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau
AFAR: Where should lovers of anime and manga go?
KM: The Mori Art Museum, home to the most modern exhibitions, has been featuring a lot of anime and manga. It’s interesting—while yes, manga is a contemporary art style, it actually started to develop during the Edo period. Even then, subjects of the art were outlined with black lines, like sketches, instead of being composed with colors, like in Europe.

AFAR: Can you find street art in Tokyo?
KM: You won’t find graffiti artists in Tokyo—graffiti isn’t allowed—and if it happens it’s generally very short-lived. But you can go see the Mural City Project in Koenji, which features huge murals on the sides of buildings; this was a way to bring more permanent art to the streets on the city’s outskirts.


AFAR: There’s also been some interesting art popping in up Tokyo’s hotels and cafes. Why?
KM: Of course, they’re trying to get people to come in their doors. But it’s more than just marketing. Back before Japan opened up, artists would show, say, a water pitcher—and the art accurately reflected the craftsmanship of the pitcher. Even though we may not use items like big water pitchers in our lives today, there’s still an interest in traditional craftsmanship, and artists are taking a more modern approach to these traditional items—illustrating them in creative ways, on textiles or in ink paintings. It’s traditional Japanese life re-imagined—which in a way is what some hotels are trying to do to, too, so the art fits in well there.

AFAR: What do you love most about the art scene in Tokyo?
KM: It’s important to remember that Tokyo has had to completely rebuild itself twice in the past 100 years. This re-creation has instilled in locals a real sense of innovation, and that’s reflected in the art here. The scene is constantly evolving, which gives it energy and excitement—and gives travelers a reason to keep coming back!

Check out GoTokyo for more great suggestions for seeing art—and to plan an unforgettable getaway!

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