It is no secret that I love Tokyo. It could be because it was the first Asian city I visited. Or maybe because I grew up with Japanese cartoons, and that led to a precocious love for their aesthetic and the futuristic image they gave us of the city. Or just because Tokyo is marvelous, with its constant clash between modern and traditional.
Whatever the reason, I keep waiting for the day I can finally go back there to soak up the vibes of that wonderful city.
But while I wait, why not talking about some of the most interesting contemporary art museums Tokyo has to offer? Beyond the major ones, like those in Roppongi or Shibuya, Tokyo has several smaller, less popular ones, that do deserve a visit none the less. Here I chose my 3 favorites, that you can include in your next Tokyo trip, plus a little extra bonus.
Yayoi Kusama Museum
Perhaps the most important Japanese living artist, definitely the most famous, Yayoi Kusama needs no introduction. With her dotted works and giant pumpkins, her work is pretty recognizable and her exhibitions are always packed all over the World.
If you are in Tokyo and you want to get a rounded idea of Kusama’s work, then this is the museum for you. The world’s only permanent gallery dedicated to her work, this museum has 5 floors entirely dedicated to the artist’s production, from her early works dating back to the 1950s, to more recent ones. The museum displays its collection through rotating exhibitions, but you can always find her signature big-scale works with nets and dots, as well as early works and sculptures. The museum also hosts one of her incredible Infinity Rooms, the beautiful Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity. They also have a nice rooftop cafe, a small library, and a cute little shop where you can spot the perfect gift for every Kusama fan.
Just remember to book well in advance, since the museum only allows a few people inside and tickets sell out fast. Also, tickets are not sold at the museum desk, so you have to book them through their website and they are timed (only valid for a 90 minutes slot). The process to book them is pretty simple though and it is well worth the effort.
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo
The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the oldest contemporary art museums not only in Tokyo, but in all Japan.
Opened in 1979, it was one of the first museums in the country that specialized in contemporary art. The building was originally developed as a private mansion designed by Jin Watanabe in 1938 in the Bauhaus style for the grandfather of the current museum president and international collector Toshio Hara. Over the years it also served as an embassy, before being turned into a museum in the 1970s.
Its permanent collection comprises works by some of the greatest Japanese and international artists of the XX Century, such as above mentioned Yayoi Kusama, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Miwa Yanagi, but also Calder, Klein, Pollock, Cindy Sherman, Lee U-Fan, Andy Warhol, and so on. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions and events and it is surrounded by a beautiful sculpture garden, that you can admire from the nice little cafe inside the museum.
Unfortunately, this branch of the Hara Museum will close at the end of 2020, and all its collection will be relocated to the Hara Museum ARC in Gunma. So catch it while it lasts, because it is a small hidden gem that will soon be gone.
Meguro Museum of Art
Much smaller, but equally as interesting, the Meguro Museum of Art is located in Meguro, an area south-west of Tokyo. Hosted inside a concrete building designed by Nihon Sekkei, it was originally opened in 1987 as part of the Meguro Citizens Center. The museum intends to serve as the central element of the cultural scene of the neighborhood, encouraging both residents and visitors to discover an area a little far from the most recognizable Tokyo landmarks.
To do so, the museum hosts a permanent collection as well as temporary exhibitions, displaying works by both Japanese and international modern and contemporary artists. The main focus of their collection is Japanese art, with particular attention to ties it had and still has with the international scene. Their collection comprises work from the Meiji Era to nowadays, in particular from Japanese artists that studied abroad, interacting with Western art, as well as artists with a specific connection to Meguro.
The museum overlooks a nice little park along the Meguro River and it is also connected to The Citizens Gallery, opened inside the same museum to host temporary exhibitions.
Bonus point: Hakone Open Air Museum
Not exactly in Tokyo, but just a train ride away, this wonderful sculpture park is a must-see. It makes for a perfect day trip from Tokyo, but I would suggest you plan a longer stay in Hakone. This nice little city, located inside the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, is famous for its “onsen” (hot springs), the breathtaking views of Mount Fuji, and the stunning scenery during all four seasons.
The Hakone Open Air Museum is just one of the many attractions of this area, but it is definitely worth a visit. Originally opened in 1969, it is Japan’s first open-air museum. Its collection houses over 1000 sculptures, most of which on permanent display across the sculpture park and its pavilions. The museum has 5 different indoor exhibition areas, one of which is the world-famous Picasso Pavillion, a stunning collection of over 300 of Picasso’s works.
Its collection features works by some of the most important artists of the last century, such as Henry Moore, Taro Okamoto, Yasuo Mizui, Churyo Sato, Constantin Brâncuși, Rokuzan Ogiwara, and Kōtarō Takamura.
The Hakone Open Air Museum is a real joy in every possible season, with its ever-changing colors and beautiful surroundings. It is perfect for every art lover, but it is also very kids friendly, with many activities and a pavilion entirely dedicated to younger visitors.
Are you looking for more articles on contemporary art museums and galleries in Tokyo?
Try this one on the thrilling contemporary art scene in Roppongi, or this other one on the best destinations for contemporary art in the Japanese capital.