Travel

Galleries galore! Tokyo’s must-visit museums

From architectural wonders to the weird and the wonderful

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Befitting its status as a major global metropolis, Tokyo has a lot to offer its residents and visitors.

From world-class dining at its Michelin-starred restaurants, and high-end shopping in Ginza, not to mention its myriad historic temples and gardens, Tokyo has it all. The same can be said for its museums and galleries, which span all genres and eras, not to mention some — ahem — niche subjects. Often it can be hard to decide where to go: a welcome consequence of having an abundance of choice.

To help with this problem, here is a compilation of nine Tokyo museums that more than merit a visit. Naturally, this list is far from complete, hardly touching on Tokyo’s many galleries which, on top of often being free, offer frequently changing exhibits from both local artists and international stars.

So, the next time you find yourself with a free afternoon or an opportunity to “staycation” in Tokyo, give one of these places a try.

One of a kind: The National Museum of Western Art was designed by 20th-century architect Le Corbusier.
One of a kind: The National Museum of Western Art was designed by 20th-century architect Le Corbusier. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Must visit museums

Ueno Park

Perhaps it’s cheating to list an entire park as an entry, but as a one-stop shop of museums, Ueno Park is the gold standard. With over 10 million visitors a year, Ueno Park is Japan’s most popular city park, particularly during the spring hanami (flower viewing) season, and its grounds are home to several of Tokyo’s best museums.

At one end of the park is the statuesque Tokyo National Museum (Ueno Park 13-9, Taito-ku; ¥620), Japan’s oldest and largest national museum. Between its six buildings — each of which could be considered a museum in its own right — its art and archaeological collections include some 117,000 items, and you can easily spend an entire day exploring its facilities.

Other standout museums include The National Museum of Western Art (Ueno Park 7-7, Taito-ku; ¥500), the only building in Japan designed by early 20th-century architect Le Corbusier. It hosts several stellar rotating exhibitions of (primarily European) Western art per year, on top of its own substantial permanent collection.

Museum campus: The National Museum of Nature and Science is one of several museums hosted in or near to Ueno Park.
Museum campus: The National Museum of Nature and Science is one of several museums hosted in or near to Ueno Park. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

While the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (Ueno Park 8-36, Taito-ku; free entry, exhibition admission varies) has no permanent collection, it hosts both free and paid temporary exhibits in a wide variety of mediums. As if these weren’t enough, the park also includes the child-friendly National Museum of Nature and Science (Ueno Park 7-20, Taito-ku; ¥620) and The Ueno Royal Museum (Ueno Park 1-2, Taito-ku; varies by exhibition).

Mori Art Museum

The Mori Art Museum (Roppongi Hills Mori Tower 53F, Roppongi 6-10-1, Minato-ku; ¥1,800), located in the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower skyscraper, an urban redevelopment project in Tokyo’s central Roppongi district, has several things going for it.

Centered around the principle of combining “art + life,” the museum’s contemporary art exhibits are sweeping in scope, often addressing the ambiguous boundaries between art, activism and international borders, particularly within the Pan-Asian region.

On the 52nd floor of Mori Tower, one floor below the Mori Art Museum, is the Tokyo City View Indoor Observation Deck. A ticket to the museum includes free admission to the deck, where visitors get a 360-degree-view of Tokyo through the 11-meter-tall, full-length windows. On a clear day you can see all the way to Mount Fuji, not to mention the rest of Tokyo’s famous landmarks such as Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree. It’s a truly superior view of the metropolis.

In praise of shadows: Visitors gaze up at the architectural marvel that is The National Art Center, Tokyo.
In praise of shadows: Visitors gaze up at the architectural marvel that is The National Art Center, Tokyo. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

The National Art Center, Tokyo

Located a few minute’s walk away from the Mori Art Museum, with a staggering 14,000-square-meters of exhibition space, The National Art Center, Tokyo (Roppongi 7-22-2, Minato-ku; free entry, exhibition admission varies) is a scale apart from most museums in Tokyo. Its seven gallery spaces are divided into display “blocks” that can be divided or adjusted according to the type and size of the exhibition in question; often there are multiple exhibits running simultaneously, and tickets are purchased not to the museum overall but to the specific exhibition of your choice.

The rest of the museum is taken up with a library, auditorium, restaurant, cafe and museum shop, not to mention a copious amount of ground-floor open space filled with public seating. As a work of art in and of itself, the Kisho Kurokawa-designed building is striking. Surrounded by a rippling wall of glass, there is a constantly shifting play of light and shadow across the first-floor atrium and its upended concrete conical structures. It’s not unusual to see visitors marveling at the harmony between fluid lines and sharp angles in this kinetic complex.

Underrated gems

Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum
The former residence of Prince Yasuhiko and Princess Nobuko, who were inspired by the art deco movement while in France, the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum (Shirokanedai 5-21-9, Minato-ku; varies by exhibition) building is just as much a work of art as the exhibits it holds.

Designed by French architect Henri Rapin and featuring exquisite details by glassmaker Rene Lalique and sculptor Ivan-Leon Alexandre Blanchot, the Teien is craftsmanship at its finest. While some of the rooms, in addition to a more recently constructed annex, are used as exhibition spaces, many original details have been preserved and there are placards identifying the former use of each room.

The building’s extensive garden, divided into three areas — an open lawn, a traditional Japanese garden and a European garden — is dotted with sculptures and open to visitors, who can wander its scenic pathways or indulge in a picnic.

Hara Museum of Contemporary Art

Stepping into the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art (Kitashinagawa 4-7-25, Shinagawa-ku; ¥1,100) feels like stepping into someone’s home. The building was constructed in the 1930s as a private residence for industrialist Kunizo Hara. It has remained in the family, and, in 1979, grandson Toshio Hara turned the eclectic building into one of Japan’s first contemporary art museums.

Merging art and life: The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art is home to several permanent installations by renowned artists such as Jean-Pierre Raynaud and Lee Ufan.
Merging art and life: The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art is home to several permanent installations by renowned artists such as Jean-Pierre Raynaud and Lee Ufan. | OSAMU WATANABE

The facility is home to several permanent installations — seamlessly integrated into the structure or interior garden — by renowned artists such as Jean-Pierre Raynaud, Lee Ufan and Tatsuo Miyajima. Rotating exhibits take full advantage of the galleries’ unique shapes and the original residential nature of the building, providing ample opportunity for art, architecture and visitors to interact in new and unexpected ways.

The museum will close in December 2020, so be sure to visit before its doors shut permanently.

The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art

Upon first glance, the exterior of The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (Jingumae 3-7-6, Shibuya-ku; varies by exhibition), more commonly known as Watari-um (Watari + museum), might seem a little out of place when compared to the other facades in Gaienmae. With its bold horizontal lines, sharp angles and peeling decals from a previous exhibit, Watari-um’s facade belies a gallery space that hosts groundbreaking contemporary art exhibits that utilize the small square footage available to maximum effect.

But what really makes Watari-um worth visiting is its shop, which has a truly impressive stock of exquisitely designed lifestyle products. The basement is home to a specialty bookstore and cafe called On Sundays, which stocks niche books, magazines and music curated independently by bibliophile Kisato Kusano.

On the odd side

SCAI The Bathhouse

Although the structure of SCAI The Bathhouse (pronounced “sky”; Kashiwayu-Ato, Yanaka 6-1-23, Taito-ku; free) might be a 200-year-old sento bathhouse, the inside is a minimalist, chic repurposement. The whitewashed building, with its angular tiled roof, fits perfectly into the Showa Retro vibe of Yanaka, one of Tokyo’s shitamachi (old-town) neighborhoods. Although the interior has been turned into a chic gallery space, there are some sento details left over, like the numbered wooden shoe lockers that still line both sides of the genkan entryway.

Little touches: Exterior detail of SCAI The Bathhouse, a gallery space set up in a former sento bathhouse.
Little touches: Exterior detail of SCAI The Bathhouse, a gallery space set up in a former sento bathhouse. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Since opening in 1993, SCAI has hosted exhibits from artists of international renown, including Lee Ufan and Kohei Nawa. Exhibits tend toward the extreme side of contemporary, and often transform the entire gallery space. Although this genre of art might not be for everyone, the quirky building and free entry should absolutely put SCAI The Bathhouse on your radar. Note that the gallery closes between exhibitions, which usually last several weeks, so check online to make sure it’s open before visiting.

Tobacco & Salt Museum

Even though both tobacco and salt are commodities that have had an outsized impact on humanity, the existence of an entire museum dedicated to the history and culture of these two goods might still come as a surprise.

Originally located in Shibuya and now in Sumida Ward a stone’s throw from the Tokyo Skytree, the Tobacco & Salt Museum’s (Yokokawa 1-16-3, Sumida-ku; ¥100) titular exhibits are more interesting and interactive than you might expect. Combining chemistry, history, anthropology, technology and more, the two exhibits provide a fascinating overview of how salt and tobacco are integrated into societies around the world (albeit with, given the museum’s sponsorship by Japan Tobacco, a heavy focus on Japan).

The museum also hosts rotating exhibits of things completely unrelated to tobacco or salt; past exhibits have included ukiyo-e, textiles and handicrafts.

Intermediatheque

Intermediatheque (JP Tower 2-3F, Marunouchi 2-7-2, Chiyoda-ku; free) is a rather difficult facility to describe: Part curio cabinet and part natural history museum, it’s a bit like your eclectic great-uncle-twice-removed decided to have an estate sale and threw his collection together in a hodge-podge, yet somehow harmonious, display.

A self-described facility of “interdisciplinary experimentation,” this joint venture between Japan Post Co. and the University of Tokyo’s University Museum fuses a wide range of scientific and cultural heritage from the university’s substantial collections.

There are minimal explanations and descriptions for the myriad objects on display, so you simply have to wander about the space and see what oddity catches your fancy.

Intermediatheque occupies two floors in the modern Kitte department store across the street from Tokyo Station; even the gallery’s location defies expectations.

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