Overwhelmed by the number of museums in Tokyo? Let us point you in the direction of the capital's finest major art museums and the many excellent exhibitions they have to offer. This list of the top Tokyo museums centres on Ueno Park and its unbeatable cluster of art facilities, as well as a number of both public and privately operated institutions across town. Whether it's Renaissance masterpieces, abstract contemporary art or ukiyo-e you're into, you're sure to find them at one of these fine museums.
The best art museums in Tokyo
The core collection housed in this 1959 Le Corbusier-designed building, Japan’s only national museum devoted to Western art, was assembled by Kawasaki shipping magnate Matsukata Kojiro in the early 1900s. The museum's permanent collection is surprisingly good, ranging from 15th-century icons to Monet, Picasso and Pollock.
The National Art Center was opened in 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 atrium is free, and the space boasts a café, two restaurants and an excellent shop, Souvenir From Tokyo.
This 1933 art deco mansion, fronted by both a Western-style rose garden and a Japanese stroll garden, was once the home of Prince Asaka Yasuhiko – the uncle of Emperor Hirohito – and his wife, Princess Nobuko – the eighth daughter of Emperor Meiji. The prince returned from a three-year stint in 1920s Paris enamoured of art deco and decided to build a modern residence. Henri Rapin designed most of the interior, while Rene Lalique added his touch to the crystal chandeliers and the doors.
The actual house was completed by architects of the Imperial Household Department, foremost among them Yokichi Gondo. Regularly changing temporary shows are spread throughout the museum and double as house tours. The museum buildings underwent extensive renovation in late 2014, restoring them to their original glory.
When it was originally built, the Mitsubishi Ichigokan was the first western-style office building in the Marunouchi area. Completed in 1894, the building was designed by British architect Josiah Conder on an invitation from the Japanese government, still newly formed after Japan’s opening to the West.
At the time, it bustled with activity, containing, among other things, the banking division of the Mitsubishi Company. By 1968, however, it had become dilapidated and was demolished. In 2010, after more than 40 years of silence, the Mitsubishi Ichigokan was reborn on the same site as a major new museum, rebuilt according to Conder’s original plans.
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...
Opened in Shinagawa in 1979, the museum building was originally the private estate of business tycoon Kunizo Hara, who held various posts such as chairman of Tokyo Gas and Japan Airlines. The structure is typical of the work of the architect Jin Watanabe, who also designed the former Nihon Gekijo and the main building of the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno. With influences derived from 1930s European modernist architecture, this Western-style design is valuable in itself as a record of the early Showa era.
At the museum, in addition to the five or six annual exhibitions, events such as lectures, gigs and performances are also held regularly, promoting new talents as well as both domestic and international modern art. Also recommended is the Café d’Art, which overlooks the courtyard of the museum. It’s worth checking out its quirky, changing menus which reflect the theme of the ongoing exhibition.
Nezu Kaichiro Sr, a businessperson whose career included being the president of Tobu Railway, had a penchant for pre-modern Japanese and East Asian art. Founded in 1940 with his private collection, the museum now houses 7,400 exhibits spanning a wide range of genres.
Several Buddhist statues and ancient bronzes from China are on permanent display. On the other hand, the seven annual temporary exhibitions feature the rest of the museum’s collection – which includes paintings, calligraphy, sculptures, metalwork, ceramics, lacquerware, wooden and bamboo craft, and textiles – on a rotation basis according to the theme. The current building, a stunning mix of traditional and modern styles, was designed by architect Kengo Kuma and opened in 2009.