They make take a bit of finding, but the cutting-edge art galleries of Tokyo are inspirational gems, and well worth the effort
An accidental phone call to the police was the first sign that I’d gone a bit gaga for Japanese contemporary art. Tokyo is officially one of the world’s most exciting places to visit if you like animation, cartoons and street art – but that’s not to say that it is easy to find. I was trying to get in touch with a gallery and had clearly phoned the wrong number when I found myself talking to a grumpy Tokyo cop. English information on the best cutting-edge museums and galleries is a bit hard to come by in Tokyo, but I got there in the end, and these edgy, inspirational gems were well worth the wait.
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art
Tucked away in a leafy street in Shinagawa, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art is not easy to find, but it’s well worth it when you get there. The centerpiece to this exciting gallery is a mocked-up studio of Yoshitomo Nara, an artist who frequently paints devilish-looking children with huge eyes, and doleful dogs, complete with a shelf-full of Kewpie dolls and knick-knacks. The Bauhaus-inspired building holds a collection of his artworks, as well as installations from up-and-coming artists and more established artists like Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein and Jackson Pollock. There’s a nice café at the back, too, for a coffee and carrot cake to keep you going. The shop sells unusual art and design pieces and it’s all very cutting-edge and challenging
From JR Shinagawa station, it’s easy to find. There’s a regular Bloombus on a Sunday that takes you straight there from the station’s west exit (Takanawa); otherwise it’s just a five-minute taxi ride away, from the same exit. Closed Mondays.
Ghibli Museum, Mitaka
Often called the Japanese Disney, extraordinary animator Hayao Miyazaki has found world-wide acclaim with his animated films, including the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. His films are mainly aimed at children, but have a mass appeal too – try to catch at least one before your trip. The suburb of Mitaka, easily reached by subway, is home to Miyazaki’s similarly wonderful museum. Like his films, it’s many-layered, with routes through it for small people and tall people, sculptures in the garden, a cinema in the basement and plenty to look at and engage with. I loved the short film about a little lost puppy, and the rooms set up to look like Miyazaki’s studio, complete with books, sketches and toys for inspiration. You can easily spend a day here, and a small fortune in the brilliant gift shop. All museums should be like this: forward-looking, inspirational, creative and fun.
You have to buy tickets in advance, which is a bit tricky, especially as they are only for sale in Japan. Entry is staggered so the museum is never too full. Buy tickets from a Lawson’s corner shop or go to the travel agents near the station in Mitaka to buy tickets in person. Closed Tuesdays.
The Hakone Open Air Museum
Outside Tokyo, but close enough for a day-trip, this park holds some of the best of the world’s sculptures, surrounded by mountains, sulphurous springs and cable cars. It was the country’s first open-air sculpture museum when it opened in 1969, and has a specialist centre holding Picasso’s ceramics, as well as works from Rodin, Henry Moore, Joan Miró and Antony Gormley. This being Japan, there are plenty of quirks to the park too – there’s a huge squashy fried egg to sit on, some beautiful Koi ponds and a woodland walk dotted with sculptures, and some naturally-heated foot baths by the café where you can rest your aching feet. Hakone is well known for its spas, and a visit to the museum really does have to be tied into a trip on Lake Ashi, in full view of Mount Fuji, as well as a stop at Yunessan, the craziest spa/swimming pool where you can have a fish pedicure and bathe in green tea, red wine and coffee.
Take the train to Hakone and buy an explorer ticket to give you access to the boat cruises, cable cars, funiculars and railways in the area; there’s no shortage of public transport to help you get around. The museum is a two-minute walk from the Hakone Tozan railway Chokoku-no-Mori station. Ninotaira, Hakone-machi, Kanagawa-ken.
Japanese National Tourist Organisation: the central Tourist Information Centre is on the 10th floor, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan Building, 2-10-1, Yurakucho, Chiyuoda-ku, Tokyo.
Flights to Tokyo: Virgin Atlantic.