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Tokyo’s Cultural Constellation: An Art Gallery This High Up?

Forget words. When it comes to mediums for expression, Japan is ultimately more about aesthetics. Whilst this is played out spectacularly on the kabuki stage, there’s really no slicker way to explore Japanese culture than to head to Tokyo and dive head first into its art scene.

It’s a lucid, throaty articulation of modern Japan, meal for the city’s creatively carnivorous residents; plus there’s something for everyone. It deals in the contemporary and traditional, the Japanese and foreign, and it’s spread out all across the city. So if you love art, getting acquainted with Tokyo’s art scene gives you the perfect angle to infiltrate Tokyo’s flawlessly designed, culturally packed landscape. Galleries are tucked away inside bathhouses, up skyscrapers, underground; and usually come loaded with a gift shop you’d sell your own mother for. What follows is a joining of dots around the city.

Bathhouse art

Whilst the Mori Art Museum is the undisputed master of Tokyo galleries that utilize location in the name of imaginative displacement, SCAI The Bathhouse in Nippori is a close second. Contemporary modern art is exhibited in a 200 year old ex-bathhouse, and you can almost hear its spirits sighing confrontationally about tradition over white walls and avant garde exhibitions. The effect is truly chic, as is the free admission.

Traditional art

Meanwhile, other galleries do more than sigh about the past, and rightly so.

A museum is an art piece created by the people, therefore, the presence of Japanese originality and beauty is essential…for the education of the present

claims Sazoh Idemitsu. His museum is his beautiful collection of 15,000 Japanese paintings, East Asian ceramics and calligraphy – the Idemitsu Museum of Art. The Mitsuri Memorial Museum, and the Yamatane Museum of Art also treat guests to a traditional ‘education’. The former focuses on the beauty of functionality in the tea ceremony; the latter houses 1,800 works of Nihonga or traditional Japanese painting.

Contemporary art

Since so many of Tokyo’s civilians and creatives are engaged with traditional art, these galleries dedicated to its preservation are essential to Tokyo life. Nonetheless, at least one eye has been on the West since the Meiji era, so the current scene is unquestionably defined by its curation of influence from diverse locations. Enter the Mori Art Museum, which is on the 53th floor of a skyscraper in Roppongi. Its contemporary Japanese exhibitions gravitate towards the discombobulating: waterfall video sculptures and Yayoi Kusama. Even major Western showings, like Warhol, take advantage of the clouds’ proximity (with rushes of Velvet Underground rehearsals). Check here for further details. And when you trip back down to Roppongi, try moving in a triangle, since the Mori is but one point of Art Triangle Roppongi.

Point two is the National Art Centre Tokyo. It is a beautiful, state sponsored cultural education facility that wants to “provide people with opportunities to experience diverse values and contribute to bringing forth a new culture.” The state’s eagerness to wield modern art as a tool for enlightenment can certainly be felt at the centre’s big name exhibitions from around the world. The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan’s first ever modern art gallery, is also state sponsored in a good way; flaunting major exhibitions in a building that’ll titillate fans of Bauhaus.

Local contemporary art

If you’d like to check out the more grassroots level of the scene, cut to the final point of Roppongis’ triangle. 21_21 Design Sight is directed by designer Issey Miyake, and is “totally committed to the aesthetics of design”. Exhibitions about “subjects close to us, like chocolate, water, man, nature, and bones” are not curated by the state, but they’re just as likely to inspire visitors to bring forth a new culture.

For similar inspiration, the nearby Take Ninagawa is the founding member of this school of dropouts known as the “New Tokyo Contemporaries”. Subjects covered at the Take Ninagawa include anti-art, transcendentalism, psychedelia and the West; with installations by Shinro Ohtake, Misaki Kawai and other luminaries of the second generation scene. For further galleries of this ilk, check the Contemporaries’ website.

Have faith that galleries at all levels of the scene radiate with a desire to inspire, and are bound to educate you about Japanese culture through its special language of aesthetics. Please note that last admission tends to be 30 minutes before closing time.

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