Art & Culture

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

Essential Tokyo exhibitions for spring
Art

Essential Tokyo exhibitions for spring

Immerse yourself in digital woodblock prints, study the history of Disney animation and unveil the mysteries of the tea ceremony

Worth a visit? Check out our preview picks for the first Japan Alps Art Festival
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Worth a visit? Check out our preview picks for the first Japan Alps Art Festival

This new celebration of outdoor art takes place in Nagano in June and July

Five reasons to check out Yayoi Kusama's 'My Eternal Soul'
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Five reasons to check out Yayoi Kusama's 'My Eternal Soul'

The bewigged contemporary artist is back in Tokyo with her biggest show yet

State of the art
Art

State of the art

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

The best ongoing exhibitions in Tokyo

Athlete Exhibition
Art

Athlete Exhibition

Athletes: those sometimes superhero-esque beings that stretch the limits of the human body by working hard every day, and in the process contribute to technological advancement (and make us feel bad for being couch potatoes). This spring, 21_21 Design Sight is shining a light on these overachievers with an exhibition filled with design perspectives on training, mental health support, physical data, top-notch sports gear and more. With the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics just around the corner, it's a good opportunity to immerse yourself in the subject before the games really get started. 

Parody and Intertextuality: Visual Culture in Japan Around the 1970s
Art

Parody and Intertextuality: Visual Culture in Japan Around the 1970s

Digging into the relationship between parody, social currents and the media, the Tokyo Station Gallery shines a light on visual culture in the '70s with this fascinating show. Focusing on the work of conceptual artists such as Genpei Akasegawa and Tadanori Yokoo, the exhibition consists of around 300 pieces – everything from paintings to manga and posters – that illustrate the golden years of social and political commentary in Japanese art. 

Alphonse Mucha Exhibition
Art

Alphonse Mucha Exhibition

One of the key representatives of Art Nouveau, the Czech painter also known as Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) gets yet another Tokyo exhibition – this time at Roppongi's National Art Center. To say Mucha is one of the most popular artists in Japan is hardly an exaggeration, with numerous displays on his work held across the country practically every year. This one, however, is a rather grand affair, as all twenty pieces of the decorative master's 'Slav Epic' series – considered his greatest accomplishment, with many links to Mucha's Slavic identity and roots – are being exhibited outside the Czech Republic for the first time. In total, around 100 works will be displayed, including the first posters Mucha made for actress Sarah Bernhardt. This is set to be one of the biggest shows of 2017, so be prepared to show up early or queue. 

This is Kyosai!
Art

This is Kyosai!

One of the last greats of traditional Japanese painting (Nihonga), Kyosai Kawanabe (1831-1889) personally saw Japan and Edo make the leap toward modernity – a leap that the artist himself often ridiculed in his work, caricaturing the mores and manners of the new system and society. Originally a student of the venerable Kano school, Kyosai regularly skirted decency and traditional morality both in his art and in private, but maintained a close connection with the mythology of traditional Japan, as seen in his regular and playful depiction of spirits, animals and other characters. The Bunkamura's spring special looks back at this witty master's career through works borrowed from the Israel Goldman Collection in London, known as one of the world's premier collections of Japanese prints, and offers a multi-faceted look into the creative spirit of the man they called 'the art demon'.

Marcel Breuer’s Furniture: Improvement for Good
Art

Marcel Breuer’s Furniture: Improvement for Good

Hungarian designer and architect Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), the man behind New York's Met Breuer and the futuristic IBM La Gaude research centre, studied at Walter Gropius's Bauhaus school and was quickly recognised as one of the standout talents at the legendary institution. Breuer's 1926 ‘Wassily’ or Model B3 armchair, one of the most visionary works to come out of Bauhaus and Breuer's first major step into the field of furniture design, is as sleek and dynamic a statement now as it was when first in production. In addition to that iconic piece, this retrospective exhibition includes around 40 other representative works, ranging from early models to designs from Breuer's later years in New York. Packed with chairs and tables you're sure to have seen somewhere but might not have actively recognised, 'Improvement for Good' is a treat for both design nerds and casual viewers.

'David Bowie Is'
Art

'David Bowie Is'

Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Major Tom...David Bowie was known by many names during a career that spanned half a century and cemented his status as both an unstoppable musical innovator and a 20th-century pop-cultural presence unlike, well, any other. This feverishly awaited collection, culled by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, gathers more than 300 pretty things including costumes, photographs, videos and other rare ephemera that demonstrate Bowie's towering influence over his time. You'll see 'Ziggy Stardust'-era bodysuits, set designs for the 'Diamond Dogs' tour, sketches, scores and diary entries, plus plenty of Japan-only paraphernalia – from Kansai Yamamoto costumes to video interviews with Takeshi Kitano and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who worked with Bowie on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Advance tickets for the show are available now.

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Upcoming exhibitions

Japan, Archipelago of Houses
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Japan, Archipelago of Houses

Having fascinated visitors in European cities including Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris, this exhibition focused on modern Japanese homes is finally making its way to our shores. A French quartet, namely photographer Jérémie Souteyrat and architects Véronique Hours, Fabien Mauduit and Manuel Tardits (of Mikan architecture firm fame), are behind it all, with the latter three being particularly well versed in all things Japanese architecture. The exhibition sees photographs, videos, drawings, sketches and models displayed at the Shiodome Museum, with the around 70 subjects ranging from famous historical dwellings to far more modern housing renditions. Up-and-coming local architect Kyohei Sakaguchi will also be dropping by as a guest artist to present drawings of his cutting-edge designs.

Bruegel’s ‘The Tower of Babel’ and Great 16th Century Masters
Art

Bruegel’s ‘The Tower of Babel’ and Great 16th Century Masters

Although Renaissance great Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) is the only 'master' mentioned in the title of this extensive overview of 16th-century Dutch painting, it is most likely the work of the fanatically fascinating Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) that will draw crowds to the Metropolitan Art Museum between April and July. Bridging the medieval and Renaissance worlds with highly detailed, often dark and frightening pieces in which visions of hell and demons figure prominently, Bosch shocked his contemporaries and had a massive influence on artists of subsequent generations, including Bruegel. This legacy can be seen in the latter's 1563 masterpiece 'The Tower of Babel' – one of the around 90 paintings, prints, sculptures and other works from the collection of Rotterdam's Museum Boijmans that are set to be displayed here.

Saul Leiter Retrospective
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Saul Leiter Retrospective

It seems an irony that Saul Leiter (1923-2013) always considered himself more a painter than a photographer. Firstly, because it was the latter that made his name. Secondly, because he wasn't really that good at the former. Leiter moved to New York in the 1940s, soaked up the abstract expressionist scene, and occasionally showed his twitchy, garish, overworked paintings in galleries in the East Village. Fortunately, alongside the art exhibitions, he also visited a show of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography in 1947. Soon after, he bought a Leica, started taking pictures on the city’s streets and, as they say, the rest is history. Whether it was shooting fashion snaps for Elle and Vogue or conjuring up photographic poetry with neon-filled pictures of kissing couples and stooped men in raincoats, Leiter captured the spirit of the Big Apple like noone else. Realised in collaboration with the Saul Leiter Foundation, this extensive retrospective consists of around 200 pieces – from classic monochrome images to paintings – and will coincide with a programme of three New York-themed films at Bunkamura's Le Cinema.

Chanoyu: The Arts of Tea Ceremony, The Essence of Japan
Art

Chanoyu: The Arts of Tea Ceremony, The Essence of Japan

In Japan, sipping tea can be almost like a performing art; in addition to the closely choreographed tea ceremony itself, the entire culture surrounding it – including the various utensils used – are the result of centuries of refinement and unhurried evolution. Taking a look at this legacy from a '21st-century perspective', the National Museum's spring exhibit delves deep into the history of the tea ceremony, recounting its development from the Muromachi period (1336-1573) all the way up to the present. You'll be able to admire bowls, utensils, paintings and many other pieces previously owned by luminaries like the Ashikaga shoguns, legendary tea master Sen no Rikyu and his modern-era followers. Should be a can't-miss for anyone fascinated with verdant brews.

Popular features and interviews

Interview: Kazutaro Nakamura
Art

Interview: Kazutaro Nakamura

The prince of kabuki is leading Japan’s traditional performing arts into an exciting new age

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

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
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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
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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.