Central Tokyo

“An exciting ART + BEER festival has been planned by 16 participating galleries located in the central part of Tokyo,” read the description of the “Kunst Oktoberfest” event that took place earlier this month. That was more than enough to pique my interest, but the final words of the blurb sealed the deal: “Oh, by the way, the beer and the ride are free.” Sometimes I just love this city.

2 p.m., Nihonbashi: A friend met me at the station, and we were off to the nearby Galerie Sho Contemporary Art, the tour’s nexus, where buses departed for galleries on two separate routes, north and south. For those who have celebrated the hedonistic German holiday before, the word “Oktoberfest” probably brings to mind scenes of beer-swilling debauchery, but the atmosphere inside Galerie Sho was decidedly civil. About a dozen visitors were sipping bottled German beer and taking in the paintings of MASAKO, whose understated work had an unsettling, almost haunting quality.

MASAKO says her paintings speak about interpersonal relationships and codependence in contemporary society, and her muted colors and nearly faceless figures suggest this life is far from perfect. Except, of course, on a sunny autumn afternoon when the beer is free and the buses are on time. With brews in one hand and gallery maps in the other, a motley crew of seasoned gallery hoppers and first-time art fans (and no doubt a few beer lovers) funneled onto a cozy microbus headed south.

First stop: Gallery Koyanagi, where the warm pastels of Yuumi Domoto’s paintings provided a friendly glow to the gallery’s otherwise austere atmosphere. A typical Ginza “white cube,” Koyanagi is one of those pristine art spaces that would make any painting pop, but the unusual sense of color and the bold brush strokes of Domoto’s abstracts promised to look just a little bit different every day, wherever they found a home. Next was Tokyo Gallery + B.T.A.P, which showcased Hiroto Kitagawa’s newest series of painted terra-cotta sculptures. Trained in Japan and Italy, Kitagawa’s mangaesque figures fall on the artistic spectrum somewhere between Takashi Murakami and Donatello.

A quick break at a Ginza beer hall (why switch themes midway?) and it was time to catch a northbound bus. Passengers were carefully planning their routes on board to see as much as possible. CASHI gallery made the cut for good reason. Sachiko Miki’s bulbous sculptures were meticulously crafted and instantly endearing. Tears were clearly the inspiration for Miki, whose figures were all crying, and a brief conversation with the artist revealed that she cries all the time, happy or sad. Especially engaging was “Flower Drop,” in which a giant tear flowed from the eye of a tiny figurine, lifting it up off the ground and giving the overall piece an otherworldly sense of lift.

We hadn’t planned to stop at Base Gallery, but huge canvases with sprawling cityscapes called to us through the windows. Falling between photography and digital art, Sachigusa Yasuda’s startling work involves assembling hundreds of digital images of a single city view into a landscape born of her own imagination. A graduate of Tokyo University of the Arts, Yasuda’s sense of composition and color are consummate, and although keen computer skills are evident, her approach to digital photography is that of a painter, not a technician. Yasuda’s giant bird’s-eye panoramic views leave the viewer feeling both uneasy and elated, as if the artist is beckoning you to soar right into her work but you are afraid you might fall. She was explaining her extraordinary vision and process when the final bus of the day pulled up outside and cut the conversation short. Unfortunate. But there was still time to grab one last beer for the road . . .

Sorry you missed this? The good news is most of the exhibitions on the “Kunst Oktoberfest” route run through Oct. 25. The bad news is you’ll have to find your own way to the galleries and provide your own refreshments. But many of the venues are within walking distance of each other, and either route would be a cinch by bicycle. And with any luck, event organizers will make this brilliant idea a permanent fixture of the Tokyo art scene. Hope to see you on the bus next year!

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