Tokyo – A Japanese Art Tour in 2 Days
You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to Art and Museums in Tokyo. A Japanese art tour in 2 days will give you just the tip of the iceberg, which is what we were going for. We had a limited time in Tokyo and wanted a taste of Japanese art in the traditional sense but we also wanted to get a feel for what artists were doing now and if there was a chance of squeezing in some public art and god forbid an art store, I was going to leave Tokyo content.
I was recently in Kyoto and timed it perfectly for the refurbishment of the National Museum of Modern Art. It was closed. That’s about it for Kyoto… contemporary art is not it’s strong suit, so I had to go without my customary art fix and save it up for Tokyo… and Tokyo didn’t disappoint.
Day 1 – Art Galleries
Duration: 6 Hours
We love the Japanese aesthetic, particularly their take on design. You could spend a year in Tokyo and never run out of fodder for the traditional Japanese art experience. Our plan was to get a taste of traditional art but also mix it with contemporary Japanese art, world art (Tokyo has some terrific collections of western art) and also a dose of architecture.
We based ourselves in Shimokitazawa, slightly inconvenient as it is outside of the Pasmo/Suica travel card coverage, but a great place to stay. We are going to do an extensive peak into Shimokitazawa on our next trip so bookmark that! Our plan for Day 1 was to squeeze traditional, contemporary and western art into a 3 museum loop – with a couple of mandatory coffee intervals.
We started with a coffee and breakfast at the San Francisco franchise, Blue Bottle Cafe, which is something of a phenomenon in Tokyo with cues out the door. A strange choice for Tokyo perhaps, but espresso based coffee seems to fit so well with fastidious nature of the Japanese and marries beautifully with the contemporary Japanese design aesthetic. The justification aside, it’s a lovely setting, good coffee and there’s a few more traditional Japanese coffee options nearby if pour coffee and sweets is your thing.
A public holiday had many Japanese women wandering about in traditional dress, which was fitting as we made the short stroll to our first “art” stop, the Nezu Museum (the image at the top of the post). A showcase of traditional Japanese art and artefacts with a beautiful garden that falls away into a perfectly manicured gully. It makes the 1000 yen entry fee more than worthwhile. The collection itself is heavy on antiquities and is a fascinating insight into the culture. It was only open on Fridays and Saturdays when we were there, so be sure to check before you trek.
National Museum of Western Art
From here we jumped on a bus then swapped over to the metro to get out to the Museum of Western Art at Ueno. I was keen to get a look at some of the big boys, Monet, Pollock and Miró (above right). It’s an odd, almost eastern block style brutalist building amongst a vast parkland that you could easily spend the day wandering – the zoo is only a short stroll as are a host of Museums. I got my fix so we pushed back through the crowds and made for the Museum of Modern Art (via Glitch cafe).
National Museum of Modern Art
MOMAT is just opposite the imperial palace, on the north-west corner. Which makes for another handy day trip, especially in Spring, the images of cherry blossoms around this area are breathe taking. I was keen to see an old favourite, British sculpture Barbara Hepworth, Perry was taken by the permanent collection from the 20th century “Nihonga” style Japanese painter and writer Higashiyama (below left, Akasegawa below right).
Day 2 – Public Art
Duration: 5 Hours
The public art scene in Tokyo is as good as anywhere. Where do you start? We are heading back to Tokyo in a few months as there is so much we are yet to explore. This is a little peak at public art in fairly broad sense. For us it’s architecture/design, landscaping and street art as well as installations. And if those installations happen to be private but accessible to the public… they’re public in my book.
The architecture aspect of Japanese culture is exciting and cutting edge. We won’t pretend that we have anymore than a surface appreciation of what’s on offer. This is really our first introduction to exploring it so we went big.. the big sight, but first things first.
Design Festa Gallery
A coffee first, Mojo in Harajuku (lovely pastries), then on to the Design Festa Gallery which is basically a space for rent. It’s very quirky and the space is available to Japanese and foreign artists so there’s a distinct community arts feel. The space is a labyrinth of rooms organised into individual exhibits. There’s a very cool little cafe out the back.
After a browse at Design Festa I needed to wade in some paint supplies. I’d heard about Pigment, a beautiful arts supply shop and there would be no stopping me seeing it. We headed back to Harajuku Station and jumped on the Yamanote Line to Tennozu Isle Station. Pigment is only a few minutes from the station. I just love this place, so much so that I’ve done a seperate post. You’ll get the full run down if you click here for more.
Tokyo Big Sight
From Pigment you can go back to the same station and go to the next stop, Kokusai-tenjijō Station, and if you get off here and do the short wander across to the elevated Ariake Station then catch the train for 1 stop over to Kokusai-Tenjijo-Seimon Station. This when you can take in the full glory of Tokyo’s convention centre, the Big Sight. The elevated rail will give you some great views across Tokyo and the bay, it’s only a five minute ride before you can get off at Kokusai-Tenjijo-Seimon Station (Big Sight) and take in this brute of building, and of course the “Big Saw” or “Saw, Sawing” by husband and wife team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
This place is enormous. It’s the largest exhibition centre in the country and is currently slated as the media centre for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It was designed by AXS Satow Architects. We had a trade show to attend so had the dubious pleasure of walking from one end to the other, several times… did I mention it was big?
By this stage we were gagging for a sit down and after we had taken in our fill of the “Big Sight”, we got back on the elevated train and headed for the Fukadaso Cafe and the Fukagawa Edo Museum in Koto, via the Yurikamome Line.
This train journey in itself is fantastic, hence the above video. You are so far above everything you can see for miles and it continues for another 15/20 minutes once you leave the “Big Sight” and head back into the city. We swapped over at Shiodome Station to the Oedo Line. All up it’s a 50 minute ride to Koto – which is a lovely, chilled part of Tokyo, known for its bookstores (and coffee shops). The Fukadaso Cafe was a very cool, New York loft style cafe… Perry wasn’t wild about the coffee… I was happy.
Fukagawa Edo Museum
We never really had any intention of visiting this museum. Perry was focused on an espresso fix, the Fukadaso Cafe was the only cafe in the area that seemed open. A local lady (“lovely lady” for the purposes of this story) started chatting to us. It was a pretty basic conversation considering the mutual language skills on either side and we parted ways with lovely lady after lunch. Or so we thought. We were strolling down a quiet suburban block and lovely lady came out of nowhere on her bike and beckoned us to follow her. We kind of skipped along behind her until we got to the Fukagawa Edo Museum. Before we had time to commit, she had raced inside, bought tickets for us, refused our money and disappeared down the street. There wasn’t even time for awkwardness. It was all very strange and err… lovely.
The museum itself was equally so. Strange, kitschy but fascinating. Edo is the old Japanese name for Tokyo. A mock “Edo” has been constructed indoors. You can wander through life-size 19th century mock ups of homes and businesses that would have existed at that time. The guides speak English and are very enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
A 20 minute ride on the Odeo Line had us at Roppongi Hills. This place is vast. It’s a relatively new development project, a city within a city. We had planned on taking in the city views from the Mori Tower, which is the star of the show, but the weather had closed in. We had been keen to see Louise Bourgeois’ “Maman Spider” Sculpture which is crouching at the base. That’ll do pig! Time to go home.
Travel Info & Maps
Where to Stay in Tokyo
We use Airbnb whenever the opportunity pops up. We run our own place in Port Douglas so know the system pretty well and for us it’s the most user-friendly of the private holiday rental apps. It’s a bit tricky to find places under 3 nights but if you are planning a holiday for longer click here to set up an Airbnb account, you’ll get way more bang for your buck.
*AS I WRITE THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT HAS ANNOUNCED A CLAMP DOWN ON PRIVATE HOLIDAY RENTALS READ THIS AND BE SURE TO CONFIRM WITH YOUR HOST THAT THEY ARE LICENSED.
Getting around in Tokyo
We got Pasmo cards from a ticket machine at any station. You charge it up when ever you like. It will get you on any train within the designated system and the buses. Don’t worry too much about going outside of the zones. Be sure to keep change on you so that when the dreaded “beep” goes off you can pay the attendant the difference.
Art Museums in Tokyo
National Museum of Western Art – 500yen, 930am – 530pm, 500yen / 930am – 9pm Fri/Sat (free for the second and the fourth Saturdays of each month, and November 3).
National Museum of Modern Art (MOMAT) – 500yen, 10am – 5pm, 500yen / 10am – 8pm Fri/Sat (price of entry drops to 300yen after 5pm). Entry is free on the first Sunday of every month.
Design Festa Gallery – 11 – 8pm, Free entry – Cool cafe out the back!
Pigment Tokyo & The Big Sight Information
Pigment Tokyo – Open: 11:30am – 7:00pm (closed Mondays & Thursdays) | Address: Japan, 〒140-0002 Tokyo, 品川区東品川２丁目５−５ TERRADA Harbor One Bldg. 1F
The Big Sight – The Big Sight usually hosts “closed” events but you can wander around the expanse of open space under the signature styructure and there’s also a cafe | Address: Japan, 〒135-0063 Tokyo, 江東区有明３丁目１１−１
Route Map: Tokyo - A Japanese Art Tour in 2 Days
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