Tokyo’s creative force is clear in everything from the food to the fashion – and, of course, the art. Here are a few of the galleries you might miss (and really shouldn’t).
Any modern art fan visiting Tokyo will know the major venues: the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOT), National Museum of Modern Art (MOMAT), Mori Art Museum and Tokyo Midtown Design Hub. They’re all well worth your time, but ultimately they’ll deliver the same sort of experience you’d find in any major gallery around the world.
For a different, less predictable view of the Tokyo art world, head to one of these smaller or more specialist galleries. Some of them exhibit well-established artists, while at others you’ll find names you’ve never heard of. At many, you’ll be able to meet the artist and perhaps buy one of their works, a meaningful and memorable souvenir of your trip to one of the world’s great cities for contemporary art.
Design Festa Gallery
Art Gallery, Shop
Design Festa is made up of a warren of rooms which artists can hire to show their work. You may happen upon prints inspired by ukiyo-e in one room, an eerie exhibit of handmade dolls in the next, and vast canvases in the final one. The artists are often on hand, making it a great place to find out more about trends in the Tokyo art world. It’s also an excellent place to pick up a piece, as the gallery takes no commission. Make time for a pitstop in Sakuratei, the attached okonomiyaki restaurant, its walls covered in a colourful mural.
Watari-Um, established in 1990, presents a broad range of contemporary art in a glorious, geometric Mario Botta-designed building in Shibuya. Its aim is to explore global trends in contemporary art, and Japan’s place within that – a goal it achieves with exhibitions focused on such diverse talents as American graffiti artist Barry McGee and actor Tadanobu Asano, who for years has been creating surreal and beautiful sketches when he’s bored waiting around on set.
Probably Japan’s most famous artist currently working, it was only a matter of time before Yayoi Kusama got her own gallery. The sinuous white building in Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, shows only a small selection of the prolific artist’s works at any one time, in two well-curated exhibits per year that offer meaningful insights into her life and practice. Door tickets are not available. Admission tickets go on sale at the start of each month for the following month, must be booked in advance through the museum’s website, and only cover a 90-minute time slot – but the experience is well worth the effort.
MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM: teamLab Borderless
On an artificial island in Tokyo Bay is Odaiba, a strange technicolour world devoted to entertainment: a ferris wheel, shopping malls and even a hot spring theme park. In the Mori Building Digital Art Museum you enter a different, even brighter world, created by teamLab, an interdisciplinary creative collective making immersive digital art. In Borderless, you wander between overlapping installations in which the artworks and visitors respond to each other. It’s a surreal and oddly calming way to spend an afternoon.
UltraSuperNew, linked to the creative agency of the same name, is particularly strong on digital and graphic art and photography. But their exhibitions are wide-ranging, exploring and encouraging creative collaboration in all its forms. It’s a perfect fit for its location, seeming to distill the young, fashion-forward, global-minded atmosphere of Harajuku into one gallery.
Founded by Takashi Murakami, the world-famous contemporary artist who coined the term “superflat”, Kaikai Kiki is an art production and artist management company based in Tokyo. In their Motoazabu gallery, housed in an unprepossessing office building, you can see temporary exhibitions of works by the artists they represent, such as Mark Grotjahn, but also other major artists like Yoshitomo Nara.
On the third floor of the uninspiring-looking Tokyo Opera City skyscraper, this sleek gallery is home to an unparalleled collection of works by postwar Japanese artists (the Terada Collection). On top of this it runs Project N, which focuses on nurturing emerging talent in Japanese art – making it an excellent place to find some new names to look out for – and holds special exhibitions.
In a stunning and unusual example of a 1930s Modernist building is the Hara Museum; founded in 1979, it’s one of the oldest contemporary art galleries in Japan. Exhibitions are often based on the museum’s excellent collection, but the temporary shows are always fascinating, too – Cy Twombly’s first major solo show in Japan was held here in 2015.
This shop, café and gallery is a perfect example of the small-scale, DIY community spaces you can stumble on throughout the city. They’re always exhibiting something, and the artists are often on hand and happy to chat. While it’s very closely connected with the Tokyo creative scene, WISH LESS has an international atmosphere, with a slight leaning towards British culture (the co-owners are a Japanese graphic designer and British illustrator).
As well as the Pola Museum of Art in Hakone, Japanese beauty brand Pola has a Museum Annex on the third floor of its Ginza building. With a focus on, unsurprisingly, beauty, the Pola Museum Annex is well worth a visit – not least because admission is free. As well as pieces from the Hakone museum’s permanent collection, the Annex displays temporary exhibitions; past exhibits have featured, for example, Malaysian multi-disciplinary artist Grace Tan and Berlin-based Japanese painter Ryu Itadani.
Previously called matchbaco, this pared-back gallery on the fifth floor of the Shinjuku Building is focused on paintings, installations and photography. It doesn’t restrict itself to Japanese artists, but local talent is well represented, and alongside well-known artists you might see works by up-and-coming photographers, painters and multimedia artists in its impeccably curated solo and group exhibitions.
One of Tokyo’s most unusual artistic venues is the Okuno Building, built in 1932 (making it the second-oldest building in Ginza) as luxury apartments. Now, you can wander into the building and peek into each different apartment, finding different artists and creative collectives in each – over 20 in total, open at different times. There’s no central website, but you can find some information online, such as for apartments 101, 206 and 306. It’s more fun to show up unprepared, though, hopping into the rickety, manually operated lift and seeing which open door takes your fancy.
This creative space in quiet, residential Zenpukuji runs an artists-in-residence programme, as well as exchanges with foreign artists and collectives, who are encouraged to engage with the local community and find inspiration in the everyday life of Tokyo. It also provides space for local artists to exhibit their work, making it a great, low-key place to discover new Japanese and foreign artists to love.
One of the leading contemporary art galleries in the country, SCAI The Bathhouse is (as its name indicates) located in a converted public bath. The airy, high-ceilinged rooms lend themselves to installation pieces and large-scale works, and previous exhibits have featured Anish Kapoor, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tadanori Yokoo. Even in this gallery-dense area of the city, SCAI stands out.
In artsy Setagaya, Gallery Setagaya 233 provides an excellent resource for local artists. It’s a box rental shop, home to over 200 small boxes in which artists and other creatives can display and sell their work – ideal if you’re looking for a truly unique souvenir. There’s also a café, and a gallery space for larger-scale works, and it’s all free to enter.