When you think of the most obvious Tokyo experience, what do you envision? Maybe an early-morning trek to the Tsukiji fish market, a late night in Roppongi, a trip up the Tokyo Tower or Skytree, a half-ton of sushi, perhaps a visit to an owl cafe. But where's the art? Sure, you might have "See some old Tokugawa-period sketches" on your list, but Tokyo has much more, even for casual art fans. Art aficionados, here's your (necessary) plan for taking in at least some of what Tokyo has to offer.

 

Much of what we think of in terms of art is actually Western art. If you live in a big Western city, you probably have a museum with a small wing dedicated to East Asian, Islamic or African art, and you might get a special exhibit at the local gallery for a few months. But Tokyo has several galleries showcasing centuries' worth of Japanese art, as well as big museums with pieces from all over the world. 


The Fundamentals

Tokyo National Museum via Facebook


Let’s start with the classics. If you visit Tokyo and you don’t check out the Tokyo National Museum, you’re doing it wrong. Established in 1872, it's the biggest art museum in Japan and the country's oldest national museum. The building itself is beautiful, as are the surrounding environs, as it is situated in lovely Ueno Park. Set aside at least three hours for this one (four or five would be even better). The TNM has huge collections of Japanese art and archaeology, Asian art and some pieces from around the world. Cherry blossom viewing is in effect until April 9, and from April 11 to June 4 you can see an exhibit on the art and history of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Roppongi is known for its vibrant nightlife, but before you hit the bars and clubs, swing by earlier in the day and visit the National Art Center. 2017 is an especially good year to visit, as the center is celebrating its 10th anniversary. There is no permanent gallery here, so whenever you attend it will always be different.


Nezu Museum via Facebook


A little less widely known, but immensely popular in art circles, is the Nezu Museum, which houses the private collection of Nezu Kaichirō. The collection consists largely of premodern Japanese and East Asian art, including folding screens, calligraphy, sculptures, ceramics and paintings. Until March 31 you can see The Fragrant Sublime: Koryŏ Buddhist Paintings.

The Tokyo National Museum, 13-9 Uenokoen, Tait
ō-ku, Tokyo 110-8712. +81 3-5405-8686; tnm.jp
The National Art Center, 7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8558. +81 3-5777-8600; nact.jp
Nezu Museum, 6-5-1 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0062. +81 3-3400-2536; nezu-muse.or.jp

 

Art +

21 21 Design via Facebook


Once you've perused all the galleries of painted canvases and beautiful ceramics, branch out into the world of design. 21_21 Design Sight is like some of the other museums listed here in that it’s a cool building in a beautiful area, but you'll get more of a focus on design. If you're there before early June, don't miss the innovative exhibition Athlete. It looks at what goes into making a human being into an athlete, deconstructing our anatomy and physiology from a design perspective.

Okay, you’ve scratched your design itch, but what’s that, you say? You have a jones for history? Perhaps Tokyo can interest you in the Edo-Tokyo Museum. This museum is rather small and quaint, in contrast to the ultra-modern building that houses it, and you can probably see it all in about two hours. It focuses on the city's history and how sleepy little Edo became the hustling, bustling juggernaut that is contemporary Tokyo. And of course a big part of that history lies in its art. Until April 9, travel back to the 1700s with the exhibit Edo and Beijing - Cities and Urban Life in the 18th Century.

21_21 Design, 9-7-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0052. +81 3-3475-2121; 2121designsight.jp
The Edo-Tokyo Museum, 1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130-0015. +81 3-3626-9974; edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp

 

Yokohama

Yokohama Museum of Art via Facebook


Many people who visit Japan focus on Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. All three are incredible places — but frankly, it’s absolutely maddening how often Yokohama is overlooked. It sits on Tokyo Bay and it is part of the greater Tokyo area, but please do not mistake it for a Western-style suburb. With more than 3.5 million residents, Yokohama is actually Japan’s second-largest city. It's reachable from Tokyo via a standard train line, so you can make a day trip out of it. But please, make it a full day. To overlook Yokohama is to do a disservice to both it and you. Be sure to carve out a few hours to explore one of its standout attractions, the Yokohama Museum of Art.

Located in the incredible Minato Mirai 21 district, right next to the Yokohama Landmark Tower, the Yokohama Museum of Art has a larger collection of Western pieces by famous artists than many Japanese museums. But, of course, it also has work by Japanese artists, many of them modern or contemporary. From April to June, see The Elegant Other, an exploration of East-meets-West art and fashion in the Meiji period
— it includes 100 dresses from the Kyoto Costume Institute. After you explore the galleries, trek up Landmark for a frame-worthy view of the bay and city.

Last but certainly not least is the Sogo Museum of Art. You’ll have to work a little bit to find Sogo, as it’s actually on the sixth floor of a department store. But hey, who doesn’t like a little shopping with their art? The exhibits always change and the museum's website doesn't have an English version, so if you can’t read Japanese you’re in for a bit of gamble. But hey, that’s half the fun of going 
— and, truly, Sogo does not disappoint.

Yokohama Museum of Art, 3-4-1 Minatomirai, Nishi-ku, Yokohama 220-0012. +81 (0)45-221-0300; yokohama.art.museum
Sogo Museum, 6th flr., 2-18-1 Takashima, Nishi-ku, Yokohama 220-8510. +81 (0)45-465-5515; sogo-seibu.jp


By Jesse Templeton

Jesse is a writer based in Toronto. He is an avid traveler, keen cultural observer, and moderately talented saxophonist. He has interviewed musicians, documented his exploits as an urban explorer, and written a lot of snark-filled miscellany.