Art & Culture

The best art exhibitions in Tokyo, plus features and interviews – it's your ultimate guide to the city's art scene

State of the art
Art

State of the art

Exploring Roppongi and Tennozu, two of Tokyo's artsiest neighbourhoods

Interview: Steve Nakamura
Art

Interview: Steve Nakamura

The process behind Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's CD artwork

Essential Tokyo exhibitions for winter
Art

Essential Tokyo exhibitions for winter

Admire beautiful books, travel back into prehistoric Japan and celebrate the life of Ziggy Stardust

The 10 best anime shows based on school clubs
Art

The 10 best anime shows based on school clubs

Go back to school with these popular series themed on 'club activities'

The best ongoing exhibitions in Tokyo

Marimekko – Design, Fabric, Lifestyle
Art

Marimekko – Design, Fabric, Lifestyle

Marimekko, Finland's famed fashion and textile house, has established quite a presence in Tokyo over the past years, with brick-and-mortar stores set up in many of the capital's trendiest 'hoods. If you're looking to delve a little deeper into this style juggernaut's history, make sure to not miss out on the Bunkamura's winter special: 'Marimekko – Design, Fabric, Lifestyle' recaps the brand's history from its founding in 1951 all the way up to the present. Admire a dress once worn by Jackie Kennedy, fabrics by 'Unikko' designer Maija Isola and a wealth of other items on loan from the Helsinki Design Museum – a total of more than 200 pieces will be on display to tell the 65-year story of an iconic fashion factory.

Hisashi Tenmyouya: Transformation
Art

Hisashi Tenmyouya: Transformation

Perhaps still best known for his World Cup image of two armour-clad samurai playing football, Hisashi Tenmyouya's modern east-meets-west takes on traditional Nihonga paintings always manage to impress. Drawing on themes from the Rinpa school and kabuki to video games and dekotora trucks, the born-and-bred Tokyoite now shows off some of his largest-scale work, alongside a few sculptures and photographs, at Ichigaya's Mizuma Gallery.

Naoki Ishikawa: Capturing the Map of Light on This Planet
Art

Naoki Ishikawa: Capturing the Map of Light on This Planet

Adventurer-turned-photographer Naoki Ishikawa has held several exhibitions of his stunning mountaineering photos in recent years, focusing particularly on his travels in the Himalayas, but this show at Mito's Art Tower marks his first large-scale solo display. Having scaled the highest peaks on each seven continents at the tender age of 23, Ishikawa draws on his own experiences as well as on anthropological and folkloristic approaches when shooting at some of the world's hardest-to-reach locations – from old-growth forests in New Zealand to remote Polynesian and Japanese islands. Including a number of previously unexhibited shots, 'Capturing the Map of Light on This Planet' makes for an exciting summary of Ishikawa's career so far. On February 12 (from 2pm, ¥1,000), the artist will be joined by sound designer Yasuhiro Morinaga for a multidisciplinary DJ show.

The People by Kishin in Yokohama
Art

The People by Kishin in Yokohama

His 'La Maison de Rendez-Vous' at the Hara Museum was one of the most discussed exhibitions in Tokyo this autumn, but veteran photographer Kishin Shinoyama is already plotting his next move: in January, the Tokyo-born snapper brings his long-running 'The People' show to Yokohama. Covering a wide swathe of Shinoyama's five-decade career, it sees images divided into five categories: portraits of celebrities both living (Stars) and dead (God), theatrical 'dream worlds' (Spectacle), eroticism (Body) and a recent series taken after the March 11 disaster in Tohoku (Accidents). The 120-odd pictures on display also serve as a drive-by tour of Japanese public life, with famous figures from the worlds of culture both high (Yukio Mishima, kabuki actors) and low (AKB48), while also including shots of global icons such as John Lennon. For the Yokohama edition, Shinoyama has added a couple of local stars as well; look out for depictions of actress Mitsuko Kusabue, pop duo Yuzu and company.

Gentaro Ishizuka: Demarcation​
Art

Gentaro Ishizuka: Demarcation​

Photographer Gentaro Ishizuka has picked an unlikely focus for his otherwise orthodox landscape shots: the Tokyo-born snapper has travelled to four countries – the US (Alaska), Iceland, Australia and Austria – to document oil pipelines stretching eerily across the wilderness. While these majestic pics are displayed front and centre at Takeshiba's Gallery 916, Ishizuka's 'Demarcation' also includes photos from 'N/P', a new still life-style series in which the shadows of objects are reversed. Should make for a great opportunity to familiarise yourself with the work of 2016's Steidl Book Award Japan winner, who will be releasing a new monograph ('Gold Rush Alaska') this year.

Lascaux: The Cave Paintings of the Ice Age
Art

Lascaux: The Cave Paintings of the Ice Age

The Lascaux caves in southwestern France, in the Vezere Valley of the Dordogne, are home to 17,000-year-old Paleolithic cave paintings that vividly depict animals, humans and various geometric shapes. In order to preserve the paintings for future generations, the caves themselves have been off limits to visitors for decades. This winter, Ueno's National Museum of Nature and Science displays full-scale, official replicas of this ancient art and shines a light on how the Cro-Magnon humans that created the Lascaux pieces lived, what they looked like and why they decorated the caves with such striking imagery. 

See more art exhibitions in Tokyo

Upcoming exhibitions

Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul
Art

Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul

87 and as young as ever: Time magazine recently named Yayoi Kusama one of the world's '100 Most Influential People', her extensive 'In Infinity' exhibition is currently touring Scandinavia, and now Tokyo gets another taste of the bewigged contemporary artist's seemingly endless vitality. Taking over the National Art Center almost in its entirety, ‘My Eternal Soul’ is set to be one of Kusama’s biggest ever shows in the capital and will consist mainly of large-scale paintings from the eponymous series the artist has been working on since 2009. Visitors will also be able to trace Kusama’s career from her early years in France and New York all the way up to the present.

Théodore Chassériau: Parfum Exotique
Art

Théodore Chassériau: Parfum Exotique

Born in what is now the Dominican Republic, Romantic painter Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) began his studies in Paris under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres at the age of 11. Although trained in the classics, Chassériau's life took a dramatic turn after several trips to Algeria, which opened his eyes to what was then known as 'exoticism'. Famed works such as 'Arab Chiefs Visiting Their Vassals' and 'Jewish Women on a Balcony', both now displayed in the Louvre, are evidence of the artist's prodigious talent. Having passed away at the age of 37, Chassériau did not live to see some of his work, especially his impressive church murals, discarded and destroyed. Such misfortune has contributed to a dearth of large-scale exhibitions dedicated to his work, so this spring special at the National Museum of Western Art should not be missed. In addition to around 90 Chassériau pieces, 'Parfum Exotique' includes paintings by the likes of Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, both of whom recognised Chassériau as an influence.

Shigeru Mizuki Retrospective: The Life of GeGeGe
Art

Shigeru Mizuki Retrospective: The Life of GeGeGe

Master of yokai (supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore) manga and one of the most influential comic artists of his generation, Shigeru Mizuki channelled his own traumatic war experiences and hardship-filled early life into wonderfully imaginative and multi-layered stories – many of which are now being discovered by a new, international readership, in part due to the attention Mizuki's death at the age of 93 received in 2015. This display at Ginza's Matsuya lets you dive deep into the creative process behind 'GeGeGe no Kitaro' and other beloved Mizuki works while recounting the artist's dramatic personal history. In addition to original manga pages, the exhibition includes sketches, early self-portraits, yokai studies and much more – a total of around 130 pieces. 

Sesson: Birth of the Fantastic
Art

Sesson: Birth of the Fantastic

Born Heizo Satake in Hitachi province (modern-day Ibaraki), Buddhist monk and self-taught painter Sesson Shukei (1504-1589) was an enigmatic artist in a troubled era. While various warlords battled for supremacy around Japan's provinces in the 16th century, fine art centred on the imperial capital of Kyoto – far from Sesson's native Tohoku. Nevertheless, this master of suiboku-ga ('water ink') pioneered a style all of his own, paving the way for later contrarians such as Edo-era Muromachi revivalist Soga Shohaku, the now wildly popular Ito Jakuchu and ukiyo-e titan Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Here you'll see around 100 of Sesson's representative pieces, many of them inspired by his travels from Kamakura in the south to Oshu up north in Iwate, plus a selection of works by Kano school painters such as Gaho Hashimoto and Hogai Kano – both of whom were influenced by Sesson. Note that some of the displayed pieces will be switched around during the exhibition period.

Popular features and interviews

Interview: Takashi Murakami
Art

Interview: Takashi Murakami

The legendary artist on his creative process, his favourite haunt Nakano, and on why his art isn't understood in Japan

'Everyone should have a pen that was made in Japan'
Art

'Everyone should have a pen that was made in Japan'

Sisyu is Japan's calligrapher to the world – and she'll let you know how to write prettier in Japanese

Tokyo's best outdoor art
Art

Tokyo's best outdoor art

Take a tour of these alfresco masterpieces

Where to buy art
Art

Where to buy art

From Nakano to Jinbocho, here's our guide for art collectors

What's on at...

Mori Art Museum
Art

Mori Art Museum

The exhibitions are world-class, focused mainly on contemporary culture, but the secrets of the Mori Art Museum’s success are location (part of the phenomenally popular Roppongi Hills), location (on the 52nd and 53rd floors of the Mori Tower, offering spectacular views) and location (within a two-floor ‘experience’ that includes a bar, cafe, shop and panoramic observation deck). One ticket allows access to all areas, and the late opening hours maximise accessibility. Exhibitions are deliberately varied, with past offerings including Bill Viola’s video art, a survey of the Middle Eastern art world and the periodic Roppongi Crossing group shows for Japanese artists. The vista from Tokyo City View isn’t quite 360°, and it’s expensive compared to the free Tokyo Metropolitan Government building observatory, but the views are arguably better, especially at night with a drink in your hand from Mado Lounge. If you don't mind paying an extra ¥500, you take a short elevator ride to the rooftop Sky Deck, and take in an even better – not to mention rather breezier – vista.

Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo
Art

Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo

This huge, city-owned showpiece opened in 1995 on reclaimed swampland in a distant part of Tokyo. Its collection of 4,700 international and Japanese artworks has its moments, but the temporary exhibitions are the main reason to visit. Visitors can access the database, extensive video library, and magazine and catalogue collection (all available in English).

Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art
Art

Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art

Mario Botta designed this small art museum for the Watari family in 1990. It holds four exhibitions a year, some of which originate at the museum, while others are brought in from abroad. There’s a good art bookshop and a pleasant café in the basement.

The National Art Center
Art

The National Art Center

The National Art Center was opened on January 21, 2007, boasting the largest exhibition space of any museum in Japan. Unlike most conventional domestic art galleries, the National Art Center does not have its own permanent collection, instead choosing to hold special exhibitions only. Entry to the Center’s atrium is free, and the space boasts a café, two restaurants and an excellent shop, Souvenir From Tokyo.

Tokyo National Museum
Museums

Tokyo National Museum

If you have just one day to devote to museum-going in Tokyo and are interested in Japanese art and artefacts, this is the place to visit. Japan’s oldest and largest museum houses over 110,000 items. Past the ornate gateway, there’s a wide courtyard and pond surrounded by three main buildings. Directly in front is the Honkan, or main gallery, dating from 1938, which displays the permanent collection of Japanese arts and antiquities. The 25 rooms regularly rotate their exhibitions of paintings, ceramics, swords, kimonos, sculptures and the like. The Toyokan building to the right features five floors of artworks from other parts of Asia; the Hyokeikan, the 1909 European-style building to the left, is currently closed to visitors. Behind the Hyokeikan is the Gallery of Horyu-ji Treasures, which houses some of Japanese Buddhism’s most important and ancient artefacts, from the seventh-century Horyu-ji temple in Nara. The Heiseikan, behind the Honkan, holds three to four temporary exhibitions of Japanese and Asian art each year. There are also a couple of restaurants in the complex, and a good gift shop.

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum
Art

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

Designed by Maekawa Kunio, this brick-faced art museum was largely constructed underground to remain unobtrusive, with limited success. Temporary shows in the main hall feature everything from traditional Japanese art to art nouveau.