Tokyo’s diverse museums and galleries

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Tokyo is brimming with a diverse variety of museums and art galleries, ranging from sophisticated world-class facilities to lesser-known yet fascinating niche locations, and many include stylish cafes and shops offering unique souvenirs. There are also plenty of places that will appeal to children—or the young at heart—making Tokyo’s museums and galleries an unmissable part of any itinerary.

In addition to their broad appeal, many of the city’s museums and galleries provide universal access and all the facilities mentioned in this article are fully accessible. In other locations where some parts of a building are not barrier-free, it may still be possible to accommodate the needs of wheelchair users with advance notice. Visitors are encouraged to make use of apps such as WheeLog! to check the accessibility features of places they wish to visit and to refer to the Accessible Tourism Tokyo website for helpful information.

Fumio Nanjo is a curator, consultant and art historian, and the former director of Tokyo’s venerable Mori Art Museum. “I think that the number of museums and galleries in Tokyo has increased along with economic development,” he says. “It takes a lot of discourse and time to establish a new public museum, and so it tends to be easier to build private facilities.”

Nunung WS, Installation view: Another Energy: Power to Continue Challenging – 16 Women Artists from around the World, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2021. Photo: Furukawa Yuya

Looking at what lies ahead for Tokyo’s art scene, Nanjo believes that contemporary art will become increasingly popular, with possible trends towards a pop or street culture style. Advances in technology will also shape the way we interact with artwork. “I think we will see an increase in works that allow the audience to enter—almost like a theatrical space where the audience is given an experience, rather than just viewing the work,” he says.

Explore the past, present and future through art

Situated in the elegant Roppongi Hills district on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, the Mori Art Museum is dedicated to offering the best in contemporary art and architecture, with Nanjo having served as the director from 2006 to 2019. This world-class modern art museum showcases innovation in visual arts, design and other creative works, in particular from Japan and the wider Asia-Pacific community. After viewing the exhibitions, visitors can also enjoy the panoramic views of Tokyo from the observation decks. Contemporary art lovers will also want to see the Yayoi Kusama Museum , by reservations only, in the Shinjuku area. This beautifully-appointed museum was opened in 2017, allowing visitors to enjoy an extensive collection of this world-renowned Japanese artist’s work in Tokyo.

Portrait of Yayoi Kusama ©YAYOI KUSAMA

Those interested in history should not miss the Tokyo National Museum, which is located in the Ueno area and celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2021. The museum features a comprehensive collection of artwork and antiquities from Japan and other parts of Asia, including paintings, ceramics, sculpture, calligraphy and textiles. Also marking an anniversary in 2021 is Yamatane Museum of Art, which celebrates 55 years as Japan’s first museum devoted to the delicate and ethereal Japanese paintings known as Nihonga. The museum is situated in the Hiroo area, near Shibuya. For a different kind of historical art, the Japanese Sword Museum in Ryogoku features lovingly-restored ancient swords and samurai armour. The museum is adjacent to the Former Yasuda Garden, so consider combining a visit to the museum with a stroll through this attractive traditional Japanese garden.

Tokyo National Museum

Family-friendly options abound

Museums may not necessarily be top of the list for most children when deciding where to go during a vacation, often relegated to backup plans when inclement weather forces families to seek indoor activities. However, one of Tokyo’s most kid-friendly museums is outside—the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. The facility features a wide range of historic buildings and artefacts which have been relocated to the site, inviting visitors to step back in time.

Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

“I think our museum appeals to kids and families because of the fact that it’s outdoors, and it takes you back in time to see what life used to be like with a fresh perceptive—as if you’ve wandered into another world,” says curator Hidehisa Takahashi. He notes that children visiting from overseas might find it interesting to compare life from the past in Tokyo with their own country’s history.

Many youngsters are interested in transportation and Tokyo offers two interactive museums with plenty of child appeal. The Tokyo Metro Museum in the Edogawa area features the history of the capital’s subway system, using digital technology and a philosophy of “look, touch, move.” Meanwhile, over in Yotsuya the displays at the Tokyo Fire Museum include fire trucks of various vintages and helicopters to delight kids.

Miraikan - The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation

With an eye to the future, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) invites families to experience technological progress and reflect on how this will shape our lives in various fields, including the global environment, space exploration and life sciences. And for something that will make even the most cynical teenager sit up and take note, visit one or both of the two Tokyo-based locations from the teamLab art collective. Immerse yourself in complex, three-dimensional digital art worlds at teamLab Planets in Toyosu or teamLab Borderless in Odaiba.

teamLab Planets Tokyo

Meeting the needs of international visitors

Alice Gordenker, a Tokyo-based consultant who works with Japanese museums on improving services to the international community, notes that great strides have been made in recent years. “More museums—both public and private—are captioning all works in English,” she says. “The quality of translation and explanatory materials is much better. Increasingly, we’re seeing audio guides offered in foreign languages, and occasionally special events geared specifically for foreign residents and visitors.

teamLab Borderless Tokyo

As Tokyo moves to the next stage of living with the pandemic, galleries and museums are working hard to provide visitors with peace of mind. Measures to safeguard everyone’s health include taking temperatures and wearing masks upon entering facilities, the provision of hand sanitizer to guests, and vigilant cleaning and ventilation. In line with social distance recommendations, many museums have instigated timed entry and require visitors to book online in advance. Moreover, some facilities have also expanded their online offerings, with virtual tours and lectures on their website to help you plan your visit.

“I encourage every visitor to explore at least one or two museums during their time in Japan,” says Gordenker. “There are so many top-quality collections. Whether you want to explore ceramics or textiles or anime, there is a facility nearby that caters to your interest. There’s truly something for all ages and interests.”

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